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Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Offering Video, Israel Answers Critics on War

http://zionism-israel.com/israel_news/2006/12/offering-video-israel-answers-critics.html

New York Times, December 5, 2006
 
Offering Video, Israel Answers Critics on War

JERUSALEM, Dec. 4 — Israel's military, which has been accused of abuses in its war against Hezbollah this summer, has declassified photographs, video images and prisoner interrogations to buttress its accusation that Hezbollah systematically fired from civilian neighborhoods in southern Lebanon and took cover in those areas to shield itself from attack.

Lebanon and international human rights groups have accused Israel of war crimes in the 34 days of fighting in July and August, saying that Israel fired into populated areas and that civilians accounted for a vast majority of the more than 1,000 Lebanese killed.

Israel says that it tried to avoid civilians, but that Hezbollah fired from civilian areas, itself a war crime, which made those areas legitimate targets.

In a new report, an Israeli research group says Hezbollah stored weapons in mosques, battled Israelis from inside empty schools, flew white flags while transporting missiles and launched rockets near monitoring posts.

The detailed report on the war was produced by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies, a private research group headed by Reuven Erlich, a retired colonel in military intelligence, who worked closely with the Israeli military.

An advance copy was given to The New York Times by the American Jewish Congress, which has itself fought against the use of "human shields," provided consultation and translated the study.

In Lebanon, a Hezbollah official denied the study's allegations, saying its military units were based outside towns and villages and had come into populated areas only when circumstances required it. "We tried to avoid having to fight among civilian areas, but when Israeli troops entered villages, we were automatically forced to fight them from inside these villages to defend it," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on military matters.

Israel's critics charge that its military either singled out civilians or was reckless in its pursuit of Hezbollah. The new report is an attempt to rebut such criticism.

The report includes Israeli Air Force video that it says shows several instances of Hezbollah personnel firing rockets next to residential buildings in southern Lebanon and then being bombed by Israel. The adjacent buildings were presumably damaged, but there is no information on whether civilians were inside.

"This study explains the dilemma facing the Israeli military as it fights an enemy that intentionally operates from civilian areas," Mr. Erlich said. "This is the kind of asymmetric warfare we are seeing today. It's not only relevant to Lebanon, but is also what we are seeing in the Gaza Strip and in Iraq."

The report says: "The construction of a broad military infrastructure, positioned and hidden in populated areas, was intended to minimize Hezbollah's vulnerability. Hezbollah would also gain a propaganda advantage if it could represent Israel as attacking innocent civilians."

In video from July 23, a truck with a multi-barreled missile launcher, presumably from Hezbollah, is parked in a street, sandwiched between residential buildings. The video was transmitted from an Israeli missile approaching the truck. The screen goes fuzzy as the missile slams into the target.

In another video, from a Lebanese village, rockets are seen being fired from a launcher on the back of a truck. The truck then drives a short distance and disappears inside a building. Seconds later, the building itself disappears under a cloud of smoke from an Israeli bomb.

The report says that there were many such examples, and that Hezbollah has been preparing for such an engagement for years, embedding its fighters and their weapons in the Shiite villages of southern Lebanon. When Hezbollah fired its rockets from those areas, Israel faced a choice of attacking, and possibly causing civilian casualties, or refraining from shooting because of the risk, the report said.

Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese Army general, said of the Israeli allegations, "Of course there are hidden invisible tunnels, bunkers of missile launchers, bunkers of explosive charges amongst civilians."

He added: "You cannot separate the southern society from Hezbollah, because Hezbollah is the society and the society is Hezbollah. Hezbollah is holding this society together through its political, military and economic services. It is providing the welfare for the south."

Asked whether Hezbollah should be seen as responsible for the deaths of Lebanese civilians in the war, he replied: "Of course Hezbollah is responsible. But these people are ready to sacrifice their lives for Hezbollah. If you tell them, 'Your relative died,' they will tell you 'No, he was a martyr.' The party's military preparations from 2000 till 2006 took place in their areas. They were of course done with complete secrecy, but in accordance with the civilians."

