Special Edition: Updated 27 May 2004
SELECTIVE USE OF INTERNATIONAL LAW:
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH,
AND OTHER NGO’S ON ISRAEL’S RAFIAH OPERATION
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
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 Internationalís 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 Israelís
actions as "part of the IDFís 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 ó like Hamas
and Islamic Jihad ó 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 Ė 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
Israelís 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 Israelís
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
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.