Some 1,110 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 156 Israelis, including 116 soldiers, have been killed in the conflict that flared up after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on 12 July. Approximately 900,000 Lebanese – out of a total population of less than four million – have been internally displaced. IDPs have sought refuge in schools, public buildings and parks, and with host families. Eighty-eight schools in Beirut alone have been converted into shelters with up to five families living in each classroom. Many have fled to relatives in safer areas north of Beirut. Some families became separated during flight, and are still searching for information about their family members’ whereabouts and safety.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has joined many international agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC) in deploring the fact that civilians have been the main victims in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah – and criticising the lack of respect shown by both sides for the rules governing the conduct of hostilities, such as the distinction between military objectives and civilian persons and objects. After recent incidents where Lebanese Red Cross ambulances have been hit and medical staff killed, the ICRC has urged medical missions to be respected and has underlined the urgency of gaining humanitarian access to towns and villages in southern Lebanon. Access to Tyre by sea, for example, has become particularly urgent after the destruction of the main roads and bridges leading south.
NRC echoes Human Rights Watch’s call for an international investigation of documented instances of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both Israel and Hezbollah [see box]. Human Rights Watch’s research shows that Israeli forces consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost. The organisation also documented systematic violations of international humanitarian law by Hezbollah, including deliberate and indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets into civilian areas of Israel.
NRC’s country office in Beirut will focus on developing programmes in education, rehabilitation, reconstruction, distribution of non-food items and the provision of information, counselling and legal assistance. In the coming months, a large number of people will remain displaced due to damaged houses and the collapse of infrastructure in the affected areas. As people start to return, one of the dangers they will face is that of unexploded ordnance. The Mines Advisory Group – a British-based conflict recovery organisation – estimates that around 10% of the 4,000 explosive items dropped daily in Lebanon will fail to explode, posing a serious threat to civilians.
NRC is gravely concerned about the safety and humanitarian situation of those displaced and other civilians who are trapped in areas outside the reach of aid agencies and who may remain exposed to violence. NRC has called for assurances of safe passage for humanitarian convoys to deliver supplies to people in need and is also seconding staff to UN agencies through its emergency standby force NORSTAFF.
Most importantly, it is vital now – if the ceasefire is to be sustainable – to support intensive diplomatic efforts to tackle the root causes of conflict in the Middle East. “The backdrop to this sudden escalation of conflict is six years of diplomatic neglect”, says Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group. “Today, the region – and most of all the Lebanese, Palestinian and Israeli peoples – are paying the price.”
Human Rights Watch has urged the UN Human Rights Council to:
Full statement at www.hrw.org/english/docs/2006/08/11/lebano13967.htm