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Rights group, bitter Lebanese point fingers

Abdul-Karim Bazzi, right, sits with his younger brother, Salah, in front of their house, which was destroyed during last year's war between Israel and Hezbollah, in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, on July 10.Hussein Malla / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ahmed Ayoub still shakes with anger when he recounts the night Israeli warplanes struck his neighborhood more than a year ago, killing eight of his relatives and neighbors as they slept.

"We were all civilians. There was no military presence here whatsoever," the 65-year-old said.

Bitterness remains high among Lebanese over last year's war between Israel and Hezbollah in which at least 1,125 Lebanese were killed, mostly civilians who died in Israel's heavy bombardment of the south and other parts of the country.

A prominent human rights group on Thursday rejected Israel's claim that the deaths were caused because Hezbollah guerrillas used civilian areas for cover.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said there were only "rare" cases of Hezbollah operating in civilian villages and that "indiscriminate" Israeli airstrikes on villages and towns killed hundreds of noncombatants.

Israel said the new findings have "no basis." Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Hezbollah "adopted a deliberate strategy of shielding itself behind the civilian population."

He said there were "countless documented examples of civilian facilities being used for military purposes" by Hezbollah.

Human Rights Watch said its report was based on its investigation of 94 air, artillery and ground attacks by the Israeli army to discern the circumstances in the deaths of 510 civilians — 300 of them women and children — and 51 combatants.

In five months of research, the group visited 50 Lebanese villages, including Ayoub's hometown of Selaa.

The strike in the southern Lebanese town — just after 2 a.m. on July 19, 2006 — destroyed 10 houses, killing Ayoub's grandson, the grandson's wife and their 1-year-old-son, as well as three of Ayoub's elderly cousins and two members of the Naim family, linked to the Ayoubs by marriage.

"Nothing was left of the bodies. They just melted away," Ayoub, his voice choking with emotion, told The Associated Press. He was asleep in his sister's house across the street from his grandson's home at the time of the strike.

Sparked by soldiers' capture
The 34-day war was sparked when Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. A total of 159 Israelis were killed, including 40 civilians who died in Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel and 119 soldiers.

Human Rights Watch accused Hezbollah in a report issued last week of firing rockets indiscriminately at civilian areas in Israel during the fighting. It said Hezbollah's justifications that the rocket attacks were a response to Israeli fire into southern Lebanon and aimed at drawing Israel into a ground war had no legal basis under the rules of war.

Hezbollah, which has sharply attacked Human Rights Watch for its criticism of the guerrilla group, said it had no immediate comment on Thursday's report criticizing Israel.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said Hezbollah mostly left civilian areas once the fighting started. "What we found is that most Hezbollah military activity was conducted from prepared positions outside Lebanese villages in the hills and valleys," he told a news conference in Jerusalem.

To guard against influence on their investigation by Hezbollah, which dominates the south, the group's researchers conducted interviews individually, cross-checked testimonies and questioned people from different political parties, he said.

No comfort to some
The findings did little to cheer some victims. Mohammed Abdullah was interviewed by the group about the deaths of his wife and two of his children, but he said it brings him no closer to what he wants — to see Israeli officials put on trial.

"What's the use?" he said. "They come and listen to us, but nothing happens. It's just talk. We're not getting anything out of it."

His wife, Zahra, was among hundreds of residents fleeing the border village of Marwaheen on July 15, 2006, after Israel told them to evacuate within two hours or face bombardment.

Zahra, 52, and her four children crowded into a Toyota pickup truck and headed out in a convoy headed for the coastal city of Tyre. But a few miles out of town, their truck broke down alongside another vehicle of fleeing refugees.

Zahra, holding her 6-year-old son Hadi in her lap, called out to her children to jump out of the truck. "Get out quickly. We'll walk to Tyre," she told them, according to her surviving children — 11-year-old Marwa and 15-year-old Wissam.

At that moment, a missile hit the truck, wounding Wissam in the thigh. An Israeli helicopter then opened fire with several missiles and machine guns at the two vehicles, Marwa and Wissam told AP. Zahra, Hadi and their 13-year-old sister Mirna were killed.

In its report Thursday, Human Rights Watch said the attack's final toll was 23 dead, including children.

Abdullah, 53, who was in Beirut at the time of the strike, has turned his apartment in the Lebanese capital into a shrine for his dead wife and children.

"We have rights, you know. Israel devoured our innocent children for no reason whatsoever," said Abdallah. "Look at this young child," he said, pointing at a framed photo of Hadi, laughing into the camera. "Why kill him?"