In its harshest condemnation of Israel since last summer's war, Human Rights Watch on Thursday charged that most of the Lebanese civilian casualties came from "indiscriminate Israeli airstrikes."
The human rights organization said there was no basis to the Israeli claim that civilian casualties resulted from Hizbullah guerrillas using civilians as shields. Israel has said that it attacked civilian areas because Hizbullah set up rocket launchers in villages and towns.
Presenting the group's findings at a news conference, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said there were only "rare" cases of Hizbullah operating in civilian villages.
"To the contrary, once the war started, most Hizbullah military officials and even many political officials left the villages," He said. "And indeed what we found is that most Hizbullah military activity was conducted from prepared positions outside Lebanese villages in the hills and valleys around."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev rejected the report's findings. "Hizbullah adopted a deliberate strategy of shielding itself behind the civilian population and turning the civilians in Lebanon into a human shield," he said, charging that Hizbullah "broke the first fundamental rule of war in that they deliberately exploited the civilian population of Lebanon as a human shield."
The full report was being released at a news conference in Jerusalem on Thursday. Human Rights Watch had to cancel a similar news conference in Beirut last month because of threats of Hizbullah protests. That report accused Hizbullah of firing rockets indiscriminately at civilian areas in Israel.
Human Rights Watch said it investigated 94 cases of Israeli air, artillery and ground attacks "to discern the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 510 civilians and 51 combatants," about half the death toll in Lebanon in the conflict.
The group said simple movement of vehicles or people, "such as attempting to buy bread or moving around private homes," could trigger a deadly IDF attack. The group charged that IAF aircraft targeted vehicles carrying fleeing civilians.
Roth said that Hizbullah guerrillas did not wear uniforms, making it hard to pick them out from civilians, but that did not justify the IDF's failure to distinguish between them. He said the laws of war dictate "if in doubt to treat the person as a civilian."
The report said the investigation "refutes the argument made by Israeli officials that most of the Lebanese civilian casualties were due to Hizbullah routinely hiding among civilians." It said Hizbullah "did at times fire rockets from, and store weapons in, populated areas and deploy its forces among the civilian population."
However, the human rights group said it "found no evidence in these cases of separate legal violation of shielding, which is the deliberate use of civilians to render combatants immune from attack." Also, it said, Hizbullah conducted most of its activities and stored most of its weapons away from civilians.
Regev said there were "countless documented examples of civilian facilities being used for military purposes - missiles in houses, mosques and schools used for storing weapons."
The report found that Hizbullah used hilltop UN positions for shelling Israel, which it said might be shielding, but said that required further investigation.
Responding to the report, Prof Gerald Steinberg, executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor organization, said: "This latest attack on Israel's actions during the Second Lebanon War comes as no surprise. It follows a clear pattern by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has sought to create a moral equivalence between the deliberate targeting of civilians by a terrorist organization and the efforts of a democratic country to defend itself."
"Despite their own admission in this report that Hizbullah fired from the vicinity of UN outposts on an almost daily basis, HRW has defied logic in failing to condemn this systematic use of human shields," Steinberg added.
"Predictably, HRW also fails to take the opportunity in this report to demand the release of kidnapped servicemen Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who remain captive in Hizbullah's hands. To this day, they continue to be denied access to the outside world, in contravention of all human rights standards," he said.
Steinberg condemned HRW for its "serious shortcomings such as this which expose the moral bankruptcy of an organization which purports to uphold a truly universal standard of human rights."
Yaakov Lappin contributed to the report