By Julie Stahl Jerusalem Bureau Chief
August 23, 2006

A report by the human rights organization Amnesty International accuses Israel of possible war crimes for deliberately targeting civilian homes and infrastructure in Lebanon. The report, which hardly mentions Hizballah, borders on anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League said.

The report “Deliberate Destruction or Collateral Damage?” charges that Israel engaged in a deliberate policy of destroying Lebanese civilian infrastructure, including thousands of homes, numerous bridges, roads, and water and fuel storage plants.

The 20-page report focuses on what AI considers to be Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and only briefly mentions the more than ,4000 Hizballah rocket attacks on northern Israel that killed dozens of civilians, and forced more than a million Israelis to either flee their homes or live in bomb shelters or security rooms for more than a month. It says those concerns are addressed “elsewhere.”

The Israeli army openly stated that it was bombing Lebanese highways and bridges to prevent Syria and Iran from bringing more rockets and weapons to Hizballah – and to make it harder for Hizballah to move its mobile rocket launchers.

Israel also accused Hizballah of using the Lebanese civilians as human shields, hiding rockets in the homes of the local population, launching missiles from between the houses and then hiding among civilians.

The Israeli army dropped leaflets many times, warning of impending military actions and urging the civilian population of southern Lebanon to flee the area and to avoid contact with Hizballah.

“Israel’s actions in Lebanon were in accordance with recognized norms of behavior [during war] and in according with international law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in response to the report.

“Unlike Hizballah, Israel did not target the Lebanese civilian population…[and] tried to be as surgical as humanly possible in targeting the terror organization.

“The Lebanon infrastructure was only targeted when that infrastructure was exploited by the Hizballah war machine for its actions against Israel; therefore Israel’s [targeting] was in accordance with the rules of war,” Regev said by telephone.

“Israel’s assertion that the attacks on the infrastructure were lawful is manifestly wrong,” said Kate Gilmore, executive deputy secretary general of Amnesty International in a statement. “Many of the violations identified in our report are war crimes, including indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.”

The report is based on what AI called “first-hand information” gathered by AI research missions to Lebanon and Israel, including interviews with victims, United Nations officials, the Israeli army and Lebanese government and official statements and press reports.

AI called for the United Nations to launch a “comprehensive, independent and impartial inquiry” into alleged violations of international humanitarian law by both sides.

Dr. Aeyal Gross, an expert in international law from Tel Aviv University, said that while the number of civilian casualties and the amount of damage in Lebanon may raise questions about Israel’s military operation, the fact that AI didn’t release a report about Hizballah at the same time lessens its credibility.

There are two rules of war that apply: the rule of distinguishing between civilian and military targets; and the rule of proportionality, which says that the collateral damage to civilians when striking a military target must be proportional to the threat, said Gross.

If the civilians chose to be a part of the fighting then it is not really any longer a civilian target; but beyond that, there are definitely “gray areas,” he said.

“Given Hizballah’s violation of the rules” — they openly fired at Israeli civilians -“it is unfortunate that Amnesty did not issue a Hizballah report at the same time,” Gross said.

Dr. Ephraim Zuroff from the Simon Wiesenthal Center cautioned against applying the term “war crimes” to Israel’s behavior.

“Israel never purposely targets the civilian population,” said Zuroff. “If they’re in a situation where [civilians] facilitated the attacks, then the civilians stop being civilians.”

But Abraham Foxman, National Director of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, called the report bigoted, biased and borderline anti-Semitic.

“I see deliberate destruction of Israeli places and Israeli institutions,” said Foxman, who is currently touring devastated areas in northern Israel. While Israel did not deliberately strike civilian centers, said Foxman, Hizballah directly attacked civilians whether they were Israeli Jews or Israeli Arabs.

“They [AI] always rush to judgment in a biased manner,” said Foxman in a radio interview. “One would have hoped…they would start with the victim. They would come to Israel and do their study here first to see what violations of international law, what criminal activities, were taken on by the Hizballah, by the Arab side. That’s never happened,” he said.

“It is very sinister and it is also dangerous because a lot of good people believe in the goodwill, in the fairness of Amnesty International,” said Foxman.

Crediting AI with “some very good things” in the past, Foxman said that the group nevertheless, has an anti-Israel bias. “When it comes to Israel, it is bigoted, it is biased, it is prejudiced, and if it doesn’t border on anti-Semitism, it is anti-Semitism.”