Israel in Lebanon
The Report of the International
Commission to enquire into reported
violations of International Law by
Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon
The international law of war has long contained express provisions on the protection of civilian objects. As mentioned earlier when discussing the rules on ‘military necessity’, the Hague Convention IV of 1907 ‘especially’ forbids the destruction of property ‘unless imperatively demanded by the necessities of war’ (Art. 23(g)). Article 25 prohibits the attack or bombardment of undefended ‘towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings’. Article 27 provides:
‘In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.’
Hague Convention IX on Naval Bombardment 1907 forbids the bombardment of ‘undefended ports, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings’ (Art. 1), though it permits that of military objectives in such places even if ‘unavoidable damage’ results, provided the naval commander takes ‘all due measures’ to minimise harm to undefended places. (Art. 2).
The Hague Rules of Aerial Warfare 1923 reiterate the prohibitions on destruction or damage of ‘private property not of military character’ (Art. 22), and the requirement to take all necessary steps to spare public buildings (Art. 25).
The ICRC Draft Rules 1956 assert that ‘it is forbidden to attack dwellings, installations or means of transport, which are for the exclusive use of, and occupied by, the civilian population’ (Art. 6). Similar injunctions are laid down by the Institute of International Law, Edinburgh, 1969, which also includes as protected ‘the means indispensable for the survival of the civilian population’ and objects which serve ‘primarily humanitarian or peaceful purposes’ (Art. 3); UN General Assembly Resolution 2675 of 1970 (Arts. 5 and 6); and the UN Convention on Excessively Injurious Weapons 1981, which also prohibits the making of ‘forests or other kinds of plant cover the object of attack by incendiary weapons except when such natural elements are used to cover, conceal or camouflage combatants or other military objectives, or are themselves military objectives’ (Protocol III, Art. 2.4).
The Geneva Convention IV (Civilians) 1949 protects civilian hospitals (Arts. 18 and 19), and the Hague Convention on Cultural Property bans ‘any act of hostility directed against such property’ (Art. 4(1)). Israel is a party to both these Conventions. Protocol I Additional to Geneva Conventions 1977 reiterates this protection for cultural property (Art. 53). It also includes protection for medical units generally (Ar.ts. 12 and 13), including medical vehicles (Art. 21). Article 52 states the principle of general protection of civilian objects:
1. Civilian objects shall not be the object of attack or of reprisals. Civilian objects are all objects which are not military objectives as defined in para. 2.
2. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. Insofar as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralisation, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.
3. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.
The import of customary international law is that civilian objects must not be attacked so long as they retain their civilian character and are not used for military purposes. Even in the latter case, certain procedures are laid down before attacks can be made. For example, attacks on hospitals must be preceded by warnings, with a reasonable time limit which goes unheeded. Also, the civilian character of hospitals is not lost by minor military associations; e.g. medical personnel armed for their own defence, the presence of armed sentries as guards, the presence of small arms of the wounded, etc.
However, it is acknowledged that collateral or incidental damage may result to civilian objects in the course of attacks on military objectives. Such unintentional and unavoidable damage is not unlawful. The actions of the IDF need to be assessed to see whether the damage to civilian objects was collateral or incidental, unintentional or unavoidable.
The preceding chapter listed under various headings objectives of attack for
which the principle of military necessity might have provided some justification. The Commission concluded that in the vast majority of cases there was no such justification, and that, therefore, the destruction of these objects was a violation of the laws of war.
In testimony before us and in numerous written sources the point has been noted that much, if not all of this damage might be incidental to attacks on military objectives; that it might be indirect and unintentional; that it might have been unavoidable. We have also had testimony and evidence to the contrary. The following represents our views on these conflicting claims.
There can be no doubt that the bombardment of the refugee camps was direct and intentional. These camps were the homes of thousands and tens of thousands of civilians. There is also evidence that in some camps there were stores of arms and ammunition. Also that they were the homes of many of the armed combatants of the PLO. The presence of these stores of materiel is a violation of customary international law as expressed, for example, in ICRC Draft Rules 1956: ‘Similarly, the Parties to the conflict shall, so far as possible, avoid the permanent presence of armed forces, military materials, mobile military establishments or installations, in towns or other places with a large civilian population’ (Art. 11).
There is evidence, however, that the IDF did attack targets in refugee camps which were clearly entitled to the presumption of being civilian objects. For example, the bombing of shelters in which the civilian population of the camps took refuge during hostilities is striking. In an article by Dani Rubinstein in the Israeli newspaper Davar of 3 September 1982 an Israeli spokesman is quoted as having said that the total destruction of the camps was caused by bombing the many bunkers that were in them. To this the reporter quotes the answer of an old man at Ain e1 Hilweh: ‘Why bunkers? They were shelters we built to hide from the Israeli bombardments’. For a similar confusion, see the comment of the IDF spokesman who justified the blowing up of buildings in Rashidiyeh camp: ‘One house in every three had a “bunker or air-raid shelter”? And see the explanation by Dr Zvi Lanir of Tel Aviv University’s Centre for Strategic Studies who draws attention to ‘the curious unwillingness of the IDF to recognise that there was an authentic need for shelters in (Rashidiyeh), and even though some of them may indeed have contained weapons or even explosives, the primary purpose of most of them was clearly to protect civilians when the camps came under bombardment’.
The massive destruction of the refugee camps is only explicable in terms of such direct and intentional bombardment. The thesis that it was incidental to military activity and unavoidable is unsustainable. Some of the bombardment may have been justified on such grounds. Most of it was not