August 29, 2006 - When a supposedly humanitarian organization is infected by systematic bias and even resorts to falsifying evidence, it does not deserve the credibility and lofty reputation that a name like "Human Rights Watch" would seem to imply.
NGO Monitor/Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has conducted research showing that Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticism of Israel is grossly disproportionate in comparison to its criticism of other countries [Reference 10]. In an analysis of a June 2005 HRW report accusing Israel of "failure to investigate wrongdoing," NGO Monitor uncovered the following evidence of bias [Reference 15]:
The report also describes how HRW holds Israel up to an impossible standard of perfection, one it does not demand of the Palestinians. HRW repeatedly charges that Israel fails to distinguish between combatants and civilians, without mentioning that Palestinian terrorists are not uniformed and intentionally try to make that distinction impossible. HRW also demands that Israel do more to investigate incidents and interview Palestinian eyewitnesses, disregarding the fact that if IDF investigators entered Palestinian villages to do that, more violence would ignite, leading to many more casualties.
While HRW's record is far from spotless, in covering the Hezbollah War HRW outdid itself in distortion and hypocrisy.
HRW is intent on demonstrating that Israel makes no distinction between civilians and combatants, and that it attacks civilians even when no combatants are involved. In a lengthy report dated August 3 we find this startling statement [Reference 6]:
The Israeli government claims that it targets only Hezbollah, and that fighters from the group are using civilians as human shields, thereby placing them at risk. Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack. (Emphasis added.)
This is nothing short of amazing, considering there is much evidence, including photographs, that Hezbollah did indeed launch rockets from within civilian areas. This clearly does constitute use of civilians as human shields, since Israel cannot take out those launchers without putting those civilians in danger. Alan Dershowitz documents several examples of Hezbollah's use of civilians as human shields [Reference 3]. This critical information was certainly available to HRW, yet HRW chose either to ignore it or downplay it to insignificance.
But perhaps HRW thinks it is trying to make a finer distinction. Its report states further [Reference 6]:
Hezbollah occasionally did store weapons in or near civilian homes and fighters placed rocket launchers within populated areas or near U.N. observers, which are serious violations of the laws of war because they violate the duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. However, those cases do not justify the IDFís extensive use of indiscriminate force which has cost so many civilian lives. In none of the cases of civilian deaths documented in this report is there evidence to suggest that Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack.
The word "occasionally" is an understatement, typical of HRW in describing Hezbollah's offenses. Elsewhere the HRW report states that "on some limited occasions, Hezbollah fighters have attempted to store weapons near civilian homes and have fired rockets from areas where civilians live" [Reference 4]. The word "limited" hardly does justice to Hezbollah's systematic practice of setting up operations near people's homes, often to the great frustration and anger of the local population, as many news reports have documented. But perhaps to HRW any finite number is "limited."
HRW wants to say that it's not enough just for Hezbollah fighters to store weapons near civilian homes; for Israeli action to be justified, the Hezbollah fighters must also be present at the time of the Israeli counterstrike. HRW claims this did not happen; therefore all Israeli attacks in which civilians were harmed were gratuitous.
First, this demand is unreasonable and unrealistic. Israel should have the right to take out rocket launchers and weapons storage sites regardless of whether Hezbollah fighters are present at the time. Second, the claim that Hezbollah fighters were not present during Israeli attacks is false. If it is indeed true that "in none of the cases of civilian deaths documented in this report is there evidence to suggest that Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack," then either HRW did not examine all the evidence or is lying about it. In another article ("War of Images") I documented three separate incidents in which the Israeli counterstrike occurred within minutes after the attack by Hezbollah: one in Ain Ebel, one in Wadi Chahrour in East Beirut, and one in Bint Jbeil. If I could get this information, so clearly could HRW. It was in fact the Israeli practice to lock on a location from which rockets were fired and to strike at that location in the shortest time possible. This is not "indiscriminate," as HRW repeatedly charges. It is firing at the guys who are firing at you.
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of HRW, repeats these false charges in his analysis published in the Jerusalem Post and included on the HRW web site [Reference 14]:
Human Rights Watch investigated some two dozen bombing incidents in Lebanon involving a third of the civilians who by then had been killed. In none of those cases was Hizbullah anywhere around at the time of the attack.
