Winograd report ignores civilian deaths

UNITED NATIONS, 31 January (IPS) - A leading international human rights group is calling into question the findings of an Israeli inquiry into the Jewish state’s war with Lebanon in 2006.

The London-based Amnesty International says the Israeli government-appointed Winograd Commission is “deeply flawed” because it fails to address the issue of war crimes against the civilian population in Lebanon.

The Winograd Commission report was released Wednesday, following a more than year-long inquiry that involved a series of hearings into the Israeli government’s conduct of war.

The commission, chaired by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, determined that Israel went into the conflict without a clear strategy and said there were “serious failures and shortcomings” by the government.

But the commission did not explain in its report why the Israeli military failed to discriminate between Hizballah fighters and Lebanese civilians.

It was “another missed opportunity to address the policies and decisions behind the grave violations of international humanitarian law — including war crimes — committed by Israeli forces,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program director, Malcolm Smart.

“The indiscriminate killings of many Lebanese civilians not involved in the hostilities and the deliberate and wanton destruction of civilian properties and infrastructure on a massive scale were given no more than token consideration by the commission,” he added.

Israel denies it has committed war crimes in Lebanon and blames Hizballah for the conflict in July and August 2006, arguing that the militant group also launched indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians.

In the final 72 hours before the ceasefire, which officially took effect on 14 August 2006, the Israeli military rained 1,800 cluster rockets on southern Lebanon, containing 1.2 million sub-munitions, many of which still remain unexploded.

According to Amnesty, a many as 40 people, including 27 civilians and 13 de-mining personnel, have been killed by such munitions since the end of the war and over 240 people have been injured.

The 629-page Israeli report, which devotes six pages to cluster bombs, argues that their use was legal, but displayed a lack of operational discipline, oversight and control.

“We recommend that on this matter there be a reevaluation of the rules and principles that apply to the army in using cluster bombs,” the report said.

Amnesty says it wants Israel to set up an independent inquiry into its soldiers’ actions and to institute a ban on cluster bombs, as well as helping the clean-up operation by providing data about where they were fired.

In criticizing the report, the group argued that the commission had the powers to subpoena witnesses and recommend prosecution, but it did not.

“[The commission] made no serious made no serious attempt to investigate violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, committed by Israeli forces,” the group said in a statement.

Yoav Peled, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, shares Amnesty’s criticism of the report. “The commission performed its expected role: to whitewash the disaster and get the politicians off the hook,” Peled said in a statement.

In his analysis, one result of the report may be an end to the so-called peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. “[It’s] a charade aimed at building support for Olmert on the ‘left,’ in case the report did not turn out favorably for the prime minister,” he said.

In Peled’s words, “Now that Olmert no longer needs that support, he can discontinue the charade.”

Amnesty said the commission “essentially brushed aside” available evidence of serious violations of international law by claiming that interpretations of international humanitarian law are controversial.

The commission reasoned that alleged violations were already being investigated by other bodies, and that such allegations are used as propaganda against Israel.

Based on its on-the-ground research and analysis, Amnesty International concluded that it was the Lebanese civilian population — not Hizballah combatants — who paid “the heaviest price” of the Israeli army’s attacks.

During the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, some 1,190 people were killed. Amnesty says a vast majority of them were civilians, including hundreds of children. Many homes, properties, and infrastructure, including the bombing of a power plant that triggered a massive oil spill, were also destroyed by the Israeli air force.

In its November 2006 report, a UN Commission of Inquiry reached similar conclusions.

“A significant pattern of excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the Israel Defense Forces against Lebanese civilians and civilian objects, failing to distinguish civilians from combatants and civilian objects from military targets,” the UN report said.

In October 2006, a separate investigation by four UN independent experts said available information “strongly indicates that, in many instances, Israel violated its legal obligations to distinguish between military and civilian objectives; to fully apply the principle of proportionality.”

Amnesty said it wants Israel to put a moratorium on the use of cluster weapons and ensure that such weapons are never again used in civilian areas “under any circumstances.”

The London-based organization has also called on the Lebanese militant group Hizballah to renounce its reprisal rocket attacks against the civilian population of Israel and ensure that its fighters comply fully with the need to distinguish themselves from noncombatants to the maximum extent possible.

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