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Human Rights Watch: Israel Dropping Cluster Bombs on Lebanese Civilians

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Human Rights Watch says Israel is firing cluster munitions at Lebanese residential neighborhoods in possible violation of international law. We speak with HRW’s Peter Bouckaert in Beirut. [includes rush transcript]

The United Nations has launched an emergency appeal for the international community to help the people of Lebanon. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said $150 million is needed urgently. A total of about 800,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. Food, water, fuel and medical supplies are running out in parts of the country. The UN says entire communities have been cut off because Israel has systemtically destroyed the country’s networks of roads and bridges. Meanwhile, questions are being raised as to whether Israel is violating international law. On Sunday, UN High Commissioner Louise Arbour told CNN Israel’s actions in Lebanon could lead to the prosecution of its military commanders. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch says Israel is shelling civilian areas with cluster bombs. On Monday, Democracy Now reached Peter Bouckaert. He’s the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, currently in Beirut. He talked about the humanitarian situation on the ground, as well as the situation for Lebanon’s hundreds of thousands of refugees.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Democracy Now! reached Peter Bouckaert. He is the Emergencies Director for Human Rights Watch, currently in Beirut. He began by talking about the humanitarian situation on the ground.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I’ve been working in war zones for Human Rights Watch for the last decade almost, from Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq and Chechnya and Sierra Leone, and in terms of the dangers that we face out on the road, this definitely qualifies as one of the most dangerous places in the world right now. It’s very difficult to deliver humanitarian aid to the south, and villages throughout the south continue to suffer from heavy bombardment.

We document case after case of civilian homes which have been hit in the south, where entire families have been wiped out. I mean, one of the issues I’ve been absolutely shocked about in terms of this conflict is the number of children who have been killed, because in almost all of the cases that we’re documenting, we’re talking about a civilian home which is hit, and the parents are killed, along with four, five, sometimes six children, some as young as one year old. The youngest casualty that we’ve documented so far is two months old.

It’s very difficult to deliver aid to those villages in the south and in the Bekaa Valley, which are subject to the bombardment that we see. It’s almost impossible for the humanitarian community to get the kind of safe passage guarantee that they need to be able to work down there and to get their trucks down there to deliver humanitarian supplies, and even ambulances have been hit in the south in the last few days.

On the other side of the coin, it’s also very difficult for villagers who are stuck in these villages in the south to leave their homes, even though Israel has ordered the immediate evacuation of all villages south of the Litani. We’re talking about tens of thousands of people who are effectively stuck in this very active war zone, who are unable to flee because they are too afraid to travel on the road. Just yesterday — well, on Sunday we documented more than ten cases of civilian cars, which were hit in the south; more than forty people were wounded, and eight or nine people were killed, simply for trying to flee to safety. So it really is a very, very desperate situation throughout Lebanon these days.

Just a few days ago we documented an attack, which took place last Wednesday, on the village of Blida, in which the Israelis used cluster munitions. Human Rights Watch has been very critical of the use of cluster and munitions by the U.S. military, because these are indiscriminate weapons. Basically what they are is one big shell, which opens up and drops a number of smaller bomblets over a very large area. Many of these bomblets don’t explode, so they effectively turn into mines.

In this one attack that we documented one elderly woman was killed and twelve people were wounded from one family, including seven children. The husband of the family lost both of his legs, and I interviewed him in the hospital two days ago. So we’re very concerned that Israel is using these indiscriminate weapons, cluster bombs, in populated areas. It’s simply not acceptable and is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, because these are indiscriminate and very, very dangerous weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch also talked about the plight of Lebanon’s refugees.

PETER BOUCKAERT: The United Nations has estimated that there is up to 500,000 displaced people in Lebanon today. That’s almost a quarter of the population of Lebanon, and I think those numbers are quite accurate. There’s more than a hundred schools in Beirut alone, who have been packed with refugees. Yesterday, we visited an underground parking lot of a major shopping center, where refugees are sleeping on two separate levels of the parking lot. And we go around on a daily basis to school after school after school, where every classroom has been taken over by multiple families.

And they’re not just people fleeing from the south. There are also those from Beirut itself, especially from the southern suburbs, who have lost their homes in this very fierce bombardment of the southern suburbs, the Shia-dominated suburbs of Lebanon. I can’t emphasize just how vast the destruction is in the southern suburbs. Walking around there is just a stunning experience. You know, you’re walking around and looking at these fourteen-story apartment buildings who have just been completely taken down, and you wonder what the military purpose Israel is hopes to achieve by taking down these civilian apartment buildings.

Certainly there were in some of these neighborhoods some minor Hezbollah offices. For example, in one neighborhood we visited, there was a coop run by Hezbollah and a political office, but we don’t think it justifies the kind of massive destruction that Israel is causing in these civilian neighborhoods of South Beirut.

I think it’s time for the international community to step in and to stop this onslaught on the civilian population of Lebanon. This is totally different from the kind of bombardment that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly we documented a lot of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan when we worked there, but at least in most of those cases we were able to determine what the specific military objective was that the U.S. hoped to achieve by these military strikes.

In the case of Lebanon it’s very, very difficult for us to see, at Human Rights Watch, what specific military objectives Israel is trying to achieve by bombarding these civilian homes in the south and the civilian neighborhoods of Southern Beirut. It certainly seems very far removed from fighting a war directly with Hezbollah.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert is Emergencies Director from Human Rights Watch. He was speaking to us from Beirut.

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