As we have noted, it is simply not true that no Hezbollah fighters were present at the time of Israeli counterstrikes. Hezbollah's methods of investigation could be to blame for this inaccuracy. Roth continues:
How do we know? Through the same techniques we use in war zones around the world to cut through people's incentive to lie. We probed and cross-checked multiple eyewitnesses, many of whom talked openly of Hizbullah's presence elsewhere but were adamant that Hizbullah was not at the scene of the attack. We examined bombing sites for evidence of military activity such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers and military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters.
Such "eyewitness" accounts, as we have noted, have a history of being unreliable. Often these "eyewitnesses" control what they say to Westerners, distorting the facts to put Israel in a bad light. Telling the truth is emphatically discouraged [Reference 11]:
"Damn Hezbollah, damn Nasrallah," yelled one older Shiite woman in a head scarf as she surveyed the destruction of her family's grocery store in Saddiqine, just 3 miles from the Israeli border. Her neighbors and family quickly quieted her by pointing out the presence of a western journalist, but none disagreed. In the tiny hamlet, a few hundred yards from the remains of her store, Hezbollah volunteers were operating heavy machinery to locate bodies trapped under a collapsed house. A Hezbollah escort barred a journalist from conducting interviews in English, apparently concerned people might express criticism of Hezbollah if he couldn't understand the conversation. (Emphasis added.)
This flaw in HRW's "intelligence gathering" is systematic and probably accounts for much of the bias in its reporting throughout the Israeli/Arab conflict.
Further on in his piece Roth makes a statement that can only be described as disingenuous. He admits Israel warned people of attacks in advance; then he says:
But giving warning, as required by international humanitarian law, does not relieve the attacker of the duty to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to target only combatants. Otherwise, Palestinian militants might "warn" Israeli settlers to leave their West Bank settlements and then be justified in attacking anyone who remained. Hizbullah might have done the same in northern Israel.
This statement ignores two key points: First, since as a matter of strategy Hezbollah fighters did blend within the civilian population, Israel's only means of separating the civilians was to warn them in advance, thus depriving Israel of the vital element of surprise. Second, the reason Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups do not warn Israeli civilians is that Israeli civilians are their targets! Why would they warn the very people they are trying to kill?
Roth does attempt to answer the question, "How should the IDF fight such a war?" His response is pathetic. He says Israel must proceed by "attacking civilian structures and vehicles only if there is evidence that Hizbullah is actually using them." We have already seen that HRW ignores evidence that this is precisely what Israel did! Roth fails to demonstrate how Israel can both protect its own cities against hostile rocket fire and completely avoid civilian casualties, when the enemy's key strategy is to put its own civilians at risk by hiding behind them. He also distorts the facts and omits the evidence that Israel did what it could to ensure, as much as possible, that it was targeting Hezbollah fighters.
Let us examine more closely Roth's claim that of the"two dozen bombing incidents" HRW investigated, "In none of those cases was Hizbullah anywhere around at the time of the attack."
One of the cases HRW looked at in some detail was the village of Srifa. Here is what the HRW report says [Reference 5]:
At the sites visited by Human Rights Watch - Qana, Srifa, Tyre, and the southern suburbs of Beirut - on-site investigations did not identify any signs of military activity in the area attacked, such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers, other military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters. International and local journalists, rescue workers, and international observers also did not produce evidence to contradict the statements of witnesses interviewed for this report.
However, a New York Times report on the clash in Srifa tells another story [Reference 7]:
Muhammad Jaber looked on quietly as a crowd of men gathered around an excavator reaching deep into the rubble of what was once a three-story building here in Sreifa [sic] on Tuesday, wondering what he might have done differently to induce his son to leave.
"I told him to come with me, but he wouldn't," Mr. Jaber said, speaking of his 27-year-old son Bilal. He said he had a hunch why his son wouldn't leave, but he refused to elaborate.
"He said he wanted to stay with his friends," Mr. Jaber said. "I called him after we left, but he said he just wouldn't leave."
Within minutes, several men dove into an opening in the rubble and pulled out an army boot, then a walkie-talkie, a bulletproof vest and a machine gun. They belonged to one of Bilal's friends. The jovial workmen went silent as Hezbollah security men told photographers to stop taking pictures, and Mr. Jaber's hunch was confirmed: his son was one of the militia fighters.
