Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, Palestinians have launched more than 1200 rockets into Israeli population centers. In response, the IDF entered Gaza, and Hamas leaders called on women and children to serve as human shields against IDF operations. Towards the end of the operation, a tragic incident apparently due to a misdirected artillery shell resulted in the deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians. Major international NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Christian Aid issued numerous statements. As in the past, these reports were largely one-sided and did not distinguish between deliberate attacks against Israeli civilians, and Israel’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties. (HRW’s condemnation of Palestinian use of human shields marks an important exception.) This report analyzes in detail NGO statements on the current situation in Gaza.
Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian terror organizations have launched more than 1200 Qassam rockets on Israel. Between June and October, 2006, more than 450 rockets were fired into Israel, largely aimed at the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. To date, Qassam rockets have killed 10 and injured more than 100. In addition to the dead and wounded, the constant barrage of attacks has had a severe effect on the population of Sderot, particularly children, resulting in widespread cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome. To stop the attacks on Israeli cities and root out Qassam rocket launchers and the teams responsible for their launch, the IDF entered Beit Hanoun, Gaza, on November 1, 2006. According to the Israeli government, “Beit Hanoun is the source of the majority of projectile rockets being fired into Sderot and additional communities in the western Negev.”
During the operation, leaders of Hamas called on women and children to serve as human shields against IDF operations. In one instance, the IDF called off a strike “[o]ut of fear that innocent bystanders would be injured.” The IDF also called off additional strikes after “hundreds of Palestinian human shields crowded around the homes of two terrorists allied with Hamas. While the IDF operation has killed mostly members of Palestinian terror organizations, towards the end of the operation, a tragic incident apparently due to a misdirected artillery shell resulted in the deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians.
Major international NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Christian Aid issued numerous statements during this operation. As in the past, these reports largely present a one-sided view of the situation and do not distinguish between the deliberate terrorist tactic of aiming at Israeli civilians, and Israel’s defensive response against these attacks. Terms such as "war crimes," "reckless," and "deliberate" are used without any consistent definition, and the context of the conflict is distorted or erased. Additionally, the use of human shields by Palestinians and their launching of Qassam rockets from highly populated civilian areas are minimized or ignored by most major NGOs, with the notable exception of HRW.
As with its statements on the Lebanon War, the moral equivalence between terror and legitimate self-defense is particularly pronounced in Amnesty International’s November 8 press release. Amnesty condemns Israel’s military incursion, claiming Israel acts with “reckless disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians.” Amnesty mentions, in passing, “home-made Qassem rockets” fired by “armed Palestinian groups” but makes no mention of those injured or killed by Qassam rockets. The severe psychological trauma caused by these attacks on Israeli civilians is entirely ignored. Amnesty calls on “Israeli authorities to establish independent investigations into every incident in which Palestinian civilians were killed or injured by Israeli forces, and to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations.” Amnesty makes no similar call on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority to cease its attacks on Israeli civilians or to launch an investigation into human rights abuses against Israelis and other Palestinians. Amnesty completely ignores calls by members of Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees for Palestinian civilians to act as human shields for those launching rockets and engaging in other terrorist activity. In one egregious example, Amnesty includes an emotional quote from an injured Palestinian woman: “Ours was a peaceful demonstration, we were all women, there were no men, no militants, no weapons. We were just women standing in front of tanks. We did not think the Israeli soldiers would shoot us, but they fired indiscriminately”. Amnesty, however, omits critical information about this demonstration in its report. Far from participating in a “peaceful demonstration” on November 3, this woman was likely acting as a human shield for 73 (mostly) Hamas gunmen who had sought refuge in a mosque in Beit Hanoun to avoid capture by the IDF. Some of the 200 women who acted as human shields in this incident provided cover for the gunmen’s escape.
In its November 15 statement on the meeting of the Third Special Session of the Human Rights Council, Amnesty repeats its one-sided condemnations of Israel. In contradiction to the evidence, Amnesty alleges again that Israel engaged in “deliberate and reckless artillery shelling” and claims that the IDF used Palestinians as “human shields.” Amnesty also minimizes the effect of Qassam rocket attacks on civilians, characterizing them as “homemade rockets” that “mostly fall in empty areas in the south of Israel.” Amnesty further attempts to diminish the severity of Palestinian terror operations by claiming that “[o]ther attacks by Palestinian armed groups, . . . have decreased significantly compared to previous years[.]” Amnesty ignores the numerous terrorist attacks thwarted by the Israeli army and police this year and the impact of the separation barrier on the reduction of terror attacks – a fact acknowledged even by the leader of Islamic Jihad. While repeating “resident reports” that Israel used Palestinian civilians as human shields, Amnesty’s statement makes no mention of the use of civilian human shields by Palestinian terrorists.
Christian Aid’s press release, “Why is the Middle East exempt from international law” largely echoes these one-sided condemnations of Israel and lack of concern for Israeli victims of Palestinian terror. Christian Aid states that “[a]s a High Contracting Party to the Fourth Geneva Convention the UK has a duty to ensure Israel complies with its obligations,” implying support for British sanctions against Israel. Christian Aid makes no similar call on the UK to use its considerable aid funds in order to ensure that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority or President Abu Mazen comply with their international legal obligations. Christian Aid says its “partners, both Israeli and Palestinian, along with UN officials have expressed their shock over the continuing Israeli incursions in Gaza, asking how many more Palestinians need to die before the world acts.”
