2006 Lebanon War
Disproportionate condemnation of Israel, demonization of self-defense, and self-contradictory reporting based on eyewitnesses
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah forces attacked across the Lebanese-Israel border, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two.71 While there had been a number of similar attack efforts in the previous year, this was the first that succeeded. The incident marked a major escalation following the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon. In response, Israel launched a large-scale military operation designed to compel the Lebanese government to take control of the border and disarm Hezbollah, as demanded in the 2004 UN Security Council Resolution 1559.72 Hezbollah then launched thousands of missiles into northern Israel, killing and wounding a number of Israeli civilians. Over 1,000 Lebanese were reported killed.
During and following the six-week 2006 Lebanon War, international human rights NGOs issued an extraordinary number of public statements and reports, most of which condemned Israel as violating international law and showing a disregard for human rights. Human Rights Watch led this campaign, issuing 40 items, including press releases, long “research” reports, and other public statements. A July16 press statement headlined Israel: Investigate Attack on Civilians in Lebanon and a report entitled Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks against Civilians in Lebanon (August 2, 2006) illustrate HRW’s tendentious approach. The hundreds of pages produced by HRW also obscured Hezbollah’s status as an Iranian-supported militia operating illegally from Lebanese territory.
These publications, which were ostensibly grounded in morality and international law, denied the basic distinction between aggression by Hezbollah and Israel’s legitimate right and obligation to defend its citizens. By artificially and narrowly defining the issues that they chose to address, and grossly distorting international legal discourse, HRW officials – particularly Ken Roth and MENA division director Sarah Leah Whitson – ignored the fundamental offense. Had they acknowledged Hezbollah’s aggression, they would also have had to recognize Israel’s right to defense, which would have mitigated their anti-Israel bias. In an August 1 “Q &A” during the Lebanon War, for example, (HRW News Release Aug. 1, 2006) HRW stated that it
addresses only the rules of international humanitarian law, known as jus in bello, which govern the way each party to the armed conflict must conduct itself in the course of the hostilities. It does not address whether Hezbollah was justified in attacking Israel, whether Israel was justified in attacking Lebanon for the conduct of Hezbollah, or other matters concerning the legitimacy of resorting to war. In accordance with its institutional mandate, Human Rights Watch maintains a position of strict neutrality on these issues of jus ad bellum, because we find it the best way to promote our primary goal of encouraging both sides in the course of the conflict to respect international humanitarian law. [emphasis added]
Similarly, HRW’s portrayal of international law in the report Civilians under Assault: Hezbollah’s Rocket Attacks on Israel in the 2006 War was selective, incomplete, and self-serving. According to international law, the only legitimate uses of force are for purposes of self-defense or pursuant to Security Council authorization under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (Deller and Burroughs 2003). Under Article 2(4) of the Charter, states are prohibited from engaging in illegitimate use of force. In other words, there is both a moral and legal basis for distinguishing between aggressor and defender under the laws of war (Steinberg 2007).
As shown in the examples below, HRW’s “research reports” on the Lebanon conflict, as in other cases, were characterized by the absence of any professional methodology. The allegations in the reports, statements, interviews and op-eds were based on unsubstantiated, highly questionable or false “eyewitness” testimony designed to elicit “evidence” for the pre-selected objectives of indicting Israel for “war crimes.”
Key themes in HRW reports on the 2006 Lebanon War
Singling out Israel for excessive and disproportionate criticism
- During the 2006 war the great majority of HRW’s statements, including its major report, directed most of their criticism against Israel. This obsession is particularly evident when compared with HRW’s activities related to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Between July 12 and August 14, 2006, hundreds died in fighting in Sri Lanka, yet HRW issued only two minor press releases, while at the same time using major resources to condemn Israel.73
Ignoring Hezbollah’s human shielding while condemning Israel for indiscriminate attacks
- Hezbollah’s widespread use of civilians as human shields in the towns and villages of Southern Lebanon and in the neighborhoods of Beirut, went largely unreported. For example, in the August 2, 2006 report Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks against Civilians in Lebanon, HRW claimed that it found “no cases” of Hezbollah’s deliberate use of human shields, despite the evidence available from international media (Tavemise 2006).
- In a July 31 op-ed (HRW News Release July 30, 2006, Bouckaert July 31, 2006) published in The Guardian (UK), Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s emergencies director, dismissed Israel’s statement that Hezbollah used human shields, labeling the IDF’s assertion “a convenient excuse.”
- The denial of Hezbollah’s use of human shields allowed HRW to justify condemning Israel for “indiscriminate” bombing.
- On May 27, 2006, in a television interview, Hassan Nasrallah boasted “[Hezbollah fighters] live in their houses, in their schools, in their churches, in their fields, in their farms and in their factories…You can’t destroy them in the same way you would destroy an army.”74 This statement was absent from HRW statements.
- HRW also made little mention of Hezbollah’s concrete reinforced military headquarters, located under civilian buildings in southern Beirut. The positioning of military/guerrilla installations in residential areas is a war crime, as defined by Protocol I (1977) to the Geneva Convention, article 51(7), relating to human shields. Hezbollah also stored and launched missiles from civilian villages in Southern Lebanon, but HRW dismissed or ignored the human rights implications of Hezbollah’s use of human shields.
