Hezbollah acknowledged targeting civilians in rocket attacks on Israel, but said it fired in response to Israeli attacks - rejecting an Amnesty International report Thursday that accused the guerrillas of "serious violations of international humanitarian law, amounting to war crimes."
Lebanese legislator Hassan Fadlallah of Hezbollah said his group targeted civilians in Israeli cities in response to Israeli attacks that killed Lebanese civilians.
During the conflict, Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, killing 43 civilians, seriously injuring 33 others and forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to take refuge in shelters or flee.
"We do not deny that we have bombarded Israeli cities, settlements and infrastructure. But this was always a reaction," he told Al-Jazeera television. "It was a natural reaction. When a state is invaded, it must defend itself."
Fadlallah said Amnesty International probably came under American and Israeli pressure to issue a report critical of Hezbollah's actions during the 34-day war, after issuing a similar report against Israel last month.
The London-based human rights group issued a call for a United Nations inquiry into war crimes possibly committed on both sides, but Thursday's report focused on the actions of the Lebanese militants during the conflict.
The firing of rockets into urban areas in northern Israel violated international laws that call for distinction between civilian and military targets, Amnesty said.
"Targeting civilians is a war crime. There's no gray area," said Larry Cox, Amnesty's executive director in the United States.
But Fadlallah rejected the charges.
"The act was begun by Israel," he said. "How could we confront the Israeli aggression? With roses? The resistance (Hezbollah) said that the bombardment of Haifa was in response to the bombardment of Dahiyeh (Beirut's southern suburbs)."
Haifa, Israel's third largest city, was one of Hezbollah's prime targets during the fighting. Israeli air raids repeatedly hit Dahiyeh, Hezbollah's major stronghold, where Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and other officials had their homes and offices.
The report is Amnesty's most extensive condemnation of Hezbollah since the conflict began in July, and comes after Amnesty accused Israel of violating international law with indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon.
The human rights group previously called on Hezbollah to release two kidnapped Israeli soldiers, whose July 12 capture sparked the fighting, and abstain from targeting civilians.
The report indicates that international law forbids the targeting of civilians and reprisals.
Approximately a quarter of all rockets were fired directly into urban areas, including rockets packed with thousands of metal ball bearings.
"The scale of Hezbollah's attacks on Israeli cities, towns and villages, the indiscriminate nature of the weapons used, and statements from the leadership confirming their intent to target civilians make it all too clear that Hezbollah violated the laws of war," Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Khan said in a comment on the report.
"The fact that Israel has also committed serious violations in no way justifies violations by Hezbollah. Civilians must not be made to pay the price for unlawful conduct on either side."
Combined with its earlier publication on Israel's targeting of Lebanese civilian infrastructure, the latest findings underlined the urgent need for the United Nations to establish a full and impartial investigation into violations committed by both sides.
The Amnesty report on Israel was severely criticized in Israel and by Jewish groups abroad, who accused the organization of bias. These same critics maintain that Amnesty should have waited and issued the two reports simultaneously.
Haaretz learned that the decision on the timing of the report's release was made in London.
The director of the Amnesty International office in Tel Aviv, Amnon Yarden, will present Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav with a copy of the report Thursday.