Thursday, August 03, 2006

Israel Guilty of War Crimes, According to HRW

A just-released Human Rights Watch report concludes that the IDF has committed war crimes by targeting civilians in its bombing campaign against Lebanon.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting spotlights the U.S. media's silence on credible reports that Israel is using cluster bombs and white phosphorus weapons in Lebanon -- and that it may have used such weapons in Gaza as well. Both types are widely considered to be prohibited under international law:

On July 24, Human Rights Watch reported that Israel was using cluster bombs "in populated areas of Lebanon," which it said "may violate the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks contained in international humanitarian law." But despite the extensive media coverage of the current conflict in the Middle East, almost no U.S. outlets are reporting on these findings.

The Los Angeles Times buried the news at the end of a July 25 report, which concluded that the "Israeli army said it was checking into the group's allegations, but added that the weapons were legal under international standards." On July 27, the New York Times reported that an Israeli general "acknowledged that Israel had used cluster munitions in the conflict." The Times described the alleged use of such weapons as "another matter that has drawn criticism."

Yet this reference was the first time the paper's readers heard of the matter—at least when it came to Israel's arsenal. On July 19, the Times did report that U.S. and Israeli officials claimed that Hezbollah had altered some of their rockets by "attaching cluster bombs as warheads, or filling an explosive shell with ball bearings that have devastating effect."

NBC Nightly News similarly (7/25/06) noted the lethality of Hezbollah's arsenal, with correspondent Martin Fletcher reporting that "the Katyusha is full of these tiny ball bearings that are aimed to kill and hurt as many people as possible." Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (7/28/06) contrasted the ball-bearing packed Katyushas that "are meant to kill and maim" with Israel's "precision-guided munitions" as evidence that "Hezbollah is deliberately trying to create civilian casualties on both sides while Israel is deliberately trying to minimize civilian casualties, also on both sides."

Weapons loaded with ball bearings would seem designed to be anti-personnel weapons, and their use has been condemned by human rights organizations because of their wide and imprecise blast range (Human Rights Watch, 7/18/06). But cluster bombs, which likewise have a wide and imprecise blast range, pose an even deadlier threat to civilians, as they can spread hundreds of "bomblets" that become "de facto antipersonnel landmines" (Human Rights Watch, 3/03). Amnesty International called the use of cluster bombs by the U.S. in civilian areas of Iraq "a grave violation of international humanitarian law" (4/2/03).

Other reports have raised the strong possibility that cluster bombs may have been used in Gaza (Agence France Presse, 7/25/06). And some doctors and Lebanese officials believe that injuries in Lebanon indicate the use of incendiary weapons such as white phosphorus (Inter Press Service, 7/28/06; Agence France Presse, 7/30/06). White phosphorus causes severe and deep burns to the skin and cannot be extinguished with water; the New York Times once called it (3/22/95) one of "the worst chemical weapons" in existence. Israel's use of such weapons would not be without precedent; Human Rights Watch reported in 1996 (5/96) that there was "compelling" evidence that Israel used phosphorus weapons against civilians in its 1982 and 1983 attacks on Southern Lebanon. (The U.S. has admitted to using white phosphorus as a weapon in Iraq; see Extra!, 3-4/06.)

Robert Pape, who teaches political science at the University of Chicago, has an op-ed in today's New York Times on why the military option is not going to solve Israel's problems with Hezbollah.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. At first it consisted of a small number of Shiites supported by Iran. But as more and more Lebanese came to resent Israel's occupation, Hezbollah -- never tight-knit -- expanded into an umbrella organization that tacitly coordinated the resistance operations of a loose collection of groups with a variety of religious and secular aims.

In terms of structure and hierarchy, it is less comparable to, say, a religious cult like the Taliban than to the multidimensional American civil-rights movement of the 1960's. What made its rise so rapid, and will make it impossible to defeat militarily, was not its international support but the fact that it evolved from a reorientation of pre-existing Lebanese social groups.

Pape thinks Israel is finally beginning to realize that air power alone will not defeat Hezbollah, but it doesn't look that way to me.

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