- Even after media reports (Wall Street Journal Dec. 11, 2006; Link 2006; Kalb 2007) and the documentation in the systematic study by the Intelligence and Terrorism Center at the Israeli Center for Special Studies (CSS)75 showed HRW’s allegations to be unfounded, Human Rights Watch continued to claim otherwise (HRW News Release July 29, 2007; see Appendix 3). CSS published extensive documentation including images showing “Hezbollah’s consistent pattern of intentionally placing its fighters and weapons among civilians,” demonstrating that Hezbollah was “well aware of the civilian casualties that would ensue.”76 Nevertheless, Roth and HRW maintained their previous claims, dismissing CSS’s detailed evidence of human shielding as a “comfortable assumption” (HRW News Release July 29, 2007).
Omission of other central aspects of the conflict inconsistent with HRW’s bias
- HRW made minimal references to the role of Iran and Syria in providing missiles and support to Hezbollah.
- HRW focused on the plight of Lebanese civilians affected by the fighting and paid little attention to the approximately 500,000 Israeli IDPs (internally displaced persons) or to Israeli victims of Hezbollah rocket attacks.
- On only a few occasions did HRW call for the release of the two abducted Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Lack of systematic research methodology – false claims and reliance on “eyewitnesses”
- The 2006 Qana incident is one of many examples in which HRW selected and publicized misleading or incorrect “evidence.” It is also another example that highlights the internal contradictions and absence of systematic methodology in HRW research. A July 30 press release (HRW News Release July 29, 2006) condemned an Israel Air Force strike as “indiscriminate” and a “war crime,” and quoted eyewitnesses (“survivors”) in this region dominated by Hezbollah, who claimed that “at least 54 civilians have been killed.” This disregarded both an HRW “official on the scene” (Kalb 2007) and a Red Cross statement at the time (ICRC July 30, 2006) that put the death toll at 28, some of whom may have been Hezbollah combatants (Murphy 2006). HRW belatedly acknowledged the lower casualty figure in its statements, but as noted in a Harvard study, “Most reporters used the higher of the two [casualty] estimates, some describing the scene as a massacre. It made for more sensational copy” (Kalb and Saivetz 2007). And the campaign led by HRW pressured Israeli officials into declaring a 48 hour halt in air strikes that allowed Hezbollah to regroup.77
- HRW officials repeated the allegations of “war crimes” and continued to deny the presence of Hezbollah forces (rockets, fighters, etc.) in the Qana area. However, IDF videos78 and CSS’s report documented a significant Hezbollah presence: three rockets were fired from within civilian houses, 36 within a 200 meter radius, and 106 within a 500 meter radius of the village. The report also showed an aerial photograph of a weapons storehouse located next to a mosque in Qana.79
- The Srifa Incident: According to Fatal Strikes (HRW Report Aug. 2, 2006), there was “no evidence that there had been Hezbollah military activity around the areas targeted by the IDF during or just prior to the attack: no spent ammunition, abandoned weapons or military equipment, trenches, or dead or wounded fighters.” But journalists, including the New York Times, reported extensive evidence that the village was a base for “fighters belonging to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party” (Bell Aug. 23, 2006).
- In Fatal Strikes (HRW Report Aug. 2, 2006), Hashem Kazan, interviewed regarding a July 15 attack on Bint Jbeil, claimed that “there was no fighting taking place in the village – there was no one but civilians.” In contrast, the CSS report included an aerial photograph of 20 bases and five weapons storehouses in the village, also documenting 87 rockets fired from within village houses, 109 from within a 200 meter radius, and 136 within a 500 meter radius.
- The Fatal Strikes report (which was the only extended publication issued by HRW on the Lebanon conflict in 2006), contained 21 incidents which, according to HRW, illustrate Israeli war crimes and “indiscriminate use of force” (HRW Report Aug. 2, 2006). However, in a September 2007 publication – more than one year later – HRW acknowledged that reports of these 21 incidents were inaccurate.
- In one incident nearly all the casualties were Hezbollah fighters, and in another the location of the strike was an active battlefield, rather than a civilian area without Hezbollah presence (HRW Report Sept. 5, 2007).
- A third incident was discussed in a HRW December 2006 report, which acknowledged that many details related to the allegations of an Israeli bombing attack on an ambulance were incorrect and inconsistent with the physical evidence. HRW blamed these errors, which were repeated without question at the time, on “sloppy and sometimes exaggerated reporting in the news media” (HRW Report Dec. 19 2006)80.
- The Srifa incident: In a July 31 letter to the New York Sun, Ken Roth alleged (Roth 2006, cited by Bell July 31, 2006) that Israel had killed 42 civilians in this incident. However, in HRW’s Fatal Strikes (HRW Report Aug. 2, 2006) the number was reduced to 30 in one place, and 23 in another. There is no independent confirmation regarding the claim of civilian casualties (Bell Aug. 23, 2006). As noted above, the village was used as a base for Hezbollah and Amal forces