Rights Group Accuses Israel of Lebanon War Crimes
Sunday January 9 10:53 AM ET
By Paul Holmes
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli human rights group accused Israel on Sunday of rights violations that "constitute war crimes" in its occupation zone in south Lebanon.
The B'Tselem group report was published as Prime Minister Ehud Barak presses plans to pull his troops out of the occupation zone by July, a move that would end an Israeli presence in Lebanon stretching back more than two decades.
It drew a sharp response from the Israeli defense ministry, which issued a 10-point statement that said the report was "full of inaccuracies, half-truths and one-sided claims" that echoed propaganda from Lebanese groups hostile to Israel.
The 67-page report said Israel "flagrantly and continuously violates fundamental human rights of Lebanese civilians" either directly through its own armed forces or indirectly through its South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia allies.
Among alleged violations it cataloged were:
-- the extra-judicial detention and torture of Lebanese by the SLA at the militia's notorious Khiam jail -- the abduction of Lebanese and their imprisonment without trial in Israel where they are held as "bargaining chips" for information on the fate of missing Israeli soldiers
-- the expulsion of residents from the zone by the SLA and its practice of forcible conscription, including of minors
-- indiscriminate firing in violation of the rules of war and the use by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of weapons such as phosphorous shells and flechette shells that fire thousands of darts in circumstances that have killed and wounded civilians Violations Are "War Crimes"
"These violations, whether committed directly by Israel or indirectly through the SLA, constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law," the B'Tselem report said.
It noted that the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague had held Yugoslavia legally responsible for atrocities against civilians committed by Serb militia during the war in Bosnia even in the absence of direct orders.
"Employing the court's criteria to the relations between Israel and the SLA leads to a similar conclusion," the said.
Israel set up its present 15-km (nine-mile) deep zone in 1985 as a security buffer against potential guerrilla attacks on its northern communities.
Israeli troops there and the SLA -- which is armed, financed and trained by Israel -- are engaged in a war of attrition with the Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah (Party of God) and other guerrilla groups fighting to end the occupation.
The defense ministry restated Israel's official position that it is not an occupying power in south Lebanon and that Khiam jail is solely the responsibility of the SLA.
It also argued that Israel was present in south Lebanon to defend its citizens from "the threat of terror...on the basis of its right to self-defense defined in international law."
Report Says Both Sides Violate Laws Of War
B'Tselem said Hizbollah, Amal and other militias fighting against Israel also violated the laws of war and the human rights of civilians in Israel and South Lebanon.
But it said the prime purpose of its report was to highlight Israeli abuses, show that the SLA was subordinate to Israel and that Israel was consequently liable for SLA actions and demonstrate that Israel was an occupying power in the zone.
Barak hopes peace talks that are now under way with Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, will lead to an agreement that will allow him to withdraw from the zone.
B'Tselem said the long-running domestic debate over the military presence in Lebanon had focused primarily on the risk to soldiers' lives and the security of northern residents, ignoring almost completely the suffering of Lebanese civilians.
"Human rights of Lebanese civilians, even recognition that Israel maintains a violent and prolonged occupation, are not part of the collective Israeli consciousness," it said.
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