Updated on April 16, 2015, to reflect the change in the report’s cover photo.
On April 13, 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 74-page publication under the heading of “Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank.” According to the press statement, which was copied widely in international media platforms, “Settlement Agriculture Harms Palestinian Children” through allegedly “low wages and …dangerous working conditions in violation of international standards.”
As with many other HRW accusations and publications on Israel, as documented by NGO Monitor, the claims in this publication are entirely unverifiable and based solely on interviews. HRW provides no evidence that it even attempted to confirm any of the claims, many of which quote children, independently. Furthermore, in this instance, the allegations are inherently unverifiable, since there are no permits, pay slips, paperwork, or other documentation for the supposed child workers. Indeed, according to an Israeli official interviewed in in response to HRW’s allegations, “It is a horrific lie. There is no justification for employing children, not just morally and legally but financially as well.”
As the publication’s methodology section makes clear, HRW’s researcher (Bill van Esveld) began with a conclusion condemning Israel, and then sought evidence to persuade the intended audiences, particularly journalists readily influenced by NGO allegations. (See Matti Friedman, “What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel,” The Atlantic, November 30, 2014.)
This publication also reflects HRW’s priorities, which are based on ideology and a documented anti-Israel obsession, in contrast to fixed criteria based on the gravity, scale, and scope of the alleged abuses. This is the second full-length report written by HRW in 2015 with Israel as the focus – both on issues related to labor rights. No other country has more than one publication of this length, and it appears that major human rights situations such as Yemen, the Ukraine, ISIS, and Boko Haram have not been addressed in any HRW reports in 2015, despite the extreme level of atrocity and thousands of casualties involved.
It would appear, then, that HRW chose the relatively marginal (also in a comparative framework) and completely unproven allegations of child workers on Israeli farms in the West Bank as a pretext to demonize Israel and target Israel’s broader settlement policy.
Fundamental Problems with the Report
1) Lack of methodology
The allegations in the publication are based on 50 interviews, 38 ostensibly with minors, conducted in Arabic and translated for the HRW staffers and outside consultants/activists who do not speak the language.
As noted, the allegations cannot be verified, and HRW gives no indication that it independently confirmed the accounts. For example, there are no records that support medical diagnoses such as “symptoms indicating they were susceptible to heat stroke” or an incident where a “child…was pinned under a tractor that rolled over.”
2) Minimizing intra-Palestinian exploitation
Any Palestinian children who may be working on Israeli farms are first exploited by Palestinian middlemen who hire and contract workers for area jobs. Whereas the actual publication devotes attention to the role of the Palestinian middlemen, the press release buries this salient detail towards the bottom, after numerous paragraphs condemning Israel.
Similarly, any exploitation is enabled, if not encouraged by parents, to seek “work in settlements and often sending their children to work there as well.” HRW misleadingly blames “Israeli planning and zoning policies in the West Bank” for this situation.
In this vein, it is noteworthy that the original cover photo for HRW’s report, consisting of a child working on a date palm tree, was of a young Palestinian child working on a Palestinian farm. (Following criticism, HRW “removed the misleading image and published a new photo.” The new image, of “Palestinian laborers, including a 16-year-old, head[ing] out to work at a farm on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank,” is also misleading, since most of the individuals are adults and, according to international law, 16-year olds are generally considered adults for labor purposes.) However, HRW ignores these and other non-Israel-related aspects of child labor in the West Bank.
3) HRW’s true agenda, punishing Israel
As acknowledged by HRW, Israeli law and Civil Administration policies meet international standards on child labor. Thus, to the extent that violations have occurred, the question is one of enforcement, rather than the moral and international human rights allegations that HRW again invokes for political purposes. In this respect, one would expect the recommendations of an honest report to focus on improving and closing gaps in enforcement.
However, HRW’s recommendations extend to the EU and member states, the United States, and “businesses active in Israeli settlements,” calling on these entities to “cease imports of agricultural settlement products” and “Cease activities in the Israeli settlement agricultural sector, including providing equipment or services, and exporting or marketing agricultural produce.”
Thus, marginal allegations based on unverifiable claims which at worst, indicate the type of lapses in law enforcement that exist in most countries with agricultural sectors, are turned into weapons promoting demonization, boycotts (BDS), and political warfare.
This agenda is also reflected in the lengthy but unconnected political discussion on “Expanding Settlement Agriculture, Restrictive Anti-Palestinian Policies.”