• HRW’s allegation that Israeli forces deliberately killed Palestinian non-combatants who had surrendered is an incendiary moral indictment which repeats the bias and double standards shown in previous publications.
  • Video evidence clearly shows a Palestinian combatant hiding among civilians waving a white flag. This and similar evidence that is inconsistent with the indictment is entirely missing from the HRW report.
  • As in the other cases, this HRW report is based on inconsistent Palestinian testimony (particularly from the ‘Adb Rabbo family), claims copied from other NGOs, and irrelevant forensic “evidence,” which provides no information on the circumstances of the injuries.
  • In response to criticism from NGO Monitor, the IDF, and the media (including bloggers), HRW issued a defensive press release that did not address the substantial flaws in its report.
  • The inability to verify claims like these are inconsistent with definitive pronouncements on “war crimes” — an accusation made 15 times in this report. In parallel, HRW accuses its critics of “waging a propaganda war.”

Human Rights Watch’s latest publication condemning Israeli actions, White Flag Deaths: Killings of Palestinian Civilians during Operation Cast Lead (August 13, 2009), consists of accusations that the IDF killed 11 civilians “waving white flags” in seven incidents during the Gaza war.  The allegation that Israeli forces deliberately killed Palestinian non-combatants who had surrendered is morally incendiary, and, given the absence of any credible evidence, should be seen as part of the ongoing demonization of Israel.

This is the third in a series of narrowly focused reports (following the white phosphorous and drone attacks allegations) condemning Israel for actions during the Gaza fighting. Each publication was accompanied by a press conference and publicity promoting media coverage and political impact of HRW’s tendentious allegations.

The 64-page report on “white flags” is based primarily on unverified interviews with Palestinians, and unsubstantiated allegations made by local politicized NGOs. Many of the pages are filled with details– including descriptions of “attack sites,” “ballistic evidence,” technological and military information, statements by forensic pathologists and “medical records” – that create the illusion of credible research. However, none of these claims is relevant to the central and unproven claim: that IDF soldiers attacked civilians bearing white flags and attempting to “convey their non-combatant status.”

In response to criticism of HRW’s lack of professionalism from NGO Monitor, the IDF, and the media (including bloggers), this NGO superpower issued a highly defensive press release. Rather than addressing the clear contradictions and video evidence (see below), this document highlights the systemic methodological failures inherent in HRW’s research on Israel.

In attempting to rebut analysis of their reports, HRW admitted that its researchers did not have “access to Gaza” and, for understandable reasons given the NGO’s bias, the Israeli government and IDF officials were not interested in meeting with them. These limitations, as well as the deficiencies described below, should prevent a credible organization from issuing definitive pronouncements on “war crimes.” In contrast, HRW presents its case as factual and accuses its critics of “waging a propaganda war.” HRW also did not respond to exposure of the anti-Israel activism [original Hebrew article] of Joe Stork (Deputy Director of HRW’s Middle East Division), who edited the report and came to Israel to publicize it.

Inconsistent testimony

The first incident documented by HRW is based solely on testimony from Khalid ‘Abd Rabbo and other members of his family, who have provided varying accounts of the events to various media and NGO sources. In HRW’s version – which is similar to that of Adalah, Al Mezan, and Al Haq – a family member claims that “[w]e spent seven to nine minutes waving the [white] flags and our faces were looking at them.  And suddenly they opened fire…”

However, conflicting versions of the event appeared in Arabic-language and international media. Major discrepancies include whether the fatalities were waving white flags; whether they were killed immediately upon exiting a building, or had they been standing outside for “seven to nine minutes;” the number of deaths; and whether the casualties were caused by small arms fire, artillery or tank shells, or aerial bombardment.

Although at a press conference, in response to questions from NGO Monitor, HRW researchers stated they were aware of alternate versions, the report fails to mention them, in particular ones that indicate that allegations of “war crimes” are inaccurate.

Ignoring evidence of human shields and “illegal combatants”

As with other HRW “research” reports on the Gaza conflict, “White Flag Deaths” emphasizes that “[a]ll available evidence indicates that …no fighting was taking place there at the time, and no Palestinian forces were hiding among the civilians or using them as human shields.” (Israeli soldiers, however, are accused of “human shielding.”)  This report also includes a lengthy and largely irrelevant section on international law and human shields.  Ironically, Hamas violated most of the provisions cited by HRW, most notably that of perfidy (deception and failure to act in good faith, such as disguising oneