Civilians in Danger
The Location of Temporary and Permanent Military Installations Close to Arab Communities during the Second Lebanon War
11 December, 2007, Report Sumary
During the war between Israel and Hizbullah in the summer of 2006, a total of 1,191 Lebanese civilians were killed and over 4,400 were wounded. On the Israeli side, 44 Israeli civilians were killed and 4,262 were injured. The high number of casualties and injuries raised concerns that both the Israelis and the Lebanese had failed to respect international humanitarian law during the war. A fundamental principle of international humanitarian law is that civilians must be afforded maximum protection. Concern was voiced that the violation of international humanitarian law may explain the particularly high number of civilian fatalities and injuries.
During and after the war, international organizations such as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International undertook detailed investigations regarding the extent to which each of the parties to the conflict observed the provisions and rules of international humanitarian law, particularly those intended to provide protection for civilians. These investigations focused on a number of claims. One claim was that Hizbullah fired rockets at northern Israel without distinguishing between civilian and military targets. The second claim was that Israel attacked southern Lebanon, through aerial sorties and intensive artillery fire, again without distinguishing between civilians and combatants. A third claim is that Hizbullah itself bears responsibility for the large number of Lebanese civilians who were killed and injured, since it acted against Israel from within the civilian population, seeking to use the population as a human shield against Israeli attacks. All the reports relating to the war established unequivocally that both sides violated international humanitarian law.
This report focuses on one claim – one that was also raised during the war, particularly by Arab public figures in Israel, but which has not been the subject of detailed attention. This claim is that military installations were positioned by the Israeli army in proximity to Arab civilian locales. The report is based on the testimonies of 80 Arab residents interviewed by the HRA, documenting 20 Arab communities that were hit by an estimated total of some 660 rockets, killing 14 civilians directly.
Military Installations Close to Arab Communities
On the basis of the investigation undertaken by the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA), it emerges that temporary military installations from which missiles were fired into Lebanon during the war were indeed positioned in very close proximity to the Arab locales that suffered the gravest attacks during the war. This is in addition to permanent military installations in existence prior to the war. In some cases, the military installations were established inside the Arab locales. It is reasonable to assume that these installations were targets for Hizbullah rocket attacks; that their placement in the locale exposed Arab civilians to a grave risk that rockets would strike their locales; and that this risk indeed materialized in practice. Equally, the investigation found that Arab locales that were not surrounded by military installations were not damaged during the war, or were damaged to a lesser extent, despite their proximity to the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The investigation found that the Arab towns and villages that suffered the most intensive attacks during the war were ones that were surrounded by military installations, either on a permanent basis or temporarily during the course of the war. These installations are located at a distance of just 0.5 – 2 kilometers by air from the civilian community; in some cases, the installations are located inside the town or village. Such short distances are within the margin of error of the rockets fired by Hizbullah. During the war, artillery fire was launched at Lebanon from many of these installations, and particularly from the temporary installations.
The investigation also found that communities that were not surrounded by military installations, including villages close to Israel’s northern border, were not hit by rockets, or suffered a lesser degree of damage. Conversely, communities that were surrounded by military installations were hit by rockets, even when these communities were further removed from the Israeli-Lebanese border.
During the war, Hizbullah declared on several occasions that it was targeting its rockets primarily at military installations inside Israel. Given the findings of the investigation undertaken by the HRA, there is no reason to doubt that the Arab towns and villages were hit due to their proximity to the adjacent military installations. At the very least, it may be assumed that the fact that Israel located certain military installations in or close to Arab civilian centers significantly increased the danger to which the residents of these communities were exposed; in some cases, this danger may have been realized in practice.
The two fundamental principles of international humanitarian law (both treaty-based and customary) are the principle of civilian immunity and the principle of distinction. These two principles, which effectively constitute the converse sides of the same coin, impose on the parties to the war or armed conflict an obligation to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military targets and civilian objects, and to direct their bellicose actions solely at the former category in each case. Iinternational humanitarian law also imposes obligations on a party to a war or conflict regarding the civilian population under its control. Article 58 of Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, entitled “Precautions against the effects of attacks,” states “The Parties to the conflict shall, to the maximum extent feasible:… (b) Avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.”
By locating military installations in or close to civilian centers, Israel violated the specific obligation imposed by international humanitarian law to refrain from locating military installations within or close to civilian centers. This violation applies even if there was no intention to use the civilian centers as human shields.
Protecting the Safety of the Arab Citizens
Article 58 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions states in sub-section (a), that the parties to a conflict “Without prejudice to Article 49 of the Fourth Convention, endeavour to remove the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control from the vicinity of military objectives.” In sub-section (c) the article states that the parties to a conflict “Take the other necessary precautions to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control against the dangers resulting from military operations.”
According to the testimonies collected by the HRA, and on the basis of information gathered regarding the steps taken by the government to protect citizens, it emerges that the government failed abjectly in all aspects relating to the protection of civilians during the war and failed to take important and substantive precautionary steps to limit the damage to the civilian population. This failure was particularly acute in the case of the Arab communities, which have suffered ongoing and gross neglect with regard to all civilian infrastructures.
The state failed to meet the basic obligations it bears in accordance with international humanitarian law relating to the protection of the civilian population. It did not evacuate the residents under its control from endangered areas and it failed to protect civilian communities exposed to rocket attacks. The obligation to ensure the safety of civilians is particularly pronounced in the case of the Arab citizens and communities, since the army located temporary and permanent military installations close to these communities, thus endangering through its own actions the residents in these areas.
The HRA investigation found also that not only did the government not present any such request or demand to the residents or the local authorities to evacuate the residents, but it actually asked them to remain in their homes despite the numerous rockets that fell in these communities. One resident of Tarshiha, who holds a position in the local council, told the HRA that no demand was received from the government to evacuate the residents from their homes. In fact, the government warned them “not to leave their homes.”
According to media reports, a further round of conflict between Israel and Hizbullah, probably with the participation of Syria and Iran, is a highly possible scenario in the future. A new war involving various parties in the region could erupt at any time. With this in mind, the HRA emphasizes that in any future conflict the State of Israel must respect international humanitarian law, both treaty-based and customary. The HRA urges the Israeli government to take the following steps, among others:
To remove all permanent military bases situated in the vicinity of civilian centers since, in accordance with international humanitarian law, such bases constitute legitimate targets for attack and, accordingly, their proximity to civilian centers may endanger the civilian population.
To refrain from locating temporary installations during periods of conflict in close proximity to civilian centers or inside such centers, in order to avoid endangering the civilian population by making such installations legitimate military targets for attack.
To take immediately all steps necessary, including the allocation of appropriate resources, in order to protect Arab towns and villages, which have suffered extensive neglect, from future missile attacks, including by building public bomb shelters and providing appropriate civil defense and warning systems.
To prepare in advance emergency plans for the evacuation of the civilian population in a future conflict, and to ensure that the residents are housed in a safe location outside the range of fire and attacks by the other side.
Furthermore, the HRA urges the international community to respond firmly to the violation of international humanitarian law committed by Israel. As a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and the Ancillary Protocols thereto, Israel is liable for the full implementation thereof. Accordingly, we implore the international community to oblige Israel to use all possible tools at its disposal in order to halt existing violations, and to attempt to prevent future violations in any future conflict. In particular, Israel should be required to refrain from locating permanent and temporary military installations in or close to civilian centers.