Most of the debate focuses on questions like whether Israel was justified in bombing the Beirut airport or whether Hezbollah's policies of basing near civilian populations justifies the severity of the Israeli attacks. These are all interesting and important questions, but I would like to focus on a different aspect.
How are Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch making the determinations that the Israeli attacks are war crimes, rather than tragic collateral damage? What methodology do these groups use to assess the legal and moral culpability of Israel, Lebanon, and Hezbollah? How are the deaths of Lebanese civilians weighed against Lebanon's unwillingness to deal with Hezbollah or Israel's need and right to defend itself? Any fair and serious analysis of war must involve clear and open methods and calculations.
Unfortunately, neither Amnesty nor HRW employs an overt methodology, leaving their conclusions and motives in question. Reading over Amnesty's report "Deliberate Destruction or 'Collateral Damage'? Israeli Attacks on Civilian Infrastructure" is, of course, saddening. However, Amnesty provides no mechanism other than a litany of assertions and list of destruction to bolster its claim of war crimes. Yes, Israel attacked civilians homes, water facilities, electricity and fuel supplies, and other areas of Lebanese infrastructure. But Lebanon had become home to a large, well-armed and trained military organization that existed outside of the bounds of the sovereign government; one that chose to cross and international border and kidnap soldiers of another state. Amnesty's report is basically a long list chronicling the damage Israel did to Lebanon, but provides no guide for how to judge or assess that damage.
War is, to be trite, hell. People die. Innocent civilians die. Vital national infrastructure is destroyed. If anyone at Amnesty International, or anywhere else, can tell me how to fight a clean, cost-free war in which only enemy soldiers are killed, I'm all ears. Unfortunately, it's impossible. Even more unfortunately, war is sometimes necessary. Israel did not want this war, nor did it start it. Hezbollah, a member of the Lebanese parliament and the de facto government in southern Lebanon did. I'm not saying Israel did or did not go too far in its response. That's a topic for a different post. But you can't make a case for war crimes by simply listing the damage. What Amnesty International is doing here is disingenuous and discrediting to the organization. In fact, this confirms in my mind what I wrote in an earlier post: Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are really pacifists trying to disguise their true motives by cloaking them in moral arguments. If everyone in the whole world could play by the rules desired by Amnesty, fine. But to demand that democratic states do so in the face of brutal adversaries is just idiocy.
So, until Amnesty International develops some kind of analytic mechanism to assess conflict, its reports hold no weight or merit. Furthermore, wild and unsupported accusations like this (and let's not forget the bogus reports of the Jenin "massacre" which Human Rights Watch continues to insist occurred) undermine both the good works these groups do, as well as the case for the laws of war. War is a necessity that is not going away. It's one thing to make serious arguments and analysis about its moral and legal nature; it's another thing entirely to, essentially, argue that states cannot commit hostilities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch would be better served to devoting their attentions to what they know best: freeing prisoners of conscience and shaming gross violators of human rights.
UPDATE: David Bernstein over at The Volokh Conspiracy has more on this issue. Money quote:
Apparently, HRW thinks it's okay to accuse a country of war crimes based solely on hearsay evidence of male "villagers", acquired while the war was ongoing, who are hanging out in a POG stronghold during an Israeli bombardment, after being warned to leave. Even if these villagers were not POG affiliates (but maybe they are) or even sympathizers, how do you think Hezbollah would have reacted if they had been quoted in an HRW report during the war as stating that Israel was only carefully targeting POG strongholds? I certainly wouldn't issue life insurance to them under such circumstances.