Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth on Thursday sharply rejected a Foreign Ministry response to the organization's new 267-page report on Israel's alleged responsibility for the deaths of some 1,000 Lebanese civilians and the wounding of thousands more.
Responding to the HRW report, entitled, "Why they Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 War," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev maintained that "Hizbullah adopted a deliberate strategy of shielding itself behind the civilian population and turning the civilians in Lebanon into a human shield."
"He is making that up," Roth retorted during a press conference. "That is in no sense the major reason why civilians died. This is a cover story put forward in this case by the Foreign Ministry, other times by the IDF, which bears no relationship to reality."
Following five months of field research, said Roth, HRW "did not find a systematic practice of shielding in civilian villages. Indeed, we find very rare instances of that. Most Hizbullah military activity was conducted from prepared positions in the hills and valleys outside Lebanese villages... In the vast majority of cases in which civilians died as a result of Israeli air attacks, there was no Hizbullah military presence nearby."
Israel repeatedly warned the Lebanese civilian population of southern Lebanon to leave their homes and escape north of the Litani River, he continued. "It then acted as if all the civilians had left, when that was not true," said Roth. "Many did flee but many others stayed for a variety of reasons. Some were too old, some were too infirm, some were too impoverished to afford the exorbitant taxi fares being charged, and many were too scared to death to get on the roads and risk attack by Israeli bombers. So, for this variety of reasons, many civilians remained in Lebanon throughout much of the war, and Israel knew that... Israel, was too ready to pull the trigger."
Roth noted that HRW examined 94 separate instances of Israeli air force or missile attacks, accounting for the deaths of 510 civilians and 51 combatants.
In a response to the report, the IDF stated that "it is clear at the outset that the report contains many inaccuracies resulting chiefly from the fact that the organization is not privy to classified intelligence information possessed by the IDF necessary to evaluate the legitimacy of each attack. Moreover, the report relies heavily on interviews with Lebanese sources of limited reliability."
The IDF also rejected HRW's claim that after warning the civilian population in southern Lebanon to leave, the IDF too easily viewed anyone who remained in the area as combatants.
"The IDF distinguishes at all times between civilians and combatants and rejects outright the contention that Israel fired indiscriminately on civilians," it said. "The IDF also adheres carefully to the proportionality requirement, refraining from attacks where the anticipated collateral damage would be out of proportion to the military benefit expected to ensue from the attack."
In another response, the head of NGO Monitor, Gerald Steinberg, charged that "Human Rights Watch's latest attack on Israel's actions during the Second Lebanon War follows a clear pattern which has sought to create a moral equivalence between the deliberate targeting of civilians by a terrorist organization and the efforts of a democratic country to defend itself.
"Despite their own admission in this report that Hizbullah fired from the vicinity of UN outposts on an almost daily basis, HRW has defied logic in failing to condemn this systematic use of human shields," wrote Steinberg.