Al-Jazeera.net – 31 December 2007
The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) has accused the Israeli military of committing a war crime by placing military hardware, including artillery positions, inside Arab towns and villages during the war with Lebanon in July 2006.
The Nazareth-based association last week published a report claiming Arab communities were used as “human shields” by the Israeli military.
The association argues that the danger this posed to the Arab population was far from “theoretical”: Arab communities hit by Hezbollah’s retaliatory rockets were overwhelmingly those in which the Israeli army maintained a presence.
A total of 21 Arab Israeli citizens were killed in these strikes.
The report said: “The study 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.”
The findings seem to support widespread complaints earlier voiced by Israel’s Arab legislators that their communities were used to deter the Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah, from targeting Israeli military positions.
At the time the claims were dismissed by Israeli officials.
‘Civilians in danger’
Hostilities between Israel and Lebanon erupted on July 12, 2006 when Hezbollah attacked an Israeli border post, killing three soldiers and capturing two. In response Israel launched a wave of air strikes and a more limited ground invasion.
In addition to 119 Israeli soldiers who died in these operations, the barrage of rockets fired by Hezbollah into northern Israel killed 44 civilians and injured hundreds more. The Shia militia was widely condemned for these attacks.
Hezbollah fired some 660 rockets at 20 Arab communities during the war, confounding expectations from Israeli officials and many observers that the militia would target only Jewish areas.
The main explanation until now has been that Hezbollah fired its rockets randomly into Israel, killing Jews and Arabs indiscriminately.
However, the HRA report, “Civilians in Danger”, says that Hezbollah may have targeted the permanent Israeli military bases, including army camps, airfields and weapons factories, located in or near Arab towns.
It also charged that the Israeli government failed to evacuate civilians from the area of fighting, leaving Arab citizens particularly in danger.
Almost no protective measures, such as building public shelters or installing air raid sirens, had been taken in Arab communities, whereas they had been in Jewish communities.
But an Israeli military spokesperson told Al Jazeera the report’s claims were unfounded and were designed to create a false representation of events which occurred during the fighting.
He said: “The consideration applied in selecting the location of the [army’s] installations was solely operational and did not reflect any other consideration.”
Tarek Ibrahim, a lawyer and the author of the HRA’s report, insists that Hezbollah’s rockets mostly targeted Arab communities where military installations had been located and in the main avoided those where no such military positions existed.
“Hezbollah claimed on several occasions that its rockets were aimed primarily at military targets in Israel. Our research cannot prove that to be the case but it does give a strong indication that Hezbollah’s claims may be true.”
Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets were not precision-guided but, according to the report, the short distances between Arab communities and Israeli military bases “are within the margin of error of the rockets fired by Hezbollah”.
In its recommendations, the Human Rights Association called for the removal of all Israeli military bases from civilian communities.
The report’s findings do not come entirely as a surprise. Several Arab politicians warned during the war that the 600,000 Arabs of the Galilee region were being used effectively as “human shields”.
In early August 2006, near the end of the war, the most prominent Arab figure, Azmi Bishara, told the Maariv newspaper: “What ordinary citizens are afraid to say, the Arab Knesset members are declaring loudly. Israel turned the Galilee and the Arab villages in particular into human shields by surrounding them with artillery positions and missile batteries.”
On a few occasions the Israeli media have also indirectly revealed the fact that military bases are located in Arab communities. A recent article in the daily Haaretz newspaper, for example, reported a fire in an armaments factory in Nazareth, the largest Arab community in Israel.
Ramez Jeraisi, the mayor of Nazareth, where two children were killed by Hezbollah rockets during the war, told Al Jazeera: “Nothing in this report is news to me. We all know there is a military base inside Nazareth … although it is in our city it is not under our jurisdiction so there is nothing we can do to get it moved.”
“If we turned to the courts, they would not help either. No one, especially not Arabs, is allowed to question Israel’s security needs.”
The HRA report avoided dealing with the wider issue of whether the Israeli army used Jewish communities in a similar manner during the war.
Ibrahim said: “In part the reason was that we are an Arab organisation and that directs the focus of our work. But there is also the difficulty that Israeli Jews are unlikely to cooperate with our research.”
Nonetheless, the report notes, there is evidence the army based itself in some Jewish communities too. One Hezbollah rocket strike close to the northern border hit Kfar Giladi, a rural cooperative community known as a kibbutz, killing 12 soldiers.
A member of the kibbutz, Uri Eshkoli, recently told the Israeli media: “We deserve a medal of honor for our assistance during the war. We opened our hotel to soldiers and asked for no compensation. Moreover, soldiers stayed in the kibbutz throughout the entire war.”
Amatzia Baram, a professor at Haifa University and regular media commentator during the war as the city came under Hezbollah rocket attack, told Al Jazeera: “Given the high concentration of army positions in the north, it would not surprise me to learn that the army used Arab villages for its bases.”
“If it did so, then of course that was a bad mistake. Next time there is a war, the army should be mindful of keeping its distance from civilian areas. However, in practice I am sure its locations made zero difference to where Hezbollah fired its rockets.”
The report faced several hurdles before publication. A stringent gagging order imposed by the government since the war and a requirement to submit security-related material to the military censor mean significant sections of the report had to be cut.
The report has received minimal coverage in the Hebrew media. Ibrahim said: “Few people inside Israel want to hear that their army and government broke international law in such a flagrant manner.”