‘No one will hold Israel accountable’ as it targets medics in south Lebanon

Israel is possibly committing war crimes by expanding its war on medics from Gaza to south Lebanon, say rights groups.

The seven medical volunteers killed in an Israeli attack
Seven young medical volunteers were killed in an Israeli strike. From left: Muhammad al-Farouq Atwi, Baraa Abu Qais, Abdullah Sharif Atwi, Abdulrahman al-Shaar, Muhammad Ragheed Hammoud, Ahmad al-Shaar and Hussein al-Shaar [Handout/Lebanese Succour Association]

Most evenings in al-Habbariyeh, a small town in southern Lebanon’s verdant hills, the young volunteers of the Lebanese Emergency and Relief Corps centre liked to get together to play cards or share an argileh (hookah).

On March 26, a clear, brisk night, Abdullah Sharif Atwi, Abdulrahman al-Shaar, Ahmad al-Shaar, Baraa Abu Qais, Hussein al-Shaar, Muhammad al-Farouq Atwi and Muhammad Ragheed Hammoud were in the second-floor hangout.

The Israeli drones hovered overhead, they had been going all day and now their sound was fading almost into the background.

The group was in high spirits, taking videos of themselves and joking about.

About half an hour after midnight, just into March 27, Israel hit the centre with an air strike, levelling the two-storey building.

“People from the village ran down to see what happened,” Ali Noureddine, a journalist and activist from al-Habbariyeh, told Al Jazeera. “It’s a small village,” he said. “We’re all one family.”

The seven young men had been killed and four others badly injured.

Most of the 18-to-25-year-olds had been students.

Hunted health workers

Israel killed a total of 17 people in three different towns just that day, 10 of them medical workers.

The attack made March 27 the deadliest day for medical workers in south Lebanon.

An attack on a cafe in Ras al-Naqoura killed a medical worker from Amal’s Al-Risala Scouts and three others, including one Amal member.

The third attack that day was in Tayr Harfa which killed two paramedics from Hezbollah’s Islamic Health Association along with four Hezbollah fighters.

The Israeli army spokesperson said the al-Habbariyeh attack successfully targeted a “significant terrorist” in al-Jamaa al-Islamiya.

“They didn’t say who the ‘terrorist’ was,” Mahyaddine Qarhani, director of the Lebanese Emergency and Relief Corps’ Ambulance Association, told Al Jazeera.

Investigations by human rights organisations found no evidence of military activity or fighters on-site.

Human Rights Watch called for the al-Habbariyeh attack to be investigated as a war crime as leading rights groups currently investigate other Israeli attacks on medical workers.

Hezbollah and Israel have been trading attacks across the border since October 8, the day after Israel launched its war on Gaza in retaliation for a Hamas-led attack on Israel in which 1,139 people were killed and about 240 others taken captive.

More than 92,600 people have been displaced from southern Lebanon by the relentless Israeli attacks, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The people still in the south are vulnerable, like the elderly and lower-income people who rely on the medical services the Lebanese Emergency and Relief Corps provides.

Flares are fired from northern Israel over the southern Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab
Flares fired from northern Israel over the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab, on October 28, 2023 [Fadel Senna/AFP]

Like many services in the country, Lebanon’s healthcare is mostly privatised as the Ministry of Public Health relies on private groups and NGOs to fill the gaps.

The medical situation in Lebanon was already deeply affected by a five-year-old economic crisis, with 80 percent of the population below the poverty line.

Now, the south is also contending with war and with its few medical workers and facilities being targeted by Israel.

Data on the attacks on south Lebanon are hard to find, with locals saying many incidents go unreported.

Al Jazeera collected data from monitoring groups indicating at least 18 Israeli attacks on medical personnel and facilities, resulting in the deaths of 20 health workers, as of May 31.

They include members of Lebanon’s civil defence and health workers for the medical branches of Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya.

Each group has an armed wing engaging with the Israeli military but their healthcare workers are protected by international humanitarian law.

This protection as medical workers lapses only if they participate in military activities.

