Despite bias and scandals, Human Rights Watch “halo effect” continues: "Unlawful destruction" in Gaza
May 17, 2010
On May 13, 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its seventh report on the Gaza war, “‘I Lost Everything.’” The 116-page report focuses on alleged IDF destruction of civilian property, using this to promote the Goldstone report and to renew boycott calls against Israel.
While some major media outlets such as the New York Times and news services ignored the report, reflecting HRW’s bias and loss of credibility, others repeated the allegations without independent verification. Headlines based on the report reflect this – for example, “Human Rights Watch say destruction in Gaza 'unlawful'” (BBC) and “IDF wantonly destroyed homes during Gaza war” (Ha’aretz). An article by Beirut-based Michael Jansen (“Israel unlawfully destroyed Gaza property, says report”), who tends to reflect the Palestinian narrative, was published in the Irish Times.
HRW’s press release on the report accuses Israel of “collective punishment” and “systematic destruction,” in Gaza, and recommends prosecuting Israeli officials for war crimes, in step with the Goldstone campaign. Of nearly 4,000 alleged incidents, the report cited only 12 “where the evidence indicates that there was no lawful justification for the destruction of civilian property.” The allegations made on these 12 incidents are legally unfounded.
With yet another publication on the Gaza war, of which five target Israel, HRW highlighted a board member’s observation that, “We seek the limelight—that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.” In comparison, HRW has issued only two reports on Iran since January 2009 (HRW’s lone report on the Iranian post-election crisis is only 19 pages, compared to a total of 351 pages condemning Israel for the Gaza war). “‘I Lost Everything’” again demonstrates the problems at HRW. Although the report was written over one year ago, the decision to publish now suggests that the goal was to divert attention from scandals and criticism.
Specific examples of bias and lack of credibility include:
- Disproportionate focus: Five of the seven reports HRW has issued on the Gaza war have been focused on Israel.
- HRW claims that “some 3,540 homes, 268 factories and warehouses... were destroyed, and 2,870 houses were severely damaged.” Yet the authors attempt to document only 12 cases of alleged “unlawful destruction.”
- Support for boycotts: At the news conference announcing the report, MENA Director Sarah Leah Whitson renewed her call for the Caterpillar bulldozer boycott, part of the wider global BDS campaign to internationally isolate Israel. In the report, HRW calls on the US government to “[s]uspend shipment to Israel under the Foreign Military Sales Program of Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers” and to [u]se the leverage that comes from the massive US military assistance … to press Israel.” HRW makes similar demands of the EU.
- Garlasco: Marc Garlasco’s role in the research and writing of this report is unclear. At the time that HRW claims to have done the “investigation” (April 2009), Garlasco, whose credibility is the subject of controversy, was HRW’s “senior military analyst” (until September 2009). Many of the claims seem to reflect Garlasco’s “forensic” and military technical language.
- Reliance on unconfirmed NGO sources: The report acknowledges assistance from the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Gisha, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Much of HRW’s report is based on reports of these highly politicized NGOs. In several cases, HRW noted that it did not or could not independently verify these NGO claims, but nevertheless, included them.
- Tendentious language: For example, in the press release accompanying the report, Whitson said, “…Israeli forces gratuitously destroyed people's homes and livelihoods. If the Israeli government doesn't investigate and punish those responsible, it would be effectively endorsing the suffering that these civilians have endured.”
- Methodological failures: Most of the report is based on “eyewitness testimony,” that cannot be substantiated. For example, on allegations regarding the Al-Qonouz cement factory and al-Dalon home, HRW relied on an eyewitness for stating that they were “not aware of any information or claims that Palestinian armed groups used these structures or that their destruction was militarily necessary.” Yet, even PCHR (which grossly overstated civilian casualties) reported heavy fighting in the area of the factory and home with several militant deaths recorded. Showing further lack of evidence for its claims, HRW notes that its eyewitness was not present in the area at the time of the alleged destruction. HRW also admits that at the al-Dalon home it “observed the fragments of two anti-tank mines in the rubble” Notably, HRW does not identify these fragments as Israeli and they could have clearly come from Hamas who was known to be in possession of anti-tank weaponry.
- Advocacy and Lawfare: The report makes recommendations to the governments of Israel and the United States, the European Union, and four United Nations bodies, but none to the Palestinian Authority. HRW also recommends that the UN Security Council “refer the conflict to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court” in the absence of what they refer to as “thorough and impartial investigations up to international standards,”
- Endorsing Goldstone: HRW has been very active in promoting the Goldstone Report (Goldstone was a board member and is close to Executive Kenneth Roth). This report again urges the Israeli government to “implement the findings and recommendations of the final report produced by the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.” (In 2009, HRW produced 34 documents on the Goldstone Report, more than the number published regarding the majority of countries in the MENA region.)
- The façade of legal expertise: The report is subtitled “Israel's Unlawful Destruction of Property during Operation Cast Lead,” and claims that HRW found a “willingness to destroy property without sufficient military justification or that caused disproportionate civilian loss.” Yet, HRW (and its witnesses) neither possess the information nor the capability to evaluate “military justification” and “disproportionate loss.” Factors to do so include intelligence on Hamas positioning; locations of weapons, tunnels and boobytraps; Israeli targeting evaluations; and the information known to and weighed by the IDF prior to the strikes. In addition, HRW wrongly asserts that facilities such as cement factories cannot be considered legal military targets regardless of the presence of combatants.
- Illusion of balance: The press release accompanying the report only briefly mentions kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, Egypt’s shared responsibility for the “collective punishment,” rockets attacks from Gaza, and the property damage caused by Palestinian armed groups.
For a more detailed analysis of HRW, see NGO Monitor’s “Experts or Ideologues: Systematic Analysis of Human Rights Watch.”