During the war, Israel dropped leaflets urging villagers to leave southern Lebanon and also to evacuate from Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut. Many did flee, but some remained and among them were hundreds who were killed.

In one highly publicized Israeli strike on July 30, at least 28 Lebanese civilians, including many women and children, were killed when Israel bombed a residential building in the village of Qana. Israel said it struck a Hezbollah rocket cell that had recently fired from near the building.

In several other instances, Israel bombed vehicle convoys that were trying to leave the combat zone in southern Lebanon, killing many civilians. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said shortly before the war ended that it had documented the deaths of 27 Lebanese civilians killed while trying to flee.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote shortly after the war that the Israeli military "seemed to assume that because it gave warnings to civilians to evacuate southern Lebanon, anyone who remained was a Hezbollah fighter."

He wrote, "But giving warnings, as required by international humanitarian law, does not relieve the attacker of the duty to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to target only combatants."

Amnesty International said that Israel "consistently failed to adopt necessary precautionary measures," and that its forces "carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on a large scale."

The group also accused Hezbollah of "serious violations of international humanitarian law" for deliberately attacking Israeli civilians with rockets.

The Israeli report defended the Israeli operations, saying "airstrikes and ground attacks against Hezbollah targets located in population centers were carried out in accordance with international law, which does not grant immunity to a terrorist organization deliberately hiding behind civilians."

The Israeli report included video of what it said were three Hezbollah prisoners being questioned by Israeli military personnel.

Muhammad Srour, a young Hezbollah fighter, said he had initially received training in Iran and was undergoing further training in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley when the war broke out. He was sent to the front lines.

Like many Hezbollah fighters, he traveled by motorbike, but they were frequently the targets of Israeli forces. While transporting missiles, hidden in cloth, in and around the southern village of Aita al Shaab, "I carried a white flag," Mr. Srour said.

Hezbollah operated freely from homes in the village, with the permission of residents who had fled. The departing residents either left their doors unlocked or gave their keys to Hezbollah, he said. Mr. Srour acknowledged that homes used by Hezbollah were more likely to draw fire.

But, he said, "better that the house is destroyed and the Israelis don't enter and come back to conquer Lebanon."

Another captured fighter, Hussein Suleiman, explained how he had set up a rocket-firing position on the front porch of a house on the outskirts of Aita al Shaab.

A third Hezbollah man, Maher Kourani, said group members had worn civilian clothes, tried never to show their weapons, and traveled in ordinary civilian cars. "We use Volvos, Mercedes, BMW," he said. "We use Range Rovers, too."

The Israeli report makes frequent references to Hezbollah's using Lebanese civilians as human shields, though it cites only two villages where it says Hezbollah prevented residents from leaving. Mr. Erlich acknowledged that over all, Hezbollah did not use coercion against Lebanese civilians.

Rather, he said, "Hezbollah was operating inside a supportive population, and cynically used them to further its own goals."

Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, and most Israeli civilians either fled the region or took refuge in bomb shelters.

Over all, more than 1,000 Lebanese were killed, and a vast majority were civilians, according to the Lebanese government. Hezbollah has said that no more than 100 of its fighters were killed.

The Israeli report disputes this, claiming that at least 450 and perhaps as many as 650 of the Lebanese dead were from Hezbollah.

Israel suffered 159 deaths, including 41 civilians and 118 military personnel, according to the report.

Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000 after a presence of nearly two decades, much of it spent fighting Hezbollah. There was periodic cross-border shelling in the ensuing years.

The war erupted on July 12 when Hezbollah crossed the border and attacked an Israeli jeep patrol, killing three soldiers and capturing two more, who remain held by Hezbollah, according to the group.

The fighting stopped Aug. 14, shortly after the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which reaffirmed an earlier resolution calling for Lebanese militias to disarm.

Israel says Hezbollah has only hidden its weapons and is being resupplied from its longtime patrons, Syria and Iran. Israel continues to send warplanes on reconnaissance missions over southern Lebanon, despite criticism from the United Nations forces in the region.

Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.


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