Updated May 27 2004

With the violence continuing in Gaza, particularly in Rafiah along the narrow border area with Egypt, a number of human rights NGOs have nonetheless issued strong condemnations of Israel. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have accused Israel of "war crimes" and "gross violations of international humanitarian law." As in the case of Jenin (Defensive Shield) and other examples, such accusations reflect political and ideological agendas, rather than a careful weighing of the evidence. Furthermore, heavy reliance on anonymous and largely Palestinian eyewitnesses reflects a lack of detached and professional reporting standards, which further undermines the credibility of these claims and condemnations.

In their reports, these NGOs largely ignore the background of the current violence, including the deliberate location of Palestinian tunnels to smuggle explosives and weapons, including missiles, beneath the homes and property of civilians, some of whom are willing participants in the smuggling operations. Other structures in Gaza have been used to fire upon Israeli soldiers and civilians, including the horrific terrorist shooting of seven-month pregnant Tali Hatuel and her four small daughters on 2 May at point blank range. (To its credit, Amnesty issued a condemnation of this terror attack.) Mourners who attended a memorial service for the slain family came under Palestinian gunfire from terrorists hiding in nearby homes from a distance of some 300 meters.

In their highly politicized assessments, HRW and Amnesty use the rhetoric of international law selectively, failing to note that private property used by armed combatants loses its protected status within a war zone. Although Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the destruction of private homes by military forces, it also includes the very significant caveat: "except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations." Israel's understanding of its rights and responsibilities under international humanitarian law have been scrutinized by the Israeli Supreme Court, which refused a petition filed by a number of NGOs asking to halt the Rafiah operation.

Nevertheless, Amnesty International’s 18 May report, "Israel and the Occupied Territories. Under the rubble: House demolition and destruction of land and property", claims: "The grounds invoked by Israel to justify the destruction are overly broad and based on discriminatory policies and practices." Amnesty went on to accuse Israel of "war crimes". Similarly, in a press statement of May 20, Human Rights Watch, declared Israel’s actions as "part of the IDF’s policy of collective punishment, which international humanitarian law strictly forbids." Unless the interpretations of international law by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch undergo judicial review in a manner parallel to the Israeli interpretation, such claims are unsupported.

Furthermore, in both cases, the demonization of Israeli policy, without including the context of the Israeli actions, highlights the continued political exploitation of the rhetoric of human rights and the terminology of international law. It is also consistent with the active role of these groups at the 2001 Durban conference, and in other cases since then. In the case of Gaza, as before, the NGOs fail to offer realistic alternatives to respond to the intelligence information regarding a shipment of Katyusha rockets and shoulder-launched missiles being prepared on the Egyptian side for smuggling into the tunnels. Should Israel tolerate the shipment of weapons to terrorist groups — like Hamas and Islamic Jihad — that are used to kill innocent Israeli civilians as well as Israeli soldiers? If so, HRW and Amnesty would be denying Israelis the most basic of human rights – the right to life.

The May 20 HRW statement also relied solely on unnamed "eyewitnesses" to justify its criticism of the accidental deaths of a number of Palestinian civilians hit by IDF fire during a mass march in the Tel al-Sultan area of the Gaza Strip on 19 May. In addition, HRW repeated the Palestinian claim that the victims were "peaceful marchers", but then acknowledges that the "demonstrators might have been armed", while failing to draw the conclusions following from this possibility. HRW thus followed a pattern previously demonstrated by NGOs during Israel’s April 2002 Operation Defensive Shield. During that time, a member of the Amnesty International team, Professor Derrick Pounder was quoted by the BBC as saying the signs pointed to a massacre in Jenin. Even though Amnesty later conceded that there was no massacre, its premature condemnations, repeated by the international media and many diplomats, contributed to the quick spread of the lie of the massacre that is still being exploited by anti-Israel organizations.

The accusations of a "massacre" resurfaced following the incident in Gaza, with wildly inflated casualty claims presented by the Palestinians and repeated for many hours by the media and NGOs without serious question or independent verification. There was also no verification or investigation into IDF claims to have evidence that gunmen had been present at the demonstration, and the very real possibility that the mass march was a cover for attacks on Israeli soldiers, 13 of whom had been killed in attacks the week earlier.

In addition, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, Moked and Betselem have asserted that Israeli forces prevented Palestinian casualties from receiving medical treatment, particularly with regard to blocking of ambulances. As cited above, these groups also petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court, alleging that the IDF opened fire as a matter of policy on Palestinian ambulances. As noted in previous NGO Monitor analyses, these groups have consistently used such claims to advance a highly politicized anti-Israel agenda. In this case, such claims were contradicted by the Israeli offers to treat injured Palestinians in Israeli hospitals, which were rejected by Palestinian officials. Israel has also provided evidence that Palestinian gunmen used the cover of ambulances during the Rafah operation, continuing a well-documented pattern of exploitation of medical resources for terrorist activities during the Palestinian war of terror. Thus, these charges extend the pattern of abuse of unsubstantiated human rights claims to promote a clear political agenda.

Once again, human rights groups and NGOs have contributed significantly to the distortion of events and the demonization of Israel during its anti-terror operations in Gaza. While, undoubtedly, Israel's activities have caused hardship to the Palestinian population, the one-sided public relations activities of the NGO community continue to undermine the effort to advance a global human rights agenda due to this transparent politicization.