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(photo credit: AP [file])
Both Israel and Hizbullah violated the laws of war during their battle last summer, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report Thursday. The group also criticized repressive government policies in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, the report said, the human rights situation worsened significantly in 2006 with the armed conflict becoming increasingly sectarian in nature.
HRW said that "in its conduct of hostilities, the IDF repeatedly violated the laws of war by failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians."
The report noted Israeli assertions that the high proportion of civilian deaths was due to Hizbullah hiding its rockets and fighters in villages and towns. But it said IDF attacks responsible for most of the civilian deaths took place when there was no evidence that Hizbullah fighters or weapons were in the vicinity.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said, "Israel has placed the issue of human rights at the very center of our political institutions and at the center of our democratic process, both in the way that we conduct ourselves internally and in the war against terrorism."
"When the war in Lebanon was forced upon us, we conducted our operations in accordance with the accepted rules of war and nothing in the Israeli practice was outside international legitimacy," he said.
The 34-days of fighting killed more than 1,000 people on both sides. Lebanon's Higher Relief Council, a government group, says the majority of those were Lebanese civilians. UNICEF also says most of those killed were civilians, and about a third of them were children.
Of the total deaths, 159 were in Israel, including 39 civilians.
Israel estimates 600 Hizbullah gunmen were killed, while the Islamist group says 250 of its fighters died.
An estimated 1 million people were displaced, Human Rights Watch said.
The report said Israel's extensive use of cluster bombs in the conflict continues to be a pressing concern.
"The UN has estimated that Israel fired cluster munitions containing 2.6 [million] to 4 million submunitions into Lebanon, leaving behind as many as 1 million hazardous duds" that have resulted in many deaths and serious injuries, the report said.
Hizbullah, for its part, "launched thousands of rockets on cities, towns and villages in northern Israel, using a variety of unguided surface-to-surface rockets," the report said, killing 39 Israeli civilians and wounding hundreds more.
Many of the civilian casualties were the result of ball bearings that were packed into rockets and shot out upon impact, the report said.
It said these attacks were "at best, indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, and, at worst, deliberate attacks against civilians," and that they violated the rules of war.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Human Rights Watch said Egypt displayed a heavy hand against political dissent in 2006.
"After a period of relative tolerance of political opposition in early 2005, the government reversed course starting in late 2005," the report said. "In November 2005, the government responded to the Muslim Brotherhood's strong showing in the first round of national elections with extensive irregularities and violence by police and ruling party vigilantes in the subsequent two rounds."
The crackdown, the report said, highlighted the limits on freedom of expression in the Middle East's most populous country.
The group said human rights organizations also continued to receive credible reports that security services and police routinely torture and mistreat detainees, particularly during interrogation.
In Syria, the report said, the country's "poor human situation deteriorated further in 2006."
"Thousands of political prisoners, many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and Communist Party, remain in detention," the report said. "Syrian Kurds, the country's second largest ethnic minority, continue to protest their treatment as second-class citizens."
The report said overall human rights conditions remain poor in Saudi Arabia.
"Despite international and domestic pressure to implement reforms, King Abdullah has not met expectations of improvements following his succession to the throne in August 2005," the report said. "The government undertook no major human rights reforms in 2006 and there were signs of backsliding on issues of human rights defenders, freedom of association and freedom of expression."
The report said Saudi women continue to face serious obstacles to participation in society and many foreign workers, especially women, face exploitative working conditions that can include violence.
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