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This summer marks the five-year anniversary of the Lebanon war between Israel and the Lebanese-Iranian terrorist organization Hezbollah. The Second Lebanon War traumatized Israel politically as well as militarily. Militarily, Israel failed to dislodge the terrorist organization from its southern Lebanese foothold; politically, Israeli leaders found themselves overwhelmed by a flood of false accusations of “war crimes,” “indiscriminate and disproportionate” force, and “violations of international law.”
International non-governmental organizations played a critical role in the political warfare against Israel. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – ostensibly neutral watchdogs – led the campaign. In 35 days, they issued over 40 press releases, statements and pseudo fact-finding reports, comprising hundreds of pages, largely ignoring the war crimes committed by the terrorist organization and instead focusing overwhelmingly and negatively on alleged Israeli crimes.
The HRW and Amnesty allegations were immediately accepted, at face value, by the world’s media. Politicians and diplomats then echoed the war crimes accusations, without any fact-checking.
We are now completing a multi-year study of all the HRW and Amnesty allegations regarding the 2006 Lebanon war, and the results so far are shocking. In our systematic and detailed research, supported by the Israel Science Foundation, we found major contradictions as well as numerous unsupported charges, double standards and false or invented “evidence.”
In some reports, such as on incidents in the Shiite towns of Srifa and Qana – Hezbollah strongholds from which numerous rocket attacks were launched – the NGOs published wildly inconsistent civilian casualty claims within a few days of each other. Errors were overwhelmingly in one direction; almost without fail, errors consisted of exaggerated Lebanese casualties or unfounded accusations against Israel.
In many incidents, HRW and Amnesty reports initially relied both on Lebanese witnesses and the personal observations of its own “researchers” to deny any Hezbollah military presence in the area of an Israeli strike, while later publications acknowledged that Hezbollah had been present, meaning the witnesses had lied and the NGO researchers were incompetent. Regarding Srifa, even after reducing the number of reported Lebanese casualties from “at least 42” to 26 to 19 before finally settling on 22, HRW found itself forced by critics and the evidence to eventually acknowledge that most of the “civilian” casualties it had “documented” were, in fact, Hezbollah combatants.
Hold NGOs accountable
Indeed, in all of the incidents, the lack of reliable sources of information for the HRW and Amnesty accusations against Israel stands out. In each case, it is clear that when HRW and Amnesty issued their initial condemnations of Israel, usually within a few hours of the incident, the organizations had little or no information about the central issues of military necessity and the nature of casualties. And later reports with altered condemnations were based more on conjecture than substantive research.
The most blatant example was the incident in Qana, where Israel responded to heavy Hezbollah rocket attacks with an air raid. One of the buildings was hit and collapsed, causing a number of deaths and injuries. Within hours, HRW blasted a press release in which Executive Director Ken Roth claimed that the "Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone, relating to the strike on Qana, killing at least 54 civilians, more than half of them children." HRW then launched a campaign charging Israel with war crimes, with nine separate “reports” and op-eds, as well as press conferences.
HRW’s campaign was echoed in media headlines, creating intense international pressure, and leading Prime Minister Olmert to declare a “48-hour suspension of aerial activity pending an investigation…” A unilateral halt in military action due to unverified NGO allegations was unprecedented, allowed Hezbollah forces to regroup, prolonging the war, and probably costing many lives.
Yet, as our research reveals, HRW had no credible evidence for its claims. Roth, HRW researcher Lucy Mair (who had written propaganda for Electronic Intifada before joining HRW) and others far from the battleground, had inflated civilian casualty claims and erased the Hezbollah attacks that constituted the real war crimes as well as legal justification for Israeli actions. To create the façade of “fact finding”, the initial HRW statement referred to “researchers” in Lebanon, but they provided no names or means to verify HRW’s claims. Later reports either provided no sources or attributed allegations to “witnesses” who could well have been Hezbollah allies or operatives. The allegations that Israel had criminally and deliberately bombed Lebanese civilians were unsourced and false.
As the contradictions emerged, HRW’s Mair admitted that the Lebanese Red Cross had reported 28 dead, including Hezbollah “martyrs,” but HRW chose to continue its false accusations against Israel.
The catch-22 in which the NGOs placed Israel is illustrated by their “proof” that Israel knew that civilians were in the building, near the Hezbollah targets. On August 3, 2006, Amnesty International “proved” that an Israeli investigation showing that the Israeli military had not known of the civilians was a “whitewash” because “survivors of the attack … stated that they had been in the building for some two weeks and that their presence must have been known to Israeli forces.” On the same day, August 3, 2006, Human Rights Watch “proved” that the Israeli claim that the “civilians were not seen because they had been hiding in the building for some days” could not be believed because a “survivor” of the attack stated that the civilians only entered the building “around 6 pm on July 29,” i.e., only seven hours before the bombing.
Two opposite and contradictory accounts of the facts, but the same result: the NGOs pronounced that the facts prove Israeli guilt.
Sadly, observers – even Israeli officials – have tended to give the NGOs a free pass for their fabrications. And the model of making up the facts to “prove” an Israel guilt presumed from the start has been repeated in subsequent conflicts, most prominently by the Goldstone Mission’s now discredited 2009 report on the Gaza conflict.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claim to be promoting universal values by prosecuting their political war against the State of Israel. But justice will only truly be served when the NGOs are held accountable for their distortions.
Abraham Bell is professor of law at Bar Ilan University. Gerald Steinberg is professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University