- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

Israel yesterday moved to counter international criticism of its campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon during a growing debate over whether the two sides are guilty of war crimes in a conflict in which the overwhelming majority of casualties have been Lebanese civilians.

Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, will tour European capitals this week to defend Israel’s conduct of the war, now entering its 14th day.

Many U.S. allies have been far more critical than the Bush administration of Israel’s response to the killing of eight of its soldiers and the capture of two more in a July 12 cross-border Hezbollah raid.

The war crimes debate received fresh attention as two senior U.N. officials — High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and relief coordinator Jan Egeland — raised pointed questions over whether the conduct of the war by Israel and Hezbollah constituted war crimes.

Mrs. Arbour on Friday condemned the “indiscriminate shelling of cities” by both sides in the fighting. Mr. Egeland, during a weekend tour of Beirut, said the “excessive” bombing of civilian neighborhoods by Israeli jets “makes it a violation of humanitarian law.”

Israel argues that Hezbollah fighters and weaponry have been deliberately placed in civilian areas, while such actions as the bombing of Lebanon’s airport and the blockade of its ports had the legitimate military objective of stopping Hezbollah from rearming.

Hezbollah, an Islamist movement that operates largely outside the control of the Lebanese government, has made almost no attempt to defend its shelling of Israeli cities as justified under internationally respected rules of warfare and humanitarian law.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in the early days of the conflict, “When the Zionists behave like there are no rules and no red lines and no limits to the confrontation, it is our right to behave in the same way.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Katyusha rockets Hezbollah has fired into Israel are so inaccurate and unreliable that their very use in a populated area like northern Israel “is a blatant violation of international humanitarian law.”

As a practical matter, it is unlikely Israeli government officials or military officers could be hauled before an international tribunal over their actions during the conflict.

Israel is a party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and says it is bound by Article 3 governing rules of warfare with a non-state actor such as Hezbollah. But Israel has refused to join the Rome-based International Criminal Court and Washington is considered certain to veto any move to establish an ad hoc tribunal along the lines of the courts set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavian state.

Israel argues that its incursion into Lebanon is consistent with international law, has not targeted purely civilian sites and, critically, is “proportionate” to the threat posed to its security by Hezbollah and the weak Lebanese central government.

The idea of proportionality is central to judging Israel’s actions, according to legal scholars.

Northwestern University law professor Anthony D’Amato, a former defense lawyer for war-crimes suspects, said the strength of Israel’s legal position has deteriorated as the bombing campaign has ground on.

While its initial response was justified, “Israel appears to be continuing its bombing campaign out of a sense of frustration, bitterness at the failure of the bombs to slow down Hezbollah’s rocket launchings, and perhaps a homegrown political need” by the Olmert government to show its resolve, he said.

But Gidon Remba, president of Chicago Peace Now, a pro-Israeli group, said Israel’s actions should be measured against the potential military and strategic gain — disarming and driving Hezbollah from its border, strengthening Lebanon’s legitimate government, and blunting efforts by Iran and Syria to cause future trouble in Lebanon and Gaza.

“It is a categorical mistake to simply count the number of civilian Lebanese casualties and then ask: ‘Is this too many in relation to whether Israel can destroy Hezbollah?’ ” he said.

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