July 27, 2006
Dr. Condoleeza Rice
Department of State
2201 C St. NW
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Secretary Rice,
We understand that you plan to visit Israel in the coming days to address current fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and between Israel and Palestinian armed factions in Gaza. You have recently spoken out on the need for all parties to these conflicts to protect civilians and do their utmost to shield them from harm. Nevertheless, civilians – Lebanese, Israelis, and Palestinians – have been the primary victims.
Human Rights Watch shares that concern. We have condemned — as serious violations of
international humanitarian law and probable war crimes – the indiscriminate Hezbollah rocket attacks against civilian-populated areas in Israel, including the major city of Haifa, as well as pointing out that Hezbollah’s use of Israeli soldiers as hostages is a war crime. To that end, we are communicating our concerns to the governments of Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s principal allies, to urge them to use their influence to persuade Hezbollah to conduct itself in a matter that complies with international humanitarian law.
At the same time, the close and extensive military relationship between the United States and Israel gives the United States a special responsibility to raise civilian protection issues with Israeli leaders with regard to the Israeli military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza, and to ensure that U.S.-supplied weapons are not used in attacks that violate international humanitarian law. The United States’ commitment to fighting terrorism in the region also strongly argues for raising these concerns with Israel, since that fight is undermined if a close U.S. ally launches attacks that fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians.
In your meetings with Israeli officials, we urge you to raise four related concerns: (1) the high proportion of civilian casualties in Israel’s attacks to date, (2) extensive, continuing attacks on infrastructure essential to the civilian population; (3) the imperative of providing safe passage to civilians seeking to flee the fighting; and (4) safe access for relief convoys into and out of areas affected by the fighting.
In a statement on July 16, you urged the government of Israel to “be mindful of, and restrained in, its operations so that the innocent civilians do not suffer,” and expressed “great concern about damage to civilian infrastructure.” Nevertheless, in Lebanon, after just over one week of fighting, Israeli air and
artillery strikes have killed more than 300 Lebanese, the vast majority of them civilians, and wounded more than 1,000. Since the crisis escalated in Gaza in late June, some 100 Palestinians have been killed, a great many of them civilians rather than armed militants. In both Lebanon and Gaza, Israel’s intentional destruction of key infrastructure—roads, bridges, power-generating facilities, the main airport, and so on – has been extensive and crippling to many aspects of civilian life.
We urge you to inquire about the following incidents in particular:
It is important to know what facts and assumptions led Israel to undertake these attacks, what weight was given to the possibility that the targets were civilians fleeing to safety, and whether an investigation has been launched to prevent a repetition of such loss of civilian life.
We also urge you to inquire about Israel’s repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Israeli military attacks in the Gaza Strip, and particularly the escalation of attacks following the June 25 capture by Gaza-based Palestinian militants of an Israeli soldier, have also contributed directly to a significant and growing humanitarian crisis there.
In addition, we urge you to discuss with Israel its failure to date to allow civilians the opportunity safely to flee from fighting in Southern Lebanon. Israel has warned the 300,000 Lebanese civilians south of the Litani River to evacuate their villages within twenty-four hours. However, its repeated bombardment of the roads in the area, some of which have resulted in the deaths of fleeing civilians, as well as its statement that those traveling in vans or trucks will be “suspected of transporting weapons and rockets” and become “a potential target,” has made many civilians afraid to travel. Israel should be reminded that warning civilians to evacuate an area does not absolve it of the duty to avoid attacks likely to cause indiscriminate or disproportionate loss of life to the civilians who are attempting to flee or those who remain in their villages because they are unable or are afraid to travel.
Finally, Israel must allow relief convoys safe entry into and passage inside Lebanon, and take all feasible precautions to avoid attacking them. Reports from humanitarian organizations and Lebanese government officials indicate that Lebanese border towns are already facing serious shortages of food and medicine, and are in urgent need of supplies.
To date, Israeli air strikes have hit civilian trucks, including those carrying sugar, flour and rice. In one incident on July 17, Israeli missiles struck a convoy of trucks from the United Arab Emirates near the town of Zahleh as it approached Beirut from Syria, damaging or destroying three of the trucks, as well as four passenger vehicles.
Respected international humanitarian organizations have been unable to negotiate with Israeli military authorities the safe passage of their relief convoys to the South. Israel has refused to ensure the safety of even clearly marked civilian aid vehicles, and has insisted that it may target any moving vehicle, particularly trucks, on any roads south of the Litani River. As a result, no one is currently able to deliver relief supplies or medical assistance to the Southern Lebanese villages.
Secretary Rice, your visit provides an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that it is serious about protecting civilians in this war by addressing potential violations of international humanitarian law by this country’s allies. As a State Party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the United States undertook “to respect and ensure respect for” those Conventions, including the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian
Persons in Time of War.
We urge you to request that Israel immediately re-examine its military practices to ensure that they strictly comply with the requirements of international humanitarian law, undertake credible independent investigations into violations that may have occurred, and hold accountable any individuals found to be responsible for serious violations. Finally, we urge you to seek public assurances that Israel will not use U.S.-supplied weapons in attacks that violate international humanitarian law standards and to make clear that further provision of and funding for such weapons will be contingent on those assurances.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East and North Africa division