Mr. Kamaleldin, the Sreifa official, estimated that up to two-thirds of the town's homes and buildings were demolished, leaving more than 43 people buried in the rubble. A majority of them were fighters belonging to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party, residents said. (Emphasis added.)
Once again we find evidence of Hezbollah infiltration unreported by HRW, as well as attempts by Hezbollah to cover it up.
Taken at face value the HRW report paints a very dismal picture of Israel and its alleged disregard of human life. However, when we supply the pieces HRW omitted, it becomes clear that the report greatly distorts the truth. HRW investigators either allowed themselves to be duped or maliciously spun their data to present Israel in the worst possible light. Both may well be the case.
There are grave moral consequences to this kind of tendentious and twisted reporting. Ironically, these consequences are the opposite of what HRW seems to think.
HRW claims to be neutral, somehow seeming to equate "neutrality" with fairness [Reference 12]:
[This Q&A on Israel and Hezbollah] does not address whether Hezbollah was justified in attacking Israel, whether Israel was justified in attacking Lebanon for the conduct of Hezbollah, or other matters concerning the legitimacy of resorting to war. In accordance with its institutional mandate, Human Rights Watch maintains a position of strict neutrality on these issues.
There are situations, however, in which this kind of neutrality is not a virtue. This occurs when there is a breakdown in the moral order, and one side pushes the other into a position of having to act immorally no matter what it does. Hezbollah did push Israel into such a position. Because of the way Hezbollah conducted the war, Israel could not make a choice to avoid civilian casualties. Either Israel would have to allow its own citizens to remain passive targets of Hezbollah rockets, or try to stop the rockets by attacking the civilian areas from which the rockets were fired. Israel did not opt only for its own civilians. Israel could have spared more of its own by completely obliterating every Lebanese town in which Hezbollah had been operating, making the area totally uninhabitable for civilian and guerrilla alike. It did not do so, and many Israeli civilians were also killed and wounded.
There is no such thing as not making a choice. By remaining "neutral" in the presence of this kind of evil, one enables and supports it. We are forced to make a choice, and it is bad faith to pretend otherwise. It simply makes no sense for HRW to remain "neutral" about the decisions Hezbollah made that led to the Israeli behavior it so strongly condemns.
No matter how much HRW twists the facts, it should be obvious that Israel had no interest in targeting civilians. Every Lebanese civilian casualty was a public relations disaster for Israel and contributed to limiting Israel's options. Israel has no interest in harming civilians, but only in protecting its own citizens. Yet Hezbollah's war is by its very nature a war against civilians. The moral distinction is so obvious that one should not have to state it.
But apparently HRW needs to hear it. While HRW also criticizes Hezbollah, it apportions an overwhelming share of the blame to Israel, both in the tone of its reporting and in the amount of space allocated to the critique of each side. In spite of its lofty profession of neutrality, HRW does make judgments and it does take sides. Here is Kenneth Roth's lecture on morals to Israel:
Israel could have maintained the moral high ground if it had responded to Hezbollah rocket attacks by targeting only Hezbollah military forces. Instead, whether by design or callous indifference, Israeli bombing has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and left much of the country's infrastructure in ruins.
It is hardly neutral to say in so many words that Israel has ceded the moral high ground to Hezbollah. By deliberately making fighters indistinguishable from civilians and launching from civilian areas, Hezbollah made sure there was no way Israel could target only Hezbollah military forces. There was a fatal trade-off: Israel had to choose the "right" balance between Israeli and Lebanese civilian casualties. What country or fighting force could be trusted to make such decisions with consistent wisdom? Hezbollah? What country should be forced into a position of even having to make such decisions?
As we have seen, Hezbollah military forces were present in many attacks that HRW claims affected civilians only. Numerous accounts have already been cited. Avi Bell mentions more [Reference 2]:
It beggars belief to imagine that none of the dead were Hizbullah fighters as HRW wrote. Other news outlets also reported the Hizbullah combatant presence in the village. Some two weeks before the HRW report, on July 19, AP writer Nasser Nasser reported Hizbullah fighters in Srifa running for cover whenever Israeli aircraft appeared overhead. Even veteran anti-Israel propagandist Robert Fisk quoted a Srifa villager in the August 15 Independent acknowledging that "[w]e don't deny that the resistance was in Srifa."