Christian Aid does not express shock over the Israeli dead and quotes its partner organization — B’tselem, claiming that IDF artillery fire was not a “defensive action” and that the IDF’s apology for the tragic death of 19 civilians in Beit Hanoun was “disingenuous lip service.” Christian Aid condemns IDF artillery fire in populated areas which “rais[e] the likelihood of civilian casualties” but fails to suggest alternatives to protect Israeli lives, or to condemn the Palestinians for launching Qassam rockets from densely populated civilian areas. Christian Aid also fails to mention the use of human shields by Palestinian terror groups.
International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) — France
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) also employs international legal rhetoric to condemn Israel and completely omits any mention of Qassam rocket attacks in its November 10 appeal to the Assembly of the State Parties of the Geneva Conventions. FIDH labels the IDF military operation “disproportionate,” a “grave, flagrant and massive breachof the 1949 Geneva Conventions,” and a “crime”. FIDH calls the IDF’s accidental killing of 19 civilians in Beit Hanoun “an act of retaliation by the Israeli army against the people of Beit Hanoun who had resisted so strongly over the last week.” Rather than condemning Hamas’ call for human shields, FIDH characterizes the November 3 incident as an “act of defiance of the women of Beit Hanoun,” and fails to mention that these women were placed in extreme danger and two women even died.
FIDH completely ignores Qassam rocket attacks, specifically intended to terrorize the Israeli civilian population as the reason for the IDF incursion. Instead, FIDH blames the IDF operation on “perceived failings of the Israeli army and the inclusion in the government of a racist new deputy prime minister and minister of strategic threats, Avigdor Lieberman.” FIDH makes no call on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority or other terrorist organizations to stop attacks on Israeli civilians. FIDH does not demand that Hamas respect international humanitarian law by prohibiting the use of human shields. All of these statements reflect a highly politicized agenda which is far removed from the principles of universal human rights.
Human Rights Watch
On November 10, HRW issued a statement criticizing Israel’s investigation into the Beit Hanoun accident as “insufficient” and called for a “comprehensive independent investigation.” In the statement, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of HRW, writes, “[a] comprehensive investigation should start with questioning whether Israel had any business firing artillery shells into this civilian area to begin with.” Whitson further states that the IDF “should have known, that the risk of civilian deaths far outweighed any definite military advantage.” Such conclusions require extensive military experience, which it is unclear that Whitson possesses.
HRW also offers overly narrow interpretations of international law to support its allegations. For instance, HRW claims that “[o]nly military objects can be the lawful target of attack under international humanitarian law.” Articles 51 and 52 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, however, state that civilian objects, such as roads or homes, can become legitimate military targets in certain combat situations and that the presence of civilians does not necessarily “render certain points or areas immune from military operations.” HRW’s analysis ignores that under international law, areas in Beit Hanoun became legitimate military targets once those areas were used by Palestinians to launch Qassams at Israeli civilians.
However, in sharp contrast to most of its other reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, HRW does "recognize that the stated justification for this Israeli attack is Palestinian groups’ ongoing firing of homemade rockets into populated civilian areas of Israel." HRW still minimizes the lethality of the Qassams by calling them “homemade” and adds that Qassam fire "does not excuse Israel’s own violation of the same international humanitarian law that makes the Palestinian attacks unlawful."
On November 18, HRW issued a statement on the Qassam attacks, condemning the strikes as "blatant violations of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law.” HRW explains that "[i]nternational humanitarian law prohibits direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks" adding that Qassam rocket fire is inherently indiscriminate, "because it is not possible to direct them at military targets with any degree of precision."
On November 9, NGO Monitor called attention to accounts that Palestinian terror groups were using human shields in Gaza. On November 22, HRW issued a statement condemning the use of human shields by Palestinian terror organizations. HRW is the only major NGO to have done so to date. The press release calls the tactic a "violation of international law." Sarah Leah Whitson, adds that "'[w]hether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.’" HRW’s report cites to two incidents where Palestinian terrorists used human shields. One incident involved Palestinian civilians surrounding the house of Mohammedweil Baroud, the leader of the “Popular Resistance Committees”, in order to protect the house from Israeli attack. Due to the civilian presence, the IDF called off the attack. HRW refers to the IDF favorably for “properly respect[ing] its obligations under international humanitarian law in suspending the attack on the Baroud home that would have caused substantial civilian harm." The report also cites an incident in which Hamas radio urged Palestinian women to surround a mosque after a group of its terrorists had fled inside to escape from the IDF. HRW explains that "[m]any women went to the mosque and reportedly two were killed and 10 more injured when Israeli forces opened fire," implicitly blaming the Palestinian use of human shields for the casualties. At the end of the release, however, HRW condemns Israel for destroying the houses of terrorists on the basis of a narrow reading of international law. HRW claims that "an ostensibly civilian object such as a home can be the subject of attack only if it is being used for military purposes at the relevant time and its destruction makes a direct and immediate contribution to the fighting." HRW does not state the parameters of its legal terminology, it does not reveal on what provisions of international law it bases its criteria, nor does HRW cite to any military expert to support its conclusion. This lack of specificity and adequate citation are problems running throughout most of HRW’s reports.
Additional NGO Statements
Other NGOs that issued one-sided statements on the events in Gaza that minimize or omit the impact of Qassam rocket fire on Israel, fail to condemn the use of human shields by Palestinian terror organizations, and utilize and exploit legal rhetoric include Norwegian People’s Aid, Badil, Kairos, and PCHR.