Yesterday, Human Rights Watch published a report disputing the initial death toll estimates from the Israeli attack on Qana. According to HRW:
(Beirut, August 2, 2006) – A preliminary Human Rights Watch investigation into the July 30 Israeli air strike in Qana found that 28 people are confirmed dead thus far, among them 16 children, Human Rights Watch said today.
“The deaths in Qana were the predictable result of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Lebanon,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Only an impartial international investigation can find out what really took place.”
The initial estimate of 54 persons killed was based on a register of 63 persons who had sought shelter in the basement of the building that was struck, and rescue teams having located nine survivors. It now appears that at least 22 people escaped the basement, and 28 are confirmed dead, according to records from the Lebanese Red Cross and the government hospital in Tyre.
Thirteen people remain missing, and some Qana residents fear they are buried in the rubble, although recovery efforts have stopped.
Unfortunately, this adjustment of the death toll will give Israel and its allies the perfect opportunity to dismiss responsibility for the human rights abuses committed by the Israeli army that seemed to culminate in the shocking Qana attack on 30 July.
Don’t be fooled by the numbers. It doesn’t matter whether the death toll in Qana was 56 or 41 or 28. The fact is that the Israeli army targeted and struck a bunker in which it knew civilians were hiding. There could have been 10 civilians, or 100, or 1,000. Just because several had the luck of escaping does not mean that Israel should no longer be held accountable for its targeting of civilians.
Furthermore, as HRW also reports:
The Israeli government initially claimed that the military targeted the house because Hezbollah fighters had fired rockets from the area. Human Rights Watch researchers who visited Qana on July 31, the day after the attack, did not find any destroyed military equipment in or near the home. Similarly, none of the dozens of international journalists, rescue workers and international observers who visited Qana on July 30 and 31 reported seeing any evidence of Hezbollah military presence in or around the home. Rescue workers recovered no bodies of apparent Hezbollah fighters from inside or near the building.
There is simply not enough evidence to support Israel’s justification for the attack (a justification that I personally cannot condone even if there was evidence of Hezbollah activity in the area).
Today, HRW came out with an extensive report, titled Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon:
Since the start of the conflict, Israeli forces have consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost. In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.
The Israeli government claims that it targets only Hezbollah, and that fighters from the group are using civilians as human shields, thereby placing them at risk. Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack. Hezbollah occasionally did store weapons in or near civilian homes and fighters placed rocket launchers within populated areas or near U.N. observers, which are serious violations of the laws of war because they violate the duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. However, those cases do not justify the IDF’s extensive use of indiscriminate force which has cost so many civilian lives. In none of the cases of civilian deaths documented in this report is there evidence to suggest that Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack.
By consistently failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians, Israel has violated one of the most fundamental tenets of the laws of war: the duty to carry out attacks on only military targets. The pattern of attacks during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon suggests that the failures cannot be explained or dismissed as mere accidents; the extent of the pattern and the seriousness of the consequences indicate the commission of war crimes.
Let me be clear with a disclaimer. I condone neither Hezbollah’s firing of missiles into civilian areas in northern Israel nor its use of ball-bearings in its weaponry. This type of warfare is morally inexcusable.
But if the United States is intent on supporting Israel’s means of warfare, all I ask is for consistency. We cannot condemn “terrorist” organizations for the types of weapons they use and their choice of civilian targets and then turn a blind eye to the use of the same weapons and the same targets by state militaries, which have the potential to cause even more damage with the extensive arsenals at their disposal.
If you want to say, Screw it! It’s a free-for-all! Everyone kill each other in the worst way possible! Well then, fine. But don’t be half-assed about it. Don’t pretend to act in favor of human rights and morality and then abandon them both when they aren’t in line with your immediate interests.
International humanitarian law is complex and utterly unenforceable, but it is also necessary and, in the long run, in all of our interests. The use of excessively destructive and inhumane weapons and the willful targeting of civilians are in violation of international humanitarian law, law that exists for a reason: to try to keep us human enough to survive on this planet just a little longer, before our penchant for fear and hatred manages to erase us from the map.
Posted By Sarah Sachs (Palestine)
Posted Aug 3rd, 2006