Bell concludes with this important observation:
Human Rights Watch's insistence on placing Israel in the dock based on dubious or fabricated evidence creates the obscene situation where, at best, a law-abiding army is equally accused with an organization of war criminals and outlaws, and at worst, the lawful actors are viewed as the brigands and the criminals as innocent victims. (Emphasis added.)
Roth has accused Bell of a "see no evil" approach that "only encourages more such slaughter" [Reference 13]. It is now quite clear that these words apply much better to Roth himself. Roth seems unable to make the simple moral distinction between those who have a definite, systematic policy to kill civilians and those who don't.
There is an even greater danger in HRW's lopsided defamation of Israel. Whether or not by design, it gives support to the movement within the Muslim world to delegitimize Israel and so make Israel's destruction seem like a moral act. If Israel is indeed guilty of all the "war crimes" HRW attributes to it, maybe the world really would be better off if Israel were destroyed - that is certainly the feeling in much of the Muslim world now working towards that goal. But the motive of those segments of the Muslim world is religious and ethnic hatred. By slanting an unfair case against Israel, HRW contributes toward the vindication of that hatred. By ignoring the difference between Israel's and Hezbollah's values in its pretense of "neutrality," HRW's own attitude, and not the attitude of its critics, "only encourages more such slaughter."
Were all of the civilian deaths caused by Israel militarily necessary? I am no military expert. I have no way of knowing. But one need not demonstrate that one side is perfect in order to show that the other side engages in evil. The values of Israel and Hezbollah are distinct and are not morally equivalent. It is not Israel whose constitution states that the other side is "the hated enemy that must be fought until the hated ones get what they deserve" [Reference 9]. Unlike Hezbollah, Israel's founding document is not based on hate. That alone should tell us something.
I may not know to what extent Israel's mistakes could have been avoided or corrected, but I do know that Israel is not the monster HRW portrays in its reports, and that the information HRW leaves out is critical in forming a moral perspective on the conflict. Ignoring the depravity of Hezbollah's nihilistic values, as well as doctoring the evidence for a case against Israel - all of this supports the dangerous reversal of morality that is corrupting the world and that may end in totally shattering whatever world peace still remains.
If Hezbollah's values are allowed to stand unchallenged, the amorality and anti-humanism on which they are based will spread. That is why exposing the lies about Israel is absolutely essential.
1. "Articles on 'Human Rights Watch'." New York Sun, July, August 2006.
2. Bell, Avi. "Whose War Crimes in Lebanon?." Jerusalem Post, August 22, 2006.
3. Dershowitz, Alan. "What Are They Watching?." New York Sun, August 23, 2006.
4. "Fatal Strikes: Israelís Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon: Attacks on Civilian Homes." Human Rights Watch, August 3, 2006.
5. "Fatal Strikes: Israelís Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon: Methodology." Human Rights Watch, August 3, 2006.
6, "Fatal Strikes: Israelís Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon: Summary." Human Rights Watch, August 3, 2006.
7. Fattah, Hassan M. "As Cease-Fire Holds, Lebanese Dig for the War's Victims in the Rubble of Many Towns." New York Times, August 16, 2006.
8. Forsyth, Frederick. "What Is 'Disproportionate'?." Daily Express, August 11, 2006.
9. Lebanese Hezbollah. "Hezbollah Program." Jerusalem Quarterly, Fall 1988; republished by the Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
10. Liben, Noah. "Human Rights Watch: A Comparative Analysis of Activities in the Middle East 2002-2004." NGO-Monitor.org, June 30, 2005.
11. Prothero, Michael. "Strife Amid the Ruins: Hezbollah, for Now, Lays Down Its Weapons and Tries to Placate the Neighbors." U.S. News & World Report, August 20, 2006.
12. "Questions and Answers on Hostilities Between Israel and Hezbollah." Human Rights Watch, August 2, 2006.
13. Roth, Kenneth. "Getting It Straight." Letters to the Editor, New York Sun, July 31, 2006.
14. Roth, Kenneth. "Indiscriminate Bombardment." Jerusalem Post, August 20, 2006.
15. "HRW Targets Israel Again: Analysis of 'Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing'." NGO-Monitor.org, June 27, 2005.
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