Correspondence between Kenneth Roth and Joshua Muravchik, in response to Muravchik’s article

On Human Rights Watch, etc.
Weekly Standard 9/23/2006, Volume 012, Issue 03

Rather than address the detailed and troubling evidence that Israel recently turned much of southern Lebanon into a free-fire zone, with predictable deadly consequences for civilians, Joshua Muravchik summarily dismisses the evidence as the product of one big leftist conspiracy with origins going back to the Cold War (“Human Rights Watch vs. Human Rights,” Sept. 11).

Without even bothering to visit Lebanon, Muravchik is somehow certain that there was no truth to the scores of victim and witness accounts describing Israel’s repeated targeting of civilian homes and vehicles where there was no Hezbollah military presence. Inexplicably, the detailed, painstaking methods that Human Rights Watch has used successfully in countless war zones worldwide to cut through any attempt to color the facts­the careful probing of witnesses, the cross-checking, the corroboration, the physical inspection of sites­suddenly don’t work when the focus is Israel. Even the Israeli government hasn’t produced a single fact to refute Human Rights Watch’s findings.

Muravchik notes that the Israeli government warned civilians to evacuate southern Lebanon, but then ignores the repeated assertions by Israeli officials that, accordingly, there were no civilians left and so all people who remained could be targeted as Hezbollah terrorists. Never mind that many civilians couldn’t flee because of infirmity, the skyrocketing expense of transportation, or legitimate fear of becoming another roadway casualty of Israeli bombing. Never mind that this logic would entitle Hezbollah to “warn” civilians to flee northern Israel and then claim justification for firing away.

Instead, Muravchik resorts to charges of bias. The evidence? That Human Rights Watch hasn’t subscribed to his bizarre view that Hezbollah’s repeated and disturbing statements of genocidal intent mean that Hezbollah in fact has already committed genocide against the Jews of northern Israel. For Muravchik, the killing of 39 Israeli civilians by Hezbollah rockets is in the same league with such real genocides as the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust or the murder of up-to-100,000 Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein. It should have been enough to join Human Rights Watch in repeatedly denouncing Hezbollah’s indiscriminate and deadly rocket attacks as war crimes and pressing for their end, but to call them genocide cheapens a concept whose continued vitality could be a matter of life and death for those who really face it. It also does a disservice to a people whose ancestors have experienced the real horror of genocide.

Muravchik also engages in a twisted exercise of bean-counting: Human Rights Watch has produced fewer interventions on Israel than on, to name several neighbors, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Sudan, and Egypt, but more than on certain other governments that Muravchik prefers to highlight. Yet he never bothers to explain why Human Rights Watch’s ground-breaking 172-page report on Palestinian suicide bombing should be equated with, say, a one-page press release criticizing Israel. Meanwhile, he never mentions HRW’s detailed, on-site study of Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on northern Israel­the most comprehensive survey available. He notes that Hezbollah packed many of its warheads with ball bearings to maximize their lethal effect, but fails to reveal that it was Human Rights Watch investigators who first publicly reported that fact. Finally, he falls back on a Byzantine grading scheme devised by “NGO Monitor,” an organization set up by a security consultant to the Israeli government that has never found a single criticism of Israel to be valid but routinely concocts facts to dismiss criticisms as the product of bias.

Ironically, the IDF has responded to Human Rights Watch’s reporting on Lebanon with far more seriousness than the reflexive defenders of Israel like Muravchik. It is hardly in Israel’s interest to needlessly kill civilians. But that means learning the lessons from this recent war, not summarily dismissing them with cheap charges of bias and Cold War conspiracies.

Kenneth Roth,
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
New York, N.Y.

Joshua Muravchik responds: Kenneth Roth is not an honest man.  He begins by attributing to me the notion of “one big leftist conspiracy.” I said the opposite, namely, that various human rights organizations, his especially, include people genuinely devoted to the cause and others with ulterior agendas.  He contradicts himself when he next imputes to me sarcastically the view that HRW’s methods “suddenly don’t work when the focus is Israel.”  But again I said the opposite, namely, that HRW’s bias against Israel is akin to its bias in favor of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s.  All the “careful probing” and the like with which he regales us is worthless if the investigators are biased.

Roth asserts that Israel “hasn’t produced a single fact” proving its innocence.  But HRW did not produce a single fact proving its vicious charge that Israel deliberately targeted civilians.  Is HRW’s method to fling charges and then challenge the accused to disprove them?

Roth says that Israeli exhortations to Lebanese civilians to leave areas where Hezbollah was dug in, “would entitle Hezbollah to ‘warn’ civilians to flee northern Israel and then claim justification for firing away.”  But Israel issued warnings because it was endeavoring to separate civilians from military targets whereas Hezbollah sought no such justification because it was deliberately and unashamedly aiming at civilians.  Why can’t Roth and HRW grasp this distinction?

Regarding my point that HRW ignored Hezbollah’s genocidal intent, Roth argues that Hezbollah has not committed genocide yet.  But whenever the moral vacuity of HRW’s work on the Middle East is pointed out, Roth insists that his touchstone is international law.  The law on genocide obligates states first of all to “prevent” it.  Hezbollah says it wants to kill Jews and has killed hundreds.  The time to prevent worse is now.

Finally, Roth asserts misleadingly that HRW has produced fewer reports on Israel than on some of its neighbors.  HRW produced many times more documents aimed against Israel than against the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Libya or Saudi Arabia.  It has produced more documents on Iraq–but only after the American invasion.  Before then, HRW criticized Saddam Hussein’s Iraq only one-third as often as Israel.  The only neighboring country that HRW may have criticized slightly more often than Israel is Egypt.

But even this is not certain for the following astounding reason.  After NGO Monitor issued a report documenting HRW’s bias, I asked HRW for its response. Roth sent me an e-mail contradicting NGO Monitor’s numbers and inviting me to “check [HRW’s website] if you’re so inclined.”  Sure enough, where NGO Monitor had cited 31 Israel-related pieces I could find only 26.  After hours of searching, I discovered that HRW had expunged 5 of the records, sanitizing its own website to reduce the number of items listed for Israel.  In short, HRW compounded its big deception of making Israel out to be the region’s main culprit with petty deceptions to hide the evidence of its own record.