JERUSALEM - In its harshest condemnation of Israel since last summer's war, Human Rights Watch charged that most of the Lebanese civilian casualties came from "indiscriminate Israeli air strikes," according to a report to be released today.
In a statement issued before the report's release, the human rights organization said there was no basis to the Israeli claim that civilian casualties resulted from Hezbollah guerrillas using civilians as shields. Israel has said it attacked civilian areas because Hezbollah set up rocket launchers in villages and towns.
More than 1,000 Lebanese were killed in the 34-day conflict last summer, which began after Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two others. They are still being held.
Israeli warplanes targeted Lebanese infrastructure, including bridges and Beirut Airport, and heavily damaged a neighborhood in Beirut known as a Hezbollah stronghold, as well as attacking Hezbollah centers in villages near the border. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, killing 119 civilians. In the fighting, 40 Israeli soldiers were killed.
"Israel wrongfully acted as if all civilians had heeded its warnings to evacuate southern Lebanon when it knew they had not, disregarding its continuing legal duty to distinguish between military targets and civilians," The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said in the statement,
He added, "Issuing warnings doesn't make indiscriminate attacks lawful."
The spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, Mark Regev, rejected the report's findings. "Hezbollah adopted a deliberate strategy of shielding itself behind the civilian population and turning the civilians in Lebanon into a human shield," he said, charging that Hezbollah "broke the first fundamental rule of war in that they deliberately exploited the civilian population of Lebanon as a human shield."
The full report was being released today at a news conference in Jerusalem. Human Rights Watch had to cancel a similar news conference in Beirut last month because of threats of Hezbollah protests. That report accused Hezbollah of firing rockets indiscriminately at civilian areas in Israel.
Human Rights Watch said it investigated 94 cases of Israeli air, artillery and ground attacks "to discern the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 510 civilians and 51 combatants," about half the death toll in Lebanon in the conflict.