Whose war crimes in Lebanon?
Human Rights Watch displays lawful actors as the brigands and criminals as the innocent victims.
lebanon destruction 298.88 Photo: Associated Press
Now that a fragile cease-fire is in place in Lebanon, Israeli and Lebanese civilians are returning to their homes and some of the fog of war is lifting. This creates an opportunity to gather new evidence and reexamine the record of the many self-styled non-partisan investigations carried out by human rights organizations that pilloried Israel throughout the war for alleged "indiscriminate" bombing attacks on Lebanese civilians.
In at least one instance, the new evidence is damning. On August 16, Hassan Fattah reported in The New York Times on the return of Lebanese civilians to the village of Srifa (spelled Sreifa by the Times). The following sentences are particularly striking: "Hussein Kamaleldin, a local official ... estimated that up to two-thirds of the town's homes and buildings were demolished, leaving more than 43 people buried in the rubble. A majority of them were fighters belonging to Hizbullah and the allied Amal Party, residents said."
This contrasts sharply with the claims of Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Israel had no legitimate military targets in Srifa and killed only Lebanese civilians, a claim that has played a starring role in HRW's attacks on the state of Israel throughout the month-long war in Lebanon.
On August 3, Human Rights Watch issued a 50-page report and accompanying statement accusing Israel of the war crime of "hav[ing] systematically failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians in their military campaign against Hizbullah in Lebanon," and quoting executive director Kenneth Roth as attacking Israel's "disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians."
HRW based the report on what it claimed was an extensive investigation that including site visits to Srifa and three other locations, as well as "interviewing witnesses and survivors of Israeli strikes inside Lebanon, gathering detailed testimony from these individuals, and carefully corroborating and cross-checking their accounts with international aid workers, international and local journalists, medical professionals, local officials, as well as information from the IDF."
Regarding Srifa, the Human Rights Watch "investigation" said that "[d]uring site visits conducted in ... Srifa ... Human Rights Watch saw no evidence that there had been Hizbullah 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."
The report added that "[i]nternational and local journalists, rescue workers, and international observers also did not produce evidence to contradict the statements of witnesses interviewed for this report."
HRW's report included a graphic description of the evil results of Israeli bombing strikes in Srifa, focusing on children "shivering in fear" and "family members... covered with rubble," as well as "terrified civilian" villagers in "a state of panic" after being "trapped [by] ... heavy Israeli bombardment."
In addition, HRW quoted extensively from several villagers who asserted not only that "was no Hizbullah in the neighborhood ... because we are 40 kilometers away from Israel, and ... not a strategic place," but also that "[e]xcept for one person, who didn't even belong to Hizbullah, no one in that neighborhood knew how to handle weapons."
WHAT HAPPENED between the comprehensive HRW "investigation" and the Times story? How did several dozen "civilians" who didn't even know how to handle weapons retroactively become Hizbullah and Amal combatants?
I must acknowledge that I have not personally visited Srifa nor collected primary evidence about the military strikes on the village. The New York Times has erred in the past, and it may be that here too, the facts are clouded in the fog of war. And while I served in Lebanon during the war and witnessed civilian housing built directly on top of Hizbullah bunkers as well as Hizbullah fighters running from station to station in civilian dress without weaponry, I cannot from personal knowledge attest to Hizbullah's deployment or activities in Srifa.
Nevertheless, it beggars belief to imagine that none of the dead were Hizbullah fighters as HRW wrote. Other news outlets also reported the Hizbullah combatant presence in the village. Some two weeks before the HRW report, on July 19, AP writer Nasser Nasser reported Hizbullah fighters in Srifa running for cover whenever Israeli aircraft appeared overhead.
Even veteran anti-Israel propagandist Robert Fisk quoted a Srifa villager in the August 15 Independent acknowledging that "[w]e don't deny that the resistance was in Srifa."
I should acknowledge as well another personal interest in the story. In response to an earlier critique of mine, Kenneth Roth wrote in the New York Sun on July 31 that in having the temerity to write about Human Rights Watch's anti-Israel bias, I employed a "see-no-evil" approach toward "the most serious Israeli abuses [such as] the attack on Srifa village (10 houses destroyed, as many as 42 civilians killed)" and in so doing, I "encouraged more such slaughter."
Yet, it seems evident that there was no slaughter in Srifa and no Israeli war crime. HRW's "investigation" was nothing more than window dressing for predetermined anti-Israel conclusions, and the HRW investigation was either professionally incompetent or a complete fabrication.
Hizbullah is a terrorist organization. Its entire manner of fighting - targeting civilians with missiles on one side of an international border while hiding among civilians on the other side of that border - is predicated on the commission of war crimes that inevitably lead to the deaths of innocents on both sides of the border.
Human Rights Watch's insistence on placing Israel in the dock based on dubious or fabricated evidence creates the obscene situation where, at best, a law-abiding army is equally accused with an organization of war criminals and outlaws, and at worst, the lawful actors are viewed as the brigands and the criminals as innocent victims.
Human Rights Watch's biased and unprofessional behavior does not enhance respect for human rights and international law. Rather, its crusade against Israel ultimately undermines both.
The writer is a visiting professor at Fordham Law School and a member of the Faculty of Law of Bar-Ilan University. He is also a staff sergeant in a reserve Paratroopers brigade.