By Joel Greenberg
On July 25, 1993, Israel launched a massive retaliatory strike against Shiite Muslim guerrillas who had rocketed northern Israeli towns and killed seven Israeli soldiers in a month in the Israeli occupation zone in southern Lebanon.
Operation Accountability began with wide-ranging air strikes across Lebanon and ended six days later with an American-brokered cease-fire. Intensive Israeli air and artillery bombardments forced hundreds of thousands of civilians in southern Lebanon out of their towns and villages.
Israel’s openly declared aim was to stop attacks by the Iranian-backed Hizbollah group through the massive displacement of Lebanese civilians. The plight of the refugees streaming north toward Beirut, it was hoped, would compel the Lebanese government and its patron, Syria, to rein in Hizbollah.
Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, put it this way: “The goal of the operation is to get the southern Lebanese population to move northward, hoping that this will tell the Lebanese government something about the refugees who may get as far north as Beirut.”
After issuing warnings, Israel proceeded to attack the hearts of villages, causing civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch said the Israeli Army also executed “what appear to have been calculated direct attacks on purely civilian targets.”
The direct targeting of civilians is a breach of the laws of armed conflict. “The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited,” states Additional Protocol I of 1977. Israel has not ratified Protocol I, but this provision, prohibiting direct attacks on civilians, is generally recognized as customary law, universally applicable regardless of ratification.
Nearly three years later, on April 11, 1996, Israel unleashed a similar offensive against Hizbollah, which led to another mass exodus of civilians in southern Lebanon. Operation Grapes of Wrath began with surgical air strikes and ended seventeen days later after an Israeli artillery barrage killed more than one hundred Lebanese refugees sheltering in a United Nations base.
As the bombardment by Israeli warplanes, gunships, and artillery spread northward, some 400,000 people fled their villages and towns, urged on by radio broadcasts and leaflets that warned them to leave or risk being hit. Amnesty International said that the language of the warnings was intended to threaten civilians, some of whom could not leave because they were too old or too sick to leave, or lacked transport, while others chose to remain to safeguard their property.
A warning broadcast on April 11 over the Voice of the South radio station of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia said: “If Hizbollah men happen to be near anybody’s house, it will be hit.” An April 13 message to residents of 45 villages warned that “any presence in these villages will be regarded as subversive; that is, the subversive elements and whoever happens to be with them will be hit.”
The warnings seemed to suggest that the civilians and civilian objects were being targeted as punishment for their association with Hizbollah, rather than being destroyed incident to a legitimate attack on Hizbollah. Whether this or the other possible interpretation—that Israeli authorities were simply cautioning they would hit Hizbollah targets and anyone in the way might well become regrettable civilian collateral damage—the warnings carried an echo of the American free fire zone doctrine in Vietnam.
Israeli public statements were more circumspect. When civilians stayed behind in Nabatiyeh al-Fowqa, and were killed in fighter-bomber rocket attacks, Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared: “We only hit at those buildings from which Katyushas were fired… But naturally Nabatiyeh was supposed to be vacant.”
Brig. Gen. Giora Inbar, the commander of the Israeli army’s liaison unit in southern Lebanon, indicated that the population displacement was not for military advantage but to send a political message: “The residents of southern Lebanon are under pressure… If they understand that the address for peace and quiet is the government of Lebanon, which will impose its authority on Hizbollah, then this pressure is worthwhile.”
More bluntly, an Israeli colonel, identified only as “Z”, told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that if Lebanese leaders “cared about the 400,000 refugees from the south, they would have acted to stop the fighting, but it seems that until thousands of refugees don’t leave [the city of] Sidon for Beirut, they won’t care.”
And The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed official as saying: “Even if you tie me up and whip me, I’m not going to admit on-the-record that our policy is to force out civilians to put pressure on the Lebanese government. But let’s just say we hope Lebanon understands the message.”
Displacement of civilians is permitted under the laws of war if it is for their own protection or required for imperative military reasons. In this instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) publicly criticized the attacks as “contrary to international humanitarian law.” The ICRC said its rationale drew from the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions and Protocol I, Articles 51, 52, and 57, which prohibit: acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population; attacks which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians; damage to civilian objects or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated; and attacks by bombardment by any methods or means which treat as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects.
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