Israeli forces pulled out of the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil yesterday on the 18th day of the Middle East crisis.  Israeli troops had raided the Hizbollah stronghold, 2.5 miles from the Israel-Lebanon border, earlier in the week as part of a major offensive but were taken by surprise by the strength of resistance from militia.

 Israeli Military Northern Command chief Udi Adam said the army would continue to operate in southern Lebanon, saying: ‘We will continue to fight in the area of Bint Jbeil. We hold commanding positions in the areas.’

Adam told reporters that troops killed 70 to 80 Hizbollah guerrillas in the territory over the past few days. The army had suffered its biggest losses in fighting with Hizbollah in Bint Jbeil and nearby areas.

Israeli sergeant Yoad Mor, who was wounded in the clashes in southern Lebanon, said troops found a large cache of weapons and munitions, and that heavy clashes made it difficult to evacuate him to Israel.

‘It was very dangerous,’ he said. ‘It was a good rescue. I immediately called my father. I said… "Listen, it sounds strange but I went in and came out [of Lebanon]." He said: "No problem, which hospital are you at?"’

Israel has been accused of pursuing a scorched-earth policy in the region, using aerial weapons and phosphorus shells in a manner human rights organisations claim is in breach of international law.

As Lebanese medical staff reported that an Israeli air strike had killed a woman and her six children in a house in the southern village of Nmeiriya, western diplomats in Beirut admitted they were ‘baffled’ by Israel’s targeting policy. Ambulances, refugee columns and civilian homes, infrastructure and UN posts have all been hit – and evidence has begun to emerge that civilians may have suffered phosphorus burns.

Footage has also emerged of the increasingly widespread use of cluster munitions in areas with civilian inhabitants. Concern has been further heightened by the delivery to Israel by the US of at least 100 GBU-28 ‘bunker-buster’ bombs containing depleted uranium warheads for use against targets in Lebanon.

Human rights organisations are also examining whether Israel’s ‘order’ for hundreds of thousands of Lebanese residents south of the Litani river to abandon their homes is a breach of international law and UN conventions.

A field researcher from the American based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Lucy Mair, sent pictures to military experts at the organisation’s New York office of munitions being transported to Israel’s northern border and fired into Lebanon from howitzers. She was shocked to discover they were cluster munitions.

Mair said researchers on the other side of the border documented an attack using the munitions on the village of Blida last week which killed one person and injured 12 and that the explosives – which disperse after impact – are ‘inaccurate and unreliable’, and should not be used in populated areas.

Mair, who heads HRW’s Jerusalem office, said a disturbing picture was emerging of the use of weapons, fired from air and land, which pointed at best to a lack of due care regarding civilian life and at worst to the direct targeting of civilians.

‘The overwhelming impression is that time and time and again civilians are attacked and only civilian infrastructure is targeted. In cases of civilian casualties our investigators have studied, they have not been able to find the presence of Hizbollah rockets or launchers – only civilian targets,’ she said.

The group believes the use of cluster munitions in populated areas may violate the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks contained in international humanitarian law. Critics say the law of war requires a distinction between soldiers and civilians, so when an army is using an outdated, unreliable weapon in a populated area it is likely the attack will violate international law.

Regarding reports that Israel was intentionally trying to depopulate a large swathe of territory in the south, Mair said: ‘It’s hard for us to speak about this. But given there is such a massive displacement, it’s difficult to imagine a situation where the population can move back.’

There have also been reports in Lebanon that Israel is using phosphorus munitions, with doctors reporting burn wounds to civilians. Israel has commented that it believes that it has used its weapons legally.

Israeli troops said yesterday they had killed two Islamic Jihad militants in Nablus, including Hani Awijan, described as the leader of its militant wing in the West Bank city.

*this article was reprinted from The Observer