Last summer, Lebanese-based Hezbollah commandos invaded Israel where they both killed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers, setting off a 34-day-long war. During that conflict, photographs of what were said to be Lebanese civilian victims were distributed around the world. But photographs of Hezbollah fighters, living or dead, were virtually impossible to find.
That’s because Hezbollah fighters wore no uniforms and hid among Lebanon’s civilian population. These illegal practices were not extensively reported. For Western journalists in Lebanon, distinguishing between combatants and civilians would have been difficult. Many did not try, choosing instead to report what they were told by Hezbollah spokesmen.
The truth began to emerge after a ceasefire was reached in mid-August. Upon completing an investigative mission to Lebanon, U.K. Foreign Office Minister Kim Howell told a parliamentary committee that Hezbollah had extensively hidden caches of arms and rockets in schools, mosques, apartment blocks, and homes.
“What I saw out there begs many questions about the way we try to define what constitutes a war crime,” Howell said. “Every time the Israelis responded [to a missile attack] and smashed a building down, every picture of a burnt child and every picture of a building that had housed people [where] there was now pancake on the ground was propaganda for Hezbollah.”
Similarly, James G. Zumwalt, a former U.S. Marine veteran, reported on a secret Hezbollah operation, mounted long before the conflict begun, in which scores of private Lebanese homes were converted into “mini-military sites … Hezbollah effectively prepared an unwitting Lebanese civilian flock as sacrificial lambs to be slaughtered in furtherance of its own war-fighting capabilities.”
Nevertheless, it has been Israel, rather than Hezbollah, that has been persistently accused of war crimes by such organizations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the U.N. Human Rights Council. Now, however, a study produced by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israeli think tank, is utilizing newly declassified military-intelligence materials, including aerial photographs, videotapes, and the testimony of Hezbollah detainees, in an attempt to prove once and for all Hezbollah egregiously violated the laws of war by targeting both Israeli and Lebanese civilians.
“This study,” writes Reuven Erlich, the Center’s director, “analyzes two central concepts of Hezbollah’s warfare. … The first is the broad use of the Lebanese civilian population as a living shield; the second, viewing the Israeli civilian population as the primary target for the enormous rocket arsenal Hezbollah built up over a period of years. Both acts are considered war crimes under international law.”
The report and its accompanying photos and videos show Hezbollah rocket launchers hidden in Lebanese villages, alongside schools, mosques, and hospitals; also rockets being launched from near U.N. outposts.
One Hezbollah detainee acknowledges on videotape that he transported missiles while carrying a white flag — used when Lebanese noncombatants wanted to signal Israelis that they were attempting to flee the battlefield. Other Hezbollah prisoners talked openly of using private homes both to store weapons and launch missiles.
Asked by the New York Times whether the Israeli report implies that Hezbollah should be seen as responsible for the deaths of Lebanese civilians, Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese Army general, replied: “Of course Hezbollah is responsible. But these people are ready to sacrifice their lives for Hezbollah.”
That raises two questions that apparently did not occur to the Times: 1) If a Lebanese civilian was not ready to sacrifice his life for Hezbollah, how would he safely communicate that to Hezbollah leaders? And 2) if a civilian voluntarily turns his home over to Hezbollah to be used for rocket launches, does his home not become a military target — even if he and his family remain in it?
Hezbollah last summer fired more than 4,000 rockets into northern Israel. Most were aimed at such predominately civilian areas as Haifa, a city where Jews, Muslims and Christians have long co-existed peacefully.
What’s the chance that this report will change perceptions — either of the public in general or of the organizations that reflexively criticize Israel while making no serious attempts to pressure its enemies to abide by the laws of war? I’d guess low to none.
Because of that, the likelihood is high that there will be many more Lebanese and Israeli civilian victims of Hezbollah in the future. As the report notes: “At the present time Hezbollah is rehabilitating the military infrastructure damaged during the war with no change in its basic policy of hiding within the civilian population.”
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.