Human Rights Watch, whose contribution to documenting human rights violations in Israel and the occupied territories is hugely valuable, have released a 31-page report, Rockets From Gaza, of their investigation into the role of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza since November 2008.
The report documents the missiles from Gaza which jeopardised and terrorised the 800,000 Israeli citizens who lived within their range, and finds armed groups to have intentionally targeted Israeli civilians, in violation of international law.
The executive summary is informative; as well as providing an overview of the death and damage resulting from the attacks (including to Gazan families), there is a restatement of ethos:
“The purpose of the laws of war is not to create parity between parties to a conflict, or to assess their violations in light of their relevant capacities, but to minimize the harm to the civilian population. Violations of the laws of war are not measured in the number of civilian casualties, but whether each side is taking all feasible precautions to minimize civilian loss. Using unsophisticated weapons does not justify failure to respect the laws of war, nor does an adversary’s use of sophisticated weapons provide a pass to its opponents to ignore those laws. Disparities in military capability, however measured, are irrelevant. The taking of civilian life can be minimized only if both parties recognize their legal obligations to abide by the laws of war however sophisticated the weaponry at their disposal.
Human Rights Watch is committed to documenting the worst violations of the laws of war committed by all sides to conflict. It is to promote the principle that civilians may never be the object of attack, regardless of the relative strength of the attacker, that Human Rights Watch has published this report.
The laws of war require parties to a conflict to investigate and take appropriate punitive action against individuals within their control who are implicated in war crimes. Hamas authorities have failed to take any action against Hamas commanders and fighters responsible for unlawful rocket attacks against Israel. Hamas has reportedly taken violent steps to prevent other armed groups from firing rockets. On March 10, the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported the alleged torture by Hamas police of 10 members of Saraya al-Quds, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad. The paper reported that Hamas police detained the 10 men, from Khan Yunis, and tortured them to coerce them to sign pledges that they would not fire rockets at Israel.”
Besides the BBC, is there any reporting organisation which hasn’t abandoned itself to partisanship on Israel and Palestine?
There are questions to ask about the integrity of Human Rights Watch because of how it raises money.
“An on-line Wall Street Journal op-ed posted two days ago alleged that Human Rights Watch officials went trolling for dollars in Saudi Arabia, and that the organization’s senior Middle East official, Sarah Leah Whitson, attempted to extract money from potential Saudi donors by bragging about the group’s “battles” with the “pro-Israel pressure groups.”
This is a serious allegation, and one I found difficult to believe, because Human Rights Watch has always been moderately careful about the optics of its fundraising efforts. The group’s credibility, of course, rests on its neutrality; playing traditional enemies off each other as a way to collect money from one (or both) sides in a conflict seems beyond the pale. (Let’s put aside for now the queasy-making image of a human rights organization venturing into one of the world’s most anti-democratic societies to criticize one of the Middle East’s most democratic states.)”
Human Rights Watch has since published a report about gunning down of white-flag-waving Palestinians. It was edited by Joe Stork, reported in Commentary to be vehemently anti-Israel, an inaccurate reporter and – far more seriously and untrustworthily for a human rights activist – a supporter of Palestinian terror against Israelis and (from the comments) a diminisher of human rights abuses against Iraqis under Saddam. It would be good to be able to trust HRW reports. It’s discredit if they employ biased editors, and it’s a shame that only the political right seems to be motivated to do homework on these authors. I suppose, from now on, we have to do this too.
The Rockets From Gaza report was authored by a researcher called Bill Van Esveld, based in HRW’s Middle East and North Africa section, where Joe Stork is also based (Esveld also co-authored the white flag report). I can’t see any signs of bias against Palestinians at all.
In the Huffington Post, he writes:
“Hamas’ attacks on civilians violate international law, but those violations are no excuse for a blockade that, as Israeli officials have implicitly acknowledged, amounts to collective punishment. “There is no justification for demanding we allow residents of Gaza to live normal lives while shells and rockets are fired from their streets and courtyards” at Israeli communities, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on January 23, 2008.
After two years of looking the other way, the international community, and especially the United States, should be pressing not only Hamas to end its unlawful attacks on Israeli civilians but also Israel to end its unlawful punishment of 1.5 million Gazans.”
“HRW’s Bill Van Esveld said last Thursday that a Newsweek report quoted in a recent Israeli Foreign Ministry briefing was “as clear evidence of human shielding [by Hamas] as you’re going to get”.
Journalist Rod Nordland wrote on 20 January: “Suddenly there was a terrific whoosh, louder even than a bomb explosion. It was another of Hamas’ homemade Qassam rockets being launched into Israel – and the mobile launch-pad was smack in the middle of the four [apartment] buildings, where every apartment was full.”
But Mr Van Esveld said he was only aware of evidence of “three or four” such cases, and had seen more evidence of the use of human shields by Israeli troops than by Palestinian militants.”
No more time, but there is no reason to suppose an anti-Palestinian agenda on the part of Van Esveld. Stork’s anti-Israel, pro-terror opinions on the other hand, disredit him.
I fear, given the pursuit of Saudi funds, that HRW will be giving disproportionate focus to exposing the abuses of Saudi’s enemies.
I have frequently drawn on HRW reports and it is unbelievably dispiriting to be writing this update. Greens Engage is more concerned with Israel than (Black) Engage, because we hope that Green international policy makers, currently faced with Green Party anti-Israel bias, will be looking. We try to view Israel as critically and fairly as any other country might expect. How can we do this if deprived of basic facts we can trust?
Update 2: it gets worse for Human Rights Watch. Bias is a particularly disgusting thing in an organisation which purports to stand for human rights. There should never be a good reason for the subject of a negative report to turn round and say “They have it in for us”. But HRW have provided precisely that reason by eagerly publishing allegations based on such flimsy evidence that investigative journalists became interested in the editor, and discovered a past which should have ruled him out of publishing on this subject.
Lest the perhaps-murdered and their families, who should be at the centre of the publicity for the report, are lost in the fallout of Joe Stork’s bias, I would say that it would be good if anybody involved in combat or policing were issued with their own black box, or some way of recording their actions. I can see all kinds of problems with this, but in the end they are small fry problems if you view them in the light of a situation in which men and women in a citizen army (with, it follows, a proportion of bad soldiers) are sent to find and kill enemy combatants in heavily populated areas. To be honest, I would trust Israelis to know what to do with this kind of evidence more than I would trust an organisation like Human Rights Watch and its low standards of evidence. This is not to write off HRW. It’s a salutory reminder not to trust any organisation unreservedly, to search the web for critical responses to such reports before quoting them, and to keep in mind that there may be vested interests at work in writing, crediting and discrediting such a report. Some people want to frame Israel. Some people want to defend Israel’s reputation. Some people want the truth. I hope this blog is concerned with the latter, limited only by time and other resources.
So to end, an analysis of the Rockets From Gaza report from the JTA (discovered by searching for links to the report pages – there wasn’t anything else of substance).