On May 2, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement on two Israelis who crossed into Gaza and are being held incommunicado by Hamas. In certain respects, HRW’s press release is a departure from HRW’s customary agenda. In this instance, Israel is not the focus, and Palestinian violations are not merely used as background for an attack on Israel; Hamas violations are directly condemned without an artificial balance referring to Israeli actions. Coming after the initial denial of a work visa for HRW’s Omar Shakir, a BDS activist, this could be interpreted as a “confidence-building measure” from the organization.
Yet, this statement contains many of the general methodological problems that plague HRW’s publications, relating to timeliness, value-added “research,” sustained campaigning, consistency of terminology, and promotion of political ideology rather than human rights standards. It also highlights HRW’s ongoing failures in its agenda related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In particular, NGO Monitor notes:
- What took HRW so long? The two Israelis, Avera Mangistu and Hisham al-Sayed, disappeared into Gaza in 2014 and 2015, and they have been held incommunicado and illegally by Hamas since then. The media reported widely on their disappearances from the beginning. During this period, HRW issued a constant stream of allegations against Israel, but was silent on the clear violation of human rights norms by Hamas in these cases. This blatant discrepancy cannot be overlooked.
- Is this part of a sustained HRW campaign on this issue, or a one-off statement? In the past, HRW has published sporadic condemnations of Palestinian actions, such as a 2002 report on suicide bombings, but did little follow-up or additional campaigning to end Palestinian impunity. This contrasts significantly with the campaigns when Israel is the target, which include press conferences, governmental lobbying campaigns, UN submissions, videos, and social media. In fact, on the same day, HRW issued a statement on the Palestinian terrorists engaging in a hunger strike, largely blunting the impact of their statement on behalf of the Israelis.
- Why is HRW’s language towards Hamas restrained in comparison with its standard rhetoric? As opposed to most press releases about Israel, the headline, sub-header, and opening two paragraphs are purely factual without obvious condemnation of Hamas. The first sentence blandly states, “Two Israeli men with serious mental health conditions… have apparently been held by the Hamas military wing, Human Rights Watch said today.”
- Why does HRW claim that this statement involved “research”? HRW’s statement touts its “research” that “casts strong doubt” on Hamas allegations that all “Israelis who enter Gaza are spies” and “investigations” that determine that the mentally ill individuals “were not combatants or affiliated with the Israeli government when they entered Gaza.” The notion that diplomats, journalists and others need HRW to identify Hamas propaganda and bluster as such is absurd. Similarly, as noted above, the factual elements regarding the two Israelis have been in the public sphere for years.
- Moral and legal failures – The statement on HRW’s homepage argues: “Hamas’s refusal to confirm its apparent prolonged detention of men with mental health conditions and no connection to the hostilities is cruel and indefensible” (emphasis added). The implication is that, if the men had been soldiers, these activities would somehow not be cruel and indefensible. This is entirely false and in opposition to international law and morality. In fact, HRW regularly condemns Israel for not allowing more frequent family visits for Palestinian prisoners. (HRW also falsely implies that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped and held incommunicado in Gaza for five years, was treated humanely and allowed meaningful communication with his family while in captivity when in fact, he was tortured and held in secret.)
- Palestinian narrative – HRW’s statement includes echoes of Palestinian propaganda. For instance, when referring to the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014, HRW writes, in a passive voice, “The teenagers were later found dead,” ignoring that Hamas operatives shot the three boys at point blank range. HRW’s rhetorical tactic of erasing the details and not attributing agency, is used by many NGOs, including Al-Haq (a Palestinian NGO with close working relations to HRW), to minimize Palestinian culpability and violence.