On May 27, six major NGOs; Amnesty International, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the French Organizations, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) issued a joint press release entitled, "International Rights Groups Decry Increased Harassment of Monitors." In this statement, these NGOs went far beyond their human-rights mandates and reflected deep-seated political and ideological agendas by using the terms "killing…intimidation…harassment" to describe the condition of foreign national humanitarian workers in the Gaza strip. As will be demonstrated below, these undefined terms are used out of context, with no effort to provide balance.
In their mission statements the above organizations claim to pursue an impartial and uncompromised commitment to universal human rights and apolitical principles, independent of any political ideology or economic interest. On its website, Amnesty International explicitly states it "does not support or oppose any government or political system…. it is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights." The ICJ talks of the "impartial, objective and authoritative legal approach to the protection and promotion of human rights (see http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article.php?id=940)." The OMCT claims to represent some 240 anti-torture NGOs and exists to campaign "for the end of torture" while FIDH simply styles itself "human rights defenders." The EMHRN talks of the need to "develop a constructive dialogue with governments" in its pursuit of guaranteeing human rights for all (see http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article.php?id=956). HRW pledged in its Annual Report 2002 that it would try to uphold objectivity and condemn human rights abuses on both sides. By adding their name to this one-sided political statement, HRW and the other groups have clearly violated their own guidelines.
Four Major Omissions
Ostensibly, the statement expresses concern for the fate of "human rights organizations and workers" in Gaza, declaring that they have long "suffered intimidation and harassment by the Israeli authorities and army while carrying out their work…threats to personal safety and restrictions on the activities of local and international human rights and humanitarian workers and peace activists have sharply increased." However, this selective and superficial condemnation extends the long-standing pattern of international humanitarian organizations refusing to acknowledge the context of the brutal reality of Palestinian terrorism and the Israeli government’s rights and responsibilities to defend its own citizens.
Four major omissions in this statement are analyzed below:
The moral dilemmas Israeli forces face in distinguishing between genuine aid workers and devious provocateurs and even terrorists are ignored. Israel has never had a policy of restricting the access of bona fide aid workers to the Gaza Strip. The situation changed in April 2003 when two British Muslims, with impeccable English accents, traveled to Gaza on British passports. To provide cover, they met with members of the Palestinian-run NGO, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). It is presumed that elsewhere in Gaza they received their deadly explosives with which one of them managed to blow himself up along with three civilians, injuring 50 more, in a midnight suicide attack in a popular Tel Aviv jazz bar. Had the second terrorist’s charge also detonated and had a security not stopped the first terrorist at the entrance, the death toll would have been far greater. This is one of dozens of suicide bombings, but the first committed by foreign nationals. Following this incident, the Israeli authorities determined that future terrorists would not be allowed to exploit humanitarian NGOs as cover organizations just as they exploit the innocent among Gaza’s civilians. Yet none of this is mentioned in the statement of the human rights organization condemning Israeli policy.
One has to make a distinction between humanitarian workers such as nurses and doctors and the type of "peace activist" who takes part in demonstrations in front of tanks and in the line of fire. ISM openly encourages its foreign national activists to prevent soldiers from carrying out their missions. Moreover, ISM "How to" manuals explain that their foreign national activists should not reveal their identity at the border. ISM is aware that other countries with war zones restrict access, including US forces in the recent war in Iraq. Such action is deemed legal elsewhere in the world, as in Israel.
The statement strongly condemns the Israeli authorities for requesting that "humanitarian workers" (often provocative peace activists) entering Gaza sign a waiver form. The implication is Israel is deliberately targeting aid workers. The decision follows declarations by NGOs holding Israel entirely liable for the deaths of foreign nationals, regardless of the circumstances. Israel is conducting a complex anti-terror campaign in which foreign nationals sometimes choose to involve themselves. For example, Rachel Corrie’s tragic accidental death, March 16, 2003, according to the IDF report, occurred because she was blocked from vision as she stood behind a dirt mound between her and a bulldozer leveling the area in which houses were demolished some time before. A detailed Israeli investigation determined that her death was accidental and that she put her own life in danger by standing in front of the bulldozer. Making foreign humanitarian workers aware of the risks they face is the only reason why this waiver was instituted.
There is a long list of demands made on the Israeli government but silence regarding Palestinian obligations. Apart from the Mike’s Place bombing, there were scores of other atrocities that led to the charged situation in the Gaza Strip. Israel is facing a double hazard. On the one hand, there is the threat of suicide bombers entering its cities under the cover of aid workers. On the other hand, there is the threat of provocateurs interfering with its soldiers, putting themselves and soldiers at risk.
As noted in previous editions of NGO Monitor, two of the signatory groups, EMHRN and ICJ, provide support for and are affiliated with PCHR and Law, which are also blatantly active in supporting the Palestinian political cause, and seek to de-legitimize Israel’s counter-terrorism efforts. In calling on Israel to "immediately lift the restrictions on access imposed on the Gaza strip…for all," without even mentioning terrorism, these "humanitarian" organizations seem to be willing to condemn hundreds more Israeli civilians to death.
Responsibility of Humanitarian NGOs
This press statement illustrates the way in which independent organizations, subject to little public scrutiny, are shaping political discourse and images, first in the press, and increasingly in international conferences. The ICJ, FIDH and EMHRN hold considerable sway within the European Union; Amnesty International and HRW lobby many governments intensively. Together these organizations wield enough authority to influence the formulation of government policy. Despite the moral authority these organizations hold, they have demonstrated a consistent policy of steamrolling over complex political, geographical and social issues. They therefore infringe the political and ideological neutrality they declare to their funders, members and supporters in their mission statements.
This statement does a disservice to the cause of human rights because these six organizations made no effort to hide the unambiguously ideological motivations behind their statement. They distorted a complex situation to formulate a simplistic political and ideological attack against Israeli policies. The ulterior motive was to re-enforce the image of "Israeli human rights abuses." The simplistic partisan and politicized reading of the situation only further entrenches blinkered and uninformed opinions.
As frequently stated in NGO Monitor, such organizations have a responsibility to adhere to their stated principles. By painting a one-sided picture with convenient omissions of basic facts, NGOs betray their own stated objectives and values. The statement would have had far greater impact in improving the position of aid workers and the cause of human rights if it produced a clear call for all aid organizations and workers to distance themselves, unequivocally, from any terrorist group or individuals and produce clear condemnations of all forms of terrorism. Such a campaign would attack the root causes of the conflict and contribute to lessening the injustices both sides suffer. It would be tragic if such unbalanced and one-sided statements by humanitarian NGOs help perpetuate the exploitation of the civilians of the West Bank and Gaza by Palestinian extremists.