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Bouckaert: Both Israel and Hezbollah Committing 'War Crimes'

Interviewee: Peter N. Bouckaert
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 7, 2006

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Peter N. Bouckaert, a senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch who has been traveling in Lebanon and Syria, says that both Hezbollah and Israel have been committing 'war crimes' by their strikes against civilians on either side of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Bouckaert said in the Israel-Hezbollah clash there is "a sense of self-righteousness on both sides of the conflict, and a willingness to look away from abuses committed on both sides of the conflict." But he adds: "We are talking about a different mentality. I mean, it's perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians." He says Human Rights Watch does not accuse the Israeli army of trying to kill civilians but of "not taking the necessary precautions to distinguish between civilian and military targets."

Why has the Lebanese government seemed so close to Hezbollah lately, even though the government had nothing to do with the start of the conflict with Israel?

To a large extent, the Israeli offensive has consolidated the relationship between the government and Hezbollah because of the heavy civilian casualties. It's very unlikely that we will see the government moving away from Hezbollah and taking an independent position and joining an international effort to demilitarize southern Lebanon and create those Hezbollah-free zones. And it's very unlikely that Hezbollah itself will agree to any such step because its backers in Iran won't agree to it.

Did you spend much time with the Hezbollah people in the south?

When we went to visit some of the villages in the south, we certainly saw Hezbollah persons on some of the roads and near some of the villages, and they are a very well-organized guerilla group. I've worked in three countries with civil wars and guerrilla forces on the ground, and Hezbollah comes across as very impressive. They have very good communications, and they seem very disciplined and well-trained. So Israel faces a real threat on the ground from a very well-motivated and well-trained force in Lebanon. That was also the impression of the experienced journalists that I worked alongside.

And of course the new UN resolution allows Israel to keep its forces on the ground until there is an international force, and I take it you are very dubious that Lebanon can agree to this.

Well, there are more than two parties to this conflict. It's not between Israel and Lebanon. The fighting taking place is between Israel and Hezbollah, with Lebanon being increasingly drawn in because some of its infrastructure has been destroyed. It's very difficult to see a UN resolution which allows Israel to stay on the ground leading to a suspension of Hezbollah activity in the south. And as we have seen in Iraq, the occupation force that Israel would have in the south would be very vulnerable to guerrilla attack, to attacks from insurgents. Basically, what would happen would not be a palatable outcome for the Israelis, obviously.

And this only seems to increase the Israeli determination to not appear weak, so that will only increase the fighting, I suppose.

I think Israel seriously miscalculated in going into Lebanon with this all-out offensive. First of all, they thought they would be able to deal Hezbollah a mortal blow from the air. That certainly hasn't been the case. If you look at guerilla wars around the world, it's almost impossible to deal a guerrilla force a mortal blow from the air. I mean, go back to Vietnam with all the aerial bombardment that was tried there—it didn't have a real impact on the Viet Cong.

Air power works very efficiently when you are dealing with an enemy like Saddam Hussein with a small army, tanks, and other targets you can hit, or the Serbian military, but it doesn't work very well against guerrilla forces. Rather than hitting Hezbollah hard, Israel hit a civilian population hard, and many, many people were killed. Now, the second option is to go in on the ground with ground forces, and they are taking very heavy casualties by doing this. And they have not impacted significantly on Hezbollah's ability to fire rockets into Israel, and to continue fighting. So Israel is faced with a real dilemma: how to end this war and appear victorious? Not to stop would mean a long period of continued fighting with an uncertain outcome, and with significant casualties—military casualties on Israel's side, Hezbollah casualties, but also heavy civilian casualties.

Has Human Rights Watch tried to urge Hezbollah to stop its attacks on obviously largely civilian targets in Israel? Human Rights Watch is very critical of the Israeli air attacks on Lebanon. What about from the Hezbollah side?

I think the record is there. If you go to our web site, our first statement denounced Hezbollah for indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel and said it was a crime. One of the problems we face is the Israelis and those who are generally supportive of Israel have not looked at our work on Hezbollah and our criticism of Hezbollah. And the same goes for the Arab world. We have been very objective in our coverage of this conflict. We don't just cover abuses on one side. We have people inside Israel, we have people inside Lebanon, and we have people inside Gaza.

The whole point, the whole general thrust of our work, is that outsiders need to stop pursuing policies which have such a heavy impact on the civilian population, and that no side should use abuses committed by the other party as an excuse for their own abuses. But so often we get frustrated either at the pro-Arab organizations or the other side. And I find it very interesting that so few people look at our work in a kind of broader context, as an impartial record of what is happening in the conflict, rather than just how our work affects their side.

It's interesting that you say you are accused by the Arab side of being partial toward Israel. And of course, as you know, many Israelis have been critical of Human Rights Watch for its reporting on the bombing. So I guess perhaps you win by being attacked by both sides.

Because of our objectivity we end up making everybody angry with our reporting because we do have to deal with a sense of self-righteousness on both sides of the conflict, and a willingness to look away from abuses committed on both sides of the conflict. And we are talking about a different mentality. I mean, it's perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don't accuse the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians. Our accusation, clearly stated in the [latest HRW] report, is that the Israeli army is not taking the necessary precautions to distinguish between civilian and military targets. So, there is a difference in intent between the two sides. At the same time, they are both violating the Geneva Convention.

You're in Damascus now. Do you expect Syria to get involved in this?

The whole region is involved in what is happening in Lebanon, and it's impossible to divorce developments in Gaza from what's happening in Lebanon, and that's why it's so important that we do look at these issues in a regional sense. You see Hezbollah flags everywhere in Damascus these days, and there's a lot of posters of [Hassan] Nasrallah up. We have written to the Iranian and Syrian governments to ask them to use their influence over Hezbollah to stop some of these abuses. In our letters we clearly state what kind of influence we think they have.

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