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Amnesty International says Israel committed war crimes

JERUSALEM -- Amnesty International, in a report released yesterday, accused Israel of committing war crimes during its recent campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, saying it broke international law by deliberately causing massive destruction to the country's infrastructure.

``Many of the violations examined in this report are war crimes that give rise to individual criminal responsibility," the human-rights group said.

``They include directly attacking civilian objects and carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. People against whom there is prima facie evidence of responsibility for the commission of these crimes are subject to criminal accountability anywhere in the world."

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected the findings, asserting that the sites struck in Lebanon were legitimate military targets under international law because they were used by Hezbollah guerrillas who operated from civilian areas and who, he said, used civilians as human shields.

The report, based on a field visit to Lebanon and interviews with victims and officials, does not address Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel, which Amnesty International said would be dealt with separately. The group called on the United Nations to investigate violations of international law by both sides in the conflict, ``with a view to holding individuals responsible for crimes under international law."

The report says that four weeks of Israeli artillery and aerial bombardment in Lebanon caused ``destruction on a catastrophic scale." The attacks, which included more than 7,000 airstrikes and 2,500 naval bombardments, killed an estimated 1,183 people, about one-third of them children, and led to displacement of nearly a million people, according to figures cited in the report.

Shelling and bombardment of villages in southern Lebanon targeted houses but also supermarkets and gas stations, whose destruction played a crucial role in forcing local residents to leave.

The report cites UN figures showing that in several villages more than half the houses had been destroyed, with 80 percent demolished in Taibe and Ghanduriya. In the town of Bint Jbail, a scene of heavy fighting, ``every building on the streets was destroyed, extensively damaged, or beyond repair," the report said.

Hospitals in many parts of Lebanon were damaged by shelling, particularly in the south, where two government hospitals were destroyed, according to the report. Along with airstrikes on bridges, roads, fuel depots, and power plants, factories were also hit, including the second-largest glassworks in the Middle East and a dairy plant, both in the Bekaa Valley, which were completely destroyed.

``The evidence strongly suggests that the extensive destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes, and industry was deliberate and an integral part of military strategy," the report says. ``The widespread destruction . . . in addition to several statements by Israeli officials, suggests a policy of punishing both the Lebanese government and the civilian population in an effort to get them to turn against Hezbollah."

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that according to international law, infrastructure used by enemy forces is a legitimate target and that similar tactics were used in wars waged by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as by NATO forces in Serbia.

``Hezbollah was breaking international law and established rules of combat by deliberately using civilian infrastructure and using civilians as human shields for their military activities," Regev said, citing instances in which Hezbollah bunkers were built underneath homes.

``It was a serious challenge for us to be as surgical as humanly possible under very difficult circumstances," Regev said. ``When missiles used against civilians are stored in civilian communities, what are we supposed to do . . . As a matter of policy, we did not target civilian infrastructure that had not been hijacked by Hezbollah and used for military purposes."

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