The Attack on Human Rights Watch

Kenneth Roth
Kenneth Roth; drawing by David Levine

On August 3—three weeks after a Lebanese Hezbollah raid into Israel set off a war that lasted until August 14—Human Rights Watch published a report, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” that inspired a series of vitriolic attacks on the organization’s credibility. According to some of the critics, the organization’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, is biased against Israel and an anti-Semite. Unfortunately, the criticisms are based on misunderstandings and distortions of international humanitarian law. They contribute to an atmosphere that makes rational discussion in the United States of Israel’s policies and practices increasingly difficult.

One of the cases discussed in Human Rights Watch’s report was the killing of twenty-one civilians fleeing the border village of Marwahin:

On July 15, an Israeli strike on a convoy of civilians fleeing from the Lebanese border village of Marwahin killed twenty-one people, including fourteen children. Many villagers fled after the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] warned them to evacuate ahead of the threatened attack. In addition, a relative of one of the victims said, Hezbollah had stored weapons in the village, and the residents feared a retaliatory IDF attack. The villagers of Marwahin are Sunni and have long-standing tensions with the Shi’a Hezbollah organization….

At 11 a.m. a group of villagers left Marwahin in a convoy of vehicles, on the single main road out of the village. On the way, between the villages of Chamaa and Biyada, two weapons believed to have been fired from Israeli helicopters struck a white pick-up and a passenger car in the convoy. A photographer for an international news agency arrived at the scene two hours after the attack. He told Human Rights Watch that he found a white pick-up truck and a passenger car completely destroyed, and counted sixteen bodies at the scene, including many children. He did not see any armed persons among the bodies. UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] retrieved sixteen bodies from the scene, and stated that their medical teams came under fire during the rescue operation. A total of twenty-one people died during the attack, based on a list of names provided to Human Rights Watch by the relatives, and on the number of bodies ultimately received at the Tyre Government hospital.

The report that describes this episode and others that involved the killing of 153 civilians—more than one third of those reported killed in Lebanon during the first two weeks of the war—points out that international humanitarian law (IHL), or the law of war, imposes a duty to distinguish between combatants and civilians.1 It is only permissible to target combatants. IHL prohibits indiscriminate attacks, and such attacks include those that employ a means of combat (generally, the kinds of weapons that are used) or a method (the way such weapons are used) that is, by its nature, likely to injure or kill civilians or civilians and combatants…

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