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Amnesty International Accuses Israel of Committing War Crimes in Lebanon

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Amnesty International has accused Israel of committing war crimes for deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. In a report released yesterday, the human rights group criticized Israel for destroying homes, bridges, roads, water treatment plants and fuel tanks. [includes rush transcript]

Amnesty International has accused Israel of committing war crimes for deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. In a report released yesterday, the human rights group criticized Israel for destroying homes, bridges, roads, water treatment plants and fuel tanks. The report said such attacks were an “integral part” of Israel’s strategy in the war.

The group is calling for a United Nations investigation into whether Israel and Hezbollah broke humanitarian law.

The report is based on research from Amnesty missions in Lebanon and Israel, including interviews with victims, UN officials, Israeli military officers and members of the Lebanese government.

In a few minutes we are going to get a response on the report from Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Daniel Carmon, but first we take a closer look at the report’s findings with Marty Rosenbluth. He is a specialist for Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Authority for Amnesty International-USA. He was on one of the research missions for the group that helped compile this report.

  • Marty Rosenbluth, specialist for Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian Authority for Amnesty International-USA.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in studio in Washington, D.C. is Marty Rosenbluth. He’s with Amnesty International, a specialist for Israel, Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Authority with Amnesty International-USA, one of the research missions for the group that helped compile this report. He joins us in studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you joining us in the Reuters studio. Can you talk about your major findings in this report?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Well, sure. What the report shows is that the Israeli claims that the damage to the civilian infrastructure was purely collateral damage just really doesn’t match the facts. And you really only have to look at the statements by Israeli government officials. I mean, Dan Halutz, who’s the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, said at the very beginning of the war that the purpose of the air strikes was to send a message to the Lebanese government that if they didn’t rein in Hezbollah, that the Lebanese population would pay a heavy price. I mean, that’s prima fascia evidence that the strikes were designed as collective punishment. But also just the sheer level of the destruction, the destruction of the electrical infrastructure, the water infrastructure, the roads, the bridges, houses, businesses, etc., just doesn’t match the Israeli claims that this was either collateral damage or due to the fact that Hezbollah was shielding amongst the civilian population.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what are, in terms of established rules of war or international law, the main guiding points in terms of when civilian areas can be attacked in time of war?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Well, the most important principle of the laws of war is what is called the principle of distinction. I mean, this was passed a long time ago into what’s called customary international law, which means it’s binding on all parties, whether they be, quote/unquote, “non-state actors” like Hezbollah or the Israeli military. So the Israeli claim that since these have a military potential or contribute in some way to the military effort makes them a legitimate military targets is just not how international humanitarian law works.

JUAN GONZALEZ: When you say the principle of distinction — for example, in your report you mentioned the many roads that were destroyed by Israel. Israel was claiming that these roads could potentially be used for military transport. But you raise the issue that while that may be true, they were principally used by civilians and that that should have been the overriding factor?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Correct. And that’s really what the principle of distinction means: you have to distinguish between whether it’s primarily a military purpose or primarily a civilian purpose to balance essentially what the military advantage is versus the effect on the civilian population. So when we met with senior IDF officials in Israel, they said, “Well, the electrical infrastructure is a military target, because Hezbollah needs electricity.” Well, of course Hezbollah needs electricity, but so do hospitals, so do civilians for refrigeration, so does the water infrastructure. The electrical pumps rely on electricity for water. So if you knock out the electricity infrastructure, you also knock out the water, which creates a major health hazard. So, simply claiming that there’s some military potential or it contributes in some way to Hezbollah’s military purposes doesn’t mean that it can be targeted as a military target. That’s a clear violation of the laws of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Marty Rosenbluth, can you outline the level of destruction?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: It’s still very difficult. I mean, just now, the full extent of the destruction has really begun to be estimated, but there’s still, for all practical purposes, from our documentation, no electricity in the south, which, again, affects the water. Hundreds, if not thousands, of houses have been destroyed, businesses, roads, etc., etc. We now have another mission, which just got on the ground there on Sunday, to try to assess what the full extent of the damage is. And we’ll also be sending another mission into northern Israel to assess the damage there. I was on the ground for a week in northern Israel looking at the effect of the war on civilians in northern Israel. And it’s also clear that there was very clear violations of the laws of war on the part of Hezbollah, by targeting Israeli civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Marty Rosenbluth, specialist for Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian Authority for Amnesty International-USA. Now, your report, Marty, includes a number of statements from Israeli military officials indicating the destruction of the civilian infrastructure was indeed a goal of Israel’s military campaign, designed to press the Lebanese government and the people of Lebanon to turn against Hezbollah.

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Yeah, correct. And again, we take them at their word. I mean, when the chief of staff of the IDF says that the purpose of the air strikes is so that the Lebanese government will realize that they don’t rein in Hezbollah, that Lebanon will pay a heavy price, that’s a very clear statement of policy. When they say that unless the Lebanese government reins in Hezbollah, that they’re going to destroy the electrical infrastructure, that’s a very clear statement of policy.

