Concern is mounting over a letter sent to President Bush last month by one of America’s largest human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch, denouncing Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Israeli security fence as part of an "illegal" land grab. Supporters of Israel this week excoriated the missive, which urges a cessation of American funding to the Jewish state, as "anti-Israel" and "racist."
Writing to the president on December 27,the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East North Africa Division, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: "Israel’s continuing settlement activity is a violation of international humanitarian law (IHL), United Nations Security Council resolutions, and Israel’s own commitments under the U.S.-sponsored Road Map of April 2003." The note was a response to December announcements by the Israeli ministries of housing and defense that about 600 new housing units would be erected in West Bank settlements.
"No one but Israel disputes the fact that its settlement policy violates IHL," Ms. Whitson wrote, adding that the construction of the security barrier was motivated not by safety concerns, but "an Israeli intention eventually to annex the territory in question."
The letter also cites the International Court of Justice, "many international legal commentators and every major human rights organization in the world" in denouncing the barrier as "tantamount to an illegal annexation of the settlements on the Israeli side of the wall."
In the letter, the New York-based Human Rights Watch calls on Mr. Bush to "use U.S. diplomatic and financial influence to stop this trend in 2006"by reducing American aid to Israel by the amount Israel spent on the construction and maintenance of settlements and the security barrier inside the West Bank. That sum, according to estimates in the letter, would be about $3.27 billion, almost $700 million more than America’s entire contribution of financial aid to Israel in fiscal year 2005.
News of the letter sparked outrage among supporters of Israel in New York and Washington, who decried the letter as anti-Israel and evidence of misplaced priorities on the part of Human Rights Watch.
The vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, called the letter "ridiculous," adding that Israel has shown a willingness to make adjustments to the fence, which is "movable and reversible," Mr. Hoenlein said. "The victims of terror can’t be reversed."
Mr. Hoenlein also faulted Human Rights Watch for silence on other human rights abusers, particularly Palestinian Arabs. "I want to see the letters from them about increased terrorism … about the incitement of children to hatred and terrorism," Mr. Hoenlein said. According to a list of letters available on the organization’s Web site, of the seven letters that were sent directly to Mr. Bush last year, two were about Israel, the only country to merit a double-mention.
In Washington, a Democratic congressman who represents Brooklyn and Queens, Anthony Weiner, responded to Human Rights Watch’s request of the administration by saying: "Given that the security fence has inarguably reduced terrorism and death by would-be Palestinian bombers, it seems any organization truly concerned about human rights should be supporting Israel’s right to construct it."
A senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a professor at the Touro College Law Center, Anne Bayefsky, also disputed the legal and policy statements of the letter, particularly those about the International Court of Justice ruling on the security fence. "One has to consider that the only dissenting opinion came from the American judge, who himself was a survivor of the Holocaust, while in the majority were judges that explicitly excused suicide bombing in the course of their decision," she said.
Moreover, Ms. Bayefsky said, "the ground rules for that decision were set out by the U.N. General Assembly – not exactly known as fair arbiters of human rights." Ms. Bayefsky also observed that the Roadmap was a "two-way street" and that the Palestinian Arabs had yet to comply with their obligations to dismantle their terrorist infrastructure.
Scholars of international law also noted that the Human Rights Watch letter preemptively assumes that Israel’s borders are settled, and assumes Palestinian Arab ownership of the West Bank and other disputed lands by labeling them "occupied territories," the criterion for determining that the wall and the settlers violate Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The official Israeli position is that the territories are "disputed," not "occupied," and thus not subject to the convention’s rules about "occupied" territory.
The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, responded to criticism of the the organization by saying it "has been extremely outspoken condemning both suicide bombings by Palestinians … and deliberate attacks on civilians," adding that the group opposes the location of the security barrier inside "occupied territory," not the existence of it.
Mr. Roth also defended the legal argument put forth in the letter, saying the Geneva Conventions "so clearly apply to the West Bank that it’s not even a serious dispute outside of Israel," adding, of the West Bank’s purported status as an "occupied" territory: "The government of Israel is the sole one contesting it, and then it gets its handful of allies in the United States to pretend that this is an issue."
The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, however, lambasted Human Rights Watch’s position as an "anti-Semitic" double standard, adding: "For Human Rights Watch to call on Israel and Jews not to live in Judea and Samaria is simply racist. Why is it that Arabs can live in Israel, and Arabs can live in the West Bank, and Jews cannot live in the West Bank?
"I think it is appalling that Jews would sit on the board of an organization that condemns a Jewish country for doing what it can to protect itself from Arab terrorism … and really the Jews on that board should all be ashamed of themselves," Mr. Klein said.
Board members and advisers said this week that they had not seen the letter prior to its mailing, and the vice chairman of the organization’s board, Sidney Sheinberg, told The New York Sun: "There are times that it might be wise for the policy committee and the board to participate in decisions that they have historically not been involved in." Still, Mr. Sheinberg and another board member, James Hoge, the editor of Foreign Affairs, said the letter was consistent with Human Rights Watch’s board-approved policies on the Middle East and the applications of the Geneva Conventions and international law.
A member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East advisory committee and the president of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby, too, said he had not seen the letter prior to its being sent, but expressed support for its contents. "I’ve been appalled by Israel’s continued building of and by the wall," Mr. Zogby said. "Human Rights Watch is just saying the obvious: We shouldn’t be paying for what we disagree with."
Mr. Roth, too, said the letter was consistent with broad policies approved by the board, adding that the board members and advisers do not review and are not responsible for approving specific Human Rights Watch publications such as reports or letters.
The founder of Human Rights Watch and a current emeritus board member, Robert Bernstein, declined to comment on the letter, as did another board member and president of the Carnegie Corporation, Vartan Gregorian. Calls and e-mails placed to board members Edith Everett, Kati Marton, and Michael Gellert were not returned.