[For Hebrew version: JCPA Hebrew Website]

On February 17, 2008, Human Rights Watch issued a 131 page report condemning Israel’s use of cluster munitions in response to Hezbollah attacks during the 2006 war. This follows dozens of earlier publications and hundreds of pages of reports making parallel charges against Israel and using similar rhetoric. (In comparison, HRW issued a one-page press release headlined “HRW: Lebanon/Israel: Hezbollah Hit Israel with Cluster Munitions During Conflict in October 2007). While the issues related to the particular use of cluster munitions, as opposed to other weapons, in this and other conflicts, require careful professional analysis (as is found in the Winograd Commission report), HRW’s version provides neither.

As in many previous HRW publications focusing explicitly on Israel, this report is based primarily on unsubstantiated and subjective claims regarding international law, and unverifiable evidence based on local “eyewitnesses”. Responding to condemnation by groups such as Human Rights Watch on the use of cluster munitions in this and other cases, a February 15, 2008 US State Department report concludes: “Unfortunately, much of what is said for public consumption by certain advocacy groups and some foreign governments on this issue is not accurate”.

For example, HRW’s press release claims that: “Israel violated international humanitarian law in its indiscriminate and disproportionate cluster munition attacks on Lebanon.” The term “indiscriminate” is clearly misleading – these and other weapons used by Israel were designed to end or degrade Hezbollah’s ability to launch missile barrages.  And the term disproportionate is subjective, and lacks a consistent definition. Instead, the authors base all of their claims on their inability to obtain information, stating that no “affirmative evidence” was found to demonstrate “that Israel’s cluster attacks had potential military advantage greater than the significant and ongoing harm that they caused.” (p.10, Executive Summary)

HRW’s particular interpretation is, of course, given precedence, and contrasting views are discarded without a serious analysis.  Quoting selectively from some press reports and tangential anecdotes, the authors dismiss a detailed analysis conducted by the Israel Defense Forces as “a predictable whitewash justifying use of the weapon and finding no violations of international law.” (See also the Israeli Attorney General’s rebuttal of NGO charges of ‘war crimes’ in 2006 Lebanon War). This approach is highly unprofessional, reinforcing the conclusion that HRW simply uses legal and other claims for political goals.

The limited evidence that HRW does present in the attempt to justify its condemnation of Israel is again provided by individual accounts that cannot be verified – including the claims made by “eyewitnesses” from Hezbollah-controlled areas. (Executive Summary, p.8).  Given the very low quality of HRW’s research capabilities, as demonstrated in analyses of previous reports, the following claim is also unreliable: “Our research shows that on some occasions, Hezbollah fired rockets from within populated areas…Such violations, however, were not widespread.” (Executive Summary, p.8n19)

On other issues, HRW’s claims are inconsistent with the facts. For example, their press release blames Israel for contributing to civilian deaths by not providing information on the location of the munitions—such “refusal to help is shocking”, HRW claimed.  In contrast, a US State Department White Paper (“Putting the Impact of Cluster Munitions In Context with the Effects of All Explosive Remnants of War”, Feb. 15, 2008), notes that extensive clearing has already taken place, showing that this information is in fact available (for areas in which Hezbollah is deemed unlikely to resume the positioning of rockets):

  • “As clearance operations and ERW risk awareness programs have expanded, casualty rates have fallen.”
  • “… in southern Lebanon, the projects failure rates of cluster munitions were ultimately incorrect. As of December 2007, UNMACC reported that 68% of the impacted land (25% with sub-surface clearance to 20 centimeters; 43% surface cleared of all threats) there had been cleared…”

HRW also distorts and misquotes the Winograd Commission’s section on the use of cluster bombs by asserting that this “mirrored many of Human Rights Watch’s findings.” While recommending an independent and public re-examination of the guidelines for use of cluster munitions, this Israeli commission also explicitly rejected claims that the use of these weapons in response to Hezbollah’s aggression violated international law (p. 495-496). Calling for a strengthening of methods used to instill the precepts of international law among leaders and combat soldiers, the report showed that, “The authorities are cognizant of the duty to obey international law and acted out of a desire to do so during the war.”