JERUSALEM — A U.S. human rights group Thursday charged that most of the civilian deaths in Lebanon during last year's war resulted from "indiscriminate" bombardment by Israel rather than from Hezbollah's battlefield tactics.
Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said Israel often fired before determining whether its targets were civilian or militant, despite international law aimed at protecting noncombatants.
"Time and time again, Israel did not have the evidence required to justify firing," the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, said in issuing the 249-page report. "These were not minor errors on Israel's part. This was a policy decision to accept a troublingly inadequate standard for firing, with the consequence that hundreds of civilians died."
The Israeli military said in response that it had sought to prevent such casualties by urging civilians to evacuate combat areas and by refraining from strikes it knew would bring disproportionate harm to noncombatants. It said the investigators lacked classified information that showed how targets were selected, and that the report contained inaccuracies.
The rights organization made similar charges during Israel's 34-day war against the Shiite Muslim militant group last summer, but said its new findings were bolstered by results of a five-month investigation in southern Lebanon.
The findings come a week after Human Rights Watch accused Hezbollah in a separate report of violating international law by bombarding civilians during a campaign in which the militant group fired 4,000 Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.
Hezbollah's cross-border salvos emptied some Israeli communities, forced residents into bomb shelters and, according to Israeli government figures, killed more than 40 civilians.
In the latest report, Human Rights Watch analyzed 94 Israeli attacks, mostly aerial bombing and artillery volleys. The group said the attacks killed 510 civilians and 51 fighters. It estimated that 1,125 Lebanese were killed during the fighting.
Israel has repeatedly blamed the civilian toll on Hezbollah, saying it hid fighters among noncombatants.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel adhered to international rules of war while a "deliberate Hezbollah strategy" sought to shield its fighters by deploying them among civilians.
But the Human Rights Watch report says the group's investigation found that Hezbollah operated only infrequently near Lebanese civilians or United Nations posts.
Hezbollah has said its rockets were aimed at military targets in Israel. But in last week's report, Human Rights Watch said the targets of the militant group often were civilian areas with no obvious military value.
The rights group criticized Hezbollah for packing the projectiles with ball bearings, thus increasing potential harm to civilians, and for its use of cluster weapons.
Human Rights Watch last week was forced to scrap plans for a news conference in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, after Hezbollah called for demonstrations outside the hotel where it was to be held.
The rights group plans to issue a separate report on Israel's use of cluster munitions during the summer war.
It previously accused Israel of indiscriminately firing cluster weapons, which littered southern Lebanon with tens of thousands of unexploded bomblets.