Hezbollah, Seniora condemn Human Rights Watch report

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CAIRO/BEIRUT: Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a controversial report in Beirut on Thursday documenting Hezbollah’s attacks on Israeli civilians during last summer’s Lebanon War, only to face a fierce campaign by the Shia party to discredit the organization and its findings.

HRW says that Hezbollah fired rockets at civilian targets with no military value, in violation of the laws of war.

But Hezbollah condemned both Human Rights Watch and its report as “scandalous and an act of “political debauchery . It began to broadcast its criticism on Tuesday on Al-Manar TV, a station it controls, as well as on Al-Manar’s website.

The group says that Israel is the guiltier party in last summer’s war and that HRW’s focus on Israeli civilian deaths is biased.

Speaking to Al-Manar, Hussein Khalil, political advisor to Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, said he “strongly criticized attempts to equate the executioner and the victim, and to blame the victim and give them responsibility for what happened.

“They come to stand on top of the head of the victim, the country destroyed by the Israelis, to talk about how this victim has hurt the Israelis, he added.

Embattled Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora, an American ally and staunch opponent of the Shia group criticized the report as well. He said that Human Rights Watch was not paying enough attention to Israeli abuses in the war.

The rights group had never shown “such vigor toward Israeli crimes committed against Lebanese civilians, he said.

Hezbollah supporters said they would hold rallies to protest the report and to prevent a planned press conference from taking place in downtown Beirut.

Faced with pressure from across the Lebanese political spectrum, as well as the spectacle of protests on its doorstep, the hotel that agreed to hold the press conference cancelled the event at the last minute.

The rights group says that Hezbollah is simply trying to bully its critics and distract from its own human rights abuses. They vigorously reject the accusation of bias and say that their troubles in Lebanon are the result of a smear campaign.

“Hezbollah is trying to silence criticism of its conduct during the 2006 war, said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “But the fairness and accuracy of our reporting will speak for themselves, whether we hold a press conference or not.

In response to charges of bias, Human Rights Watch says it is accusing both Israel and Hezbollah of the same rights abuses.

It points to criticism it received last summer for releasing a report before the fighting had ended in South Lebanon, accusing Israel of targeting civilians.

Next week it will hold a press conference in Jerusalem to release a follow-up report, elaborating its accusation that Israel deliberately targeted Lebanese civilians in violation of international law.

“Our focus is on the protection of civilians wherever they may be, and not about taking sides in a conflict, said Whitson.

For human rights advocates working in the Middle East, charges of bias seem to come with the territory.

Gasser Abdel Razeq, the acting regional director for the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch, says that when it comes to the Lebanon-Israel conflict his organization would be accused of bias no matter what it did.

“Whenever you criticize one side people say you are biased towards the other, he told Daily News Egypt. “People say you are an Arab-lover, an anti-Semite, or a Zionist organization.

“When we released our initial report about Israeli abuses last summer we were called anti-Semitic, and this has already begun in the Israeli press in anticipation of next week’s report, he adds. “They are saying ‘why did Human Rights Watch wait a year to criticize Hezbollah? Why didn’t they start at the beginning of the war?’

Last summer’s war erupted with little warning after a Hezbollah raid into northern Israel in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured.

Israel responded with overwhelming force, bombing highways and bridges throughout Lebanon as well as destroying the country’s sole airport and leveling Shia slums and villages in the south.

Israel also sent soldiers across the border for the first time since its 2000 withdrawal ended a nearly 20-year occupation of South Lebanon.

According to an Associated Press report, over 1,000 Lebanese were killed during the 34-day war, the vast majority of them civilians, as were 159 Israelis, of which 120 were soldiers. Hezbollah launched more than 4,000 rockets into northern Israel during the conflict.

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