There has been no evidence that this was the case in any of the attacks on medical workers, multiple sources, including representatives of leading human rights and monitoring agencies, told Al Jazeera.

None of the attacks showed “evidence of any association with the armed wing of these groups”, Ameneh Mehvar, a Middle East specialist at ACLED, told Al Jazeera.

Possible war crimes

The attacks on medical workers in southern Lebanon have gone largely unreported, although they are contributing to significantly degrading the quality of life for the people left there.

Medical personnel cannot be targeted “even if they’re close to military targets”, Shane Darcy, a professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera.

“Even if there is a Hezbollah [fighter] present, the principle of proportionality means [Israel’s military] has to weigh the impact on civilian proportionality,” a source at a renowned human rights organisation told Al Jazeera, speaking on background.

There is no exact formula for proportionality, Darcy said, but targeting or killing civilians deliberately is a crime.

“There’s a lot of danger [for medical workers],” Dr Wahida Ghalayni, who works at the Ministry of Public Health, told Al Jazeera. “These are direct attacks [on them].”

The pattern of Israel’s lack of accountability and continued attacks leave Lebanon’s medical workers feeling Israel is directly targeting them.

A day before the al-Habbariyeh attack, on March 26, an Israeli air raid hit Tayr Harfa’s civil defence centre, injuring four health workers.

Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers simulating an invasion of Lebanon in May 2024 [Handout via Israeli military]

Then two Hezbollah paramedics “were killed in a second strike on the same location during the same day”, according to data collected by ACLED.

“This is nothing new,” Rabieh Issa, civil defence commissioner for Al-Risala Scouts, told Al Jazeera.

“We don’t normally deploy until 15 minutes after the first hit because they hit again and again. So, for our own security, we wait a bit.”

But it is not only warplanes that the hunted medical personnel need to look out for.

On March 21, Israeli warplanes struck Yarine during fighting with Hezbollah, according to ACLED.

Israel said they were targeting Hezbollah’s military infrastructure but that does not explain why ambulances that rushed in after the attack came under “heavy machinegun fire” from the Israelis.

And there are many more incidents.

On March 4, a medical centre in the Al-Ouwayni neighbourhood of Odaisseh was hit by an Israeli air raid, killing three Hezbollah-affiliated health workers. On February 22, four people from Lebanon’s civil defence were killed in air attacks on Blida. On January 11, two medics were killed in the southern town of Hanin when Israeli jets struck the Islamic Health Society building.

Israel claims it is attacking “Hezbollah cells”. But in many of its attacks on medical workers or facilities, no fighters were killed.

In April, media outlet +972mag reported on Lavender, an artificial intelligence (AI)-supported system Israel uses to select targets for assassination and calculate “acceptable civilian loss” for each killing.

For a low-level Hamas operative, the Israeli army determined that 15-20 civilian deaths are permissible, while “the army on several occasions authorised the killing of more than 100 civilians in the assassination of a single commander”.

“I’d find it hard for any international humanitarian lawyer to say that’s an acceptable application of proportionality,” Darcy said. “Those are possible war crimes.”

Gaps in the south

Back in al-Habbariyeh, the Israeli attack has left a big hole in the community.

“We’re a small village … all grieving,” Noureddine, who used to visit friends at the centre, said.

“Israel hits whoever they want. I don’t know if tomorrow someone else will die or not.”

But the decimated team has also left a big gap in the community’s medical care.

The Emergency and Relief Corps suspended operations in al-Habbariyeh after the attack, fearing that moving operations would simply attract attacks on civilians in other neighbourhoods.

“We can’t work in that area anymore,” Qarhani said. “Nobody knows why they hit the centre but it’s completely destroyed.”

The outskirts of al-Habbariyeh have been hit as recently as a month ago.

“Israel is still hitting us and if we make a new centre they’ll come and bomb it again,” Noureddine said. “They’re hitting civilians and we don’t have people whose lives we can simply sacrifice.”

“The Americans give Israelis weapons and hit us with them and no one will hold them accountable or will even look at what they’re doing,” Noureddine said.

“No one is held accountable for Israel’s attacks.”

Source: Al Jazeera