So the Israeli government is doing essentially, is what they’re saying. If you read their documents, they say, well, it isn’t a question of the individual objective, but the overall strategic advantage. It’s a very, very broad interpretation of what’s called, quote/unquote, “dual use,” where if something has a military purpose and a civilian purpose, it can be targeted. And we and the entire human rights community, as well as the majority of the international community, would have a much more restrictive approach, which would require them to balance each attack, each target, based on whether or not it’s a military target or a civilian target.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your report also raises questions about the attacks on the communications and media infrastructure of the country. You note that not only did the Israelis target the Hezbollah television station, but they also bombed the transmitters of the Lebanese Public Broadcasting Corporation and other commercial broadcasters that had nothing to do with the conflict. Could you talk about that?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Well, sure. And even with the targeting of the Hezbollah TV station, Al Manar, when we were in the meeting with senior Israeli defense officials in Israel, you know, what they said was, well, you know, not only are they broadcasting propaganda, but they’re broadcasting instructions to the troops. And we asked for documentation. We said, “Can you give us transcripts? Can you give us audio tape? Can you give us videotape of Al Manar being used to actually broadcast instructions to Hezbollah fighters?” And they backed down on that.

And again, it’s totally indiscriminate. I mean, they targeted basically the entire communications infrastructure. And again, I’m sure their claim would be, well, this has military potential, but it also has civilian use and affects civilians disproportionately to the military advantage from Hezbollah.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about hospitals and supermarkets?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Well, the supermarkets was actually pretty surprising to us, pretty alarming, in terms of what our mission on the ground found, is that from talking to civilians, from interviewing eyewitnesses, very often the supermarkets were the first thing that were targeted. And they were targeted in a way that the trajectory was very high, so the contents of the supermarket was destroyed. It opens up the question whether that was targeted to force the civilian population to evacuate, to force the civilian population to flee. In addition to that, we documented I think three separate cases where hospitals were targeted. And targeting hospitals is absolutely prohibited under international humanitarian law, unless it can be proven that they were being used essentially as a cover for military operations.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say “targeted,” are you saying that they were deliberately hit or inadvertently hit, or did you question the Israelis about whether they actually intended to hit these hospitals?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Well, we didn’t on the hospitals, per se, because when we were meeting with the Israeli officials in Israel, we didn’t have that documentation. But the Israelis were pretty clear. The Israelis were basically claiming that they chose their targets very carefully, that they chose their targets very deliberately, and each and every target was vetted by a command chain, including an international humanitarian law trained expert. So that sets a very high bar.

And, in fact, the conclusion to our report and what we’re asking for is an international investigation with experts that have the mandate and the training and the support and the financial resources and the cooperation of the parties to conduct the investigation properly. And I would think that both the Israeli government and our own government would have an interest in wanting a proper investigation. I mean, if Israel can show, if Israel can demonstrate, that these were in fact legitimate military targets, that should come out in a proper investigation. Our documentation and the documentation of other human rights organizations says that a lot of the targets were hit were not military targets. But if the Israelis can prove that they were through a proper investigation, that’s what the investigation will show. And the same goes for Hezbollah.

AMY GOODMAN: Marty Rosenbluth, your report, Amnesty International’s report on “Israel/Lebanon: Deliberate Destruction or 'Collateral Damage'? Israeli Attacks on Civilian Infrastructure,” says that people guilty of war crimes should be held responsible anywhere in the world. What does that mean if you find Israeli officials responsible? For example, those that travel to this country.

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Well, and it’s not just the Israeli officials. I mean, let’s be clear that this is just the first of a series of reports that are going to come out. I mean, as I was saying, I was part of the mission that went into northern Israel. We would also hold Hezbollah officials accountable. But, I mean, this is the challenge of international humanitarian law, is how is it enforced? How do you hold people accountable?

But, yes, I mean, if Israeli officials who are responsible for war crimes are in the United States or are in Europe, they can be arrested and held accountable. Look what happened with Pinochet, for example. This is more and more a tool that’s being used to try to enforce international humanitarian law, by holding those individuals who are responsible accountable for those offenses. And that would go both for Hezbollah and for Israeli officials.

AMY GOODMAN: And Israel’s charge that Hezbollah used people as human shields, that they embedded themselves in the civilian population so that everyone was a target?

MARTY ROSENBLUTH: Well, if it were true — and again, we’re still working on documenting that. And I’m not saying it didn’t happen. Let’s be really clear on that. We’re still trying to investigate the extent to which Hezbollah did use civilians as human shields. And if this was true, it would, in fact, be a war crime. But that does not remove from Israel the responsibility to protect civilians. It can’t be used as a blanket excuse. So if Israel says, well, there was one Hezbollah fighter in a building, that does not give them the right to level the entire neighborhood to try to target that one fighter. Again, the principle of proportionality, where you have to balance the military objective against the effect on civilians, comes into play. So, I mean, the Israelis essentially have used the argument that Hezbollah is shielding amongst a civilian population to — in the south, to level entire villages, you know, destroying about 80%, in some cases, of the houses in the village. That’s not a legitimate interpretation of the laws of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Marty Rosenbluth, I want to thank you for being with us, of Amnesty International-USA, specialist for Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Authority. Thanks for joining us.

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