Summary: Ignoring the controversy regarding its agenda and involvement in political campaigning, Human Rights Watch’s compilation of allegations regarding the Israeli military lacks credibility, erases context, and exploits the language of international law.
Ignoring the controversy regarding its agenda and political campaigning, (see past NGO-Monitor analysis), Human Rights Watch issued a 128 page report on June 22, 2005, entitled "Promoting Impunity: The Israeli Military’s Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing". This document, accompanied by a carefully orchestrated press conference at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem (the base of Palestinian media operations), illustrates the defects, including lack of credibility and context, and the exploitation of the language of international law, that have characterized the activities of HRW’s Middle East division for many years.
Evidence of the Political Agenda
Many aspects of this report illustrate the centrality of HRW’s political agenda, including the title, which, instead of demonstrating a detached presentation of the issue, uses the condemnatory language of an ideological campaign. Furthermore, in the area of "military wrongdoing", HRW has singled out two democracies involved in defending against terror campaigns — Israel and the US – for reports on this very complex topic.
Like similar HRW campaigns and publications dealing with the Middle East, this document overlooks the non-conventional environment of the protracted terror war. In the days before this report was launched, a Palestinian woman carrying an explosive belt was intercepted at a checkpoint on her way to treatment at an Israeli hospital, but this reality was not deemed worth mentioning by HRW’s Middle East division. In these circumstances, in which a wrong security decision could lead to the deaths of many civilians, tragic mistakes are inevitable. While democracies, including Israel, are not perfect, and some violations of human rights occur, in this report, HRW has joined various political groups in attempting to paint honest mistakes as deliberate policy.
Similarly, HRW continues its practice of exploiting the rhetoric of international law for political attacks. For example, the authors of this report claim that "International humanitarian law (IHL) requires that armed forces distinguish at all times between combatants and noncombatants, and absolutely prohibits any deliberate killing of civilians. It also requires that armed forces observe the principles of military necessity and proportionality." (p. 6) But it is clear that in terrorist warfare, these distinctions are deliberately blurred, and such claims are highly misleading.
HRW’s Credibility Gap
HRW’s previous reports on Israel have been consistently flawed by a lack of credibility, and this is also the case here. Most of the evidence presented by HRW comes from Palestinian "eyewitnesses", politicized NGOs such as the Public Committee against Torture in Israel (PCATI), the Palestinian Red Crescent, B’tselem, etc. For example, in footnote 8, HRW bases various claims of civilian Palestinian casualties on the highly problematic and politically motivated assertions by these groups, ignoring the obstacles to accurate assessments. As was clearly illustrated in the false tales of the 2002 Jenin "massacre", Palestinians frequently inflate such claims, deliberately blur the distinction between terrorists and civilians, and refuse to cooperate in professional investigations, while not allowing autopsies. Many of the casualties cited in this report are likely to have been involved in terrorism, or were the result of Palestinian fire. Similarly, the moral responsibility of the Palestinian Authority in allowing civilians to be used as cover by terrorists is again ignored by HRW.
The report includes frequent complaints that HRW requests for information and cooperation from the IDF went unanswered, ignoring the fact that HRW is viewed as a hostile political organization that lacks any credibility. The expectation that the government of Israel would cooperate under these conditions was clearly uninformed.
The credibility of HRW’s highly politicized Middle East Division is further reduced by the uncritical acceptance of reports by journalists, whose own biases and lack of professional standards has been frequently noted. Thus, the report’s version of one incident involving the deaths of Palestinians cited an "experienced journalist" who made the unfounded observation that "Such a swift acknowledgement by the military of improper behavior in the fatal shooting of Palestinians is rare." (p. 2) The journalist, whose entirely subjective opinion is cited as authoritative, also has a well-known political bias.
In addition, HRW’s report claims that "Public accountability is the best defense against indifference, incompetence and collusion. Without this, Israel’s system will not be credible" (p.116). Let us consider the credibility of the HRW report when held to this standard. For example, an unsourced footnote on p. 65-66 asserts that the "largest military operation since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon…included indiscriminate and excessive use of force, unlawful killing of civilians, use of Palestinians as human shields, and detention of at least 4,500 Palestinian men and boys, many of whom reported ill treatment during arrest and interrogation." In this and other examples, there is no accountability in such a broad claim, included in a footnote and without supporting evidence, as though it were undisputed fact.
Erasing the Context of Terrorism
As noted, this and other HRW reports alleging human rights violations by the governments of Israel and the US, consistently erase the context of terrorism. In this case, HRW claims that "Almost all of the cases of death and serious injury investigated in this report occurred in circumstances that cannot fairly be characterized as situations of armed conflict". (p. 3) Given the intensity of the terror campaign, this claim is hardly credible, and is another example of the way in which HRW systematically ignores its own singular report of November 2002 on Palestinian terror.
This fictitious context is found in the allegation that the IDF fails to send investigators to Palestinian areas to gather testimonies, and the claim that "Victims and their representatives have little practical access to the investigation process". (p. 7) On this basis, HRW jumps to the conclusion that "The most significant factor underlying impunity is the reluctance of the JAG’s office to investigate incidents, even when witnesses are accessible and the breach of international law is clear." (p. 7) As in past reports, this example ignores the fact that IDF investigators cannot enter a village and question its citizens as if Jenin and Gaza City were located in Switzerland or California. If IDF investigators were to attempt to interview Palestinians in this context, the violence could escalate and lead to many more deaths.
Political Rhetoric instead of Dispassionate Analysis
The manipulative language consistently employed by HRW is designed to make an objectively weak case subjectively and emotionally compelling. For example, the report criticizes IDF investigations as "characterized by inaction and cover-up" (p 4) and claims that "the [IDF legal] system does not provide justice or truth. (p 7) In one of the cases discussed in this report, HRW failed to note the use of a polygraph test when an officer was suspected of lying. While the use of such devices is highly problematic, a judicial system that uses polygraph tests in cases of questionable behavior can hardly be "characterized by inaction and cover-up" (p.4)
The absence of context is repeated in the recommendations for dealing with military investigations in a terror war, as provided by HRW’s Middle East "experts". In its guidelines for the Israeli soldiers who are under fire, the members of this NGO proclaim: "If lethal force is used in situations of armed hostilities, Israeli forces must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants, never direct attacks at a civilian population or individual civilians, and refrain from attacks that indiscriminately harm civilians." (p. 9). This recommendation fails to mention that in a terror situation, in which combatants are not uniformed, such distinctions are often impossible, and would lead to large loss of life among Israelis. The IDF soldiers cannot possibly be more careful about the loss of Palestinian lives than their own. People who suggest such an attitude are guilty of holding a double standard in regards to Israel. Similarly, the authors suggest that Israel should reform its military justice system to follow Britain, Canada and Belgium, as if the situations and threats were even remotely comparable.
In summary, this report highlights the gap between the claim that "The hallmark and pride of Human Rights Watch is the even-handedness and accuracy of our reporting" and the consistent failure to live up to this promise. HRW’s own reporting "system" is far from credible.