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31 January 2008

Israel: Winograd Commission disregards Israeli war crimes

Amnesty International called a report published yesterday by the Winograd Commission on Israel’s conduct in the war with Hizbullah in July-August 2006 “deeply flawed.”

The organization said that the report failed to investigate a crucial aspect of the war -- the government policies and military strategies that failed to discriminate between the Lebanese civilian population and Hizbullah combatants and between civilian property and infrastructure and military targets.

“This was yet another missed opportunity to address the policies and decisions behind the grave violations of international humanitarian law -- including war crimes -- committed by Israeli forces,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“The indiscriminate killings of many Lebanese civilians not involved in the hostilities and the deliberate and wanton destruction of civilian properties and infrastructure on a massive scale were given no more than token consideration by the commission,” said Smart.

Though not vested with the powers of an official state commission of investigation, the Winograd Commission had the power to subpoena witnesses and recommend the prosecution of officials it found to have been responsible for wilful or negligent criminal conduct.

However, the Commission chose to limit its work to reviewing military strategy and political decisions, and made no serious attempt to investigate violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, committed by Israeli forces or to recommend measures for holding those responsible for such violations to account.  It recommends the development of mechanisms to ensure the effectiveness of fighting within the framework of international humanitarian law standards, immediate investigations by the army when there are concerns that international humanitarian law was violated and better preparedness for responding to humanitarian problems arising from military action. But it essentially brushed aside available evidence of serious violations of international law, claiming that interpretations of international humanitarian law are controversial, that it did not have the capacity to deal with the volume of data, that the alleged violations were already being investigated by other bodies, and that such allegations are used as propaganda against Israel -- whereas it did scrutinize military strategies and the conduct of certain operations in detail, including in cases which were already being investigated separately.

Based on its on-the-ground research and analysis of the conduct of hostilities in 2006, Amnesty International concluded that it was the Lebanese civilian population -- not Hizbullah combatants -- who paid the heaviest price of the Israeli army’s attacks. Of some 1,190 people killed, the vast majority were civilians not involved in the hostilities, among them hundreds of children. The overwhelming majority of homes, properties and infrastructure targeted in air strikes and artillery attacks were likewise civilian.

Other international human rights and humanitarian organizations and United Nations (UN) bodies that examined the situation reached the same conclusion. In its report of 10 November 2006 the UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that: “… a significant pattern of excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] against Lebanese civilians and civilian objects, failing to distinguish civilians from combatants and civilian objects from military targets”.  A separate investigation by four UN independent experts also reported in October 2006 that “Available information strongly indicates that, in many instances, Israel violated its legal obligations to distinguish between military and civilian objectives; to fully apply the principle of proportionality”.

In addition, the launching of hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs, containing an estimated four million cluster sub-munitions (bomblets), in the last few days of the war left a deadly legacy. This is continuing to cause casualties among the civilian population, humanitarian workers, and mine-clearance personnel who put their lives on the line -- literally -- to clear unexploded ordnance. 

"Although the Winograd Commission recommended that the army review its policies on the use of cluster bombs to ensure that the use of these weapons will not violate international humanitarian law and army discipline, it did not propose any concrete measures,” said Smart.

The Israeli government’s persistent refusal to hand over the cluster bombs strike data and the exact coordinates of the areas into which its forces fired the cluster bombs has made this already painstaking mine-clearance task more deadly and time consuming. To date, 40 people (27 civilians and 13 de-mining personnel) have been killed and 234 have been injured (200 civilians and 34 de-mining personnel) by unexploded ordnance and the United Nation Mine Action Coordination Centre (UN-MACC) has identified more then 900 sites contaminated by unexploded but still lethal remnants of cluster bombs and other ordnance launched by Israeli forces into South Lebanon.

Amnesty International called on the Israeli government to:

  • Provide to the UN-MACC the cluster bombs strike data and the exact coordinates of the areas into which its forces fired cluster bombs. 
  • Establish an independent and impartial investigation into evidence indicating that its forces committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the conflict, including war crimes, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. 
  • Revise its interpretation of the rules and principles relating to the concepts of military objective, military advantage and proportionality, to ensure that its interpretation is fully consistent with international humanitarian law, and that the Israeli military complies fully with the duty to take precautionary measures when carrying out attacks, as well as in defence, and does not carry out attacks as a form of collective punishment. 
  • Announce a moratorium on the use of all cluster weapons and, in any event, ensure that such weapons are never again used in civilian areas under any circumstances.

The organization also called on Hizbullah, whose forces also committed war crimes during the 2006 conflict, to:

  • Renounce its unlawful policy of reprisal rocket attacks against the civilian population of Israel and ensure that its fighters comply fully with the need to take precautionary measures in attacks and in defence, including the need to distinguish themselves from non-combatants to the maximum extent possible. 
  • Ensure that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbullah fighters on 12 July 2006, are treated humanely at all times and are allowed immediate access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
AI Index: PRE01/032/2008
Region Middle East And North Africa
Country Lebanon
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