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An Israeli air raid on the Lebanese village of Qana which killed at least 56 civilians was the result of indiscriminate Israeli bombing which amounts to a war crime, Human Rights Watch said.

The New York-based rights group said Sunday's strike on Qana which killed 37 children suggested the Israeli military was treating southern Lebanon as "a free-fire zone".

"The Israeli military seems to consider anyone left in the area a combatant who is fair game for attack," Human Rights Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in a statement.

"(The Qana attack) is the latest product of an indiscriminate bombing campaign that the Israel Defence Forces have waged in Lebanon", the statement said.

"Indiscriminate bombing in Lebanon (is) a war crime", read the statement's headline.

Israel says it warned civilians to leave southern Lebanon, where it says it has been targeting Hizbollah guerrillas.

But the Lebanese government says Israeli bombardment of roads and cars made it impossible for people to escape.

Israel said it was unaware civilians were in the building. Warplanes had bombed on the assumption it was sheltering Hizbollah guerrillas who had fired rockets into northern Israel, the military said.

Human Rights Watch said responsibility for Qana rested "squarely with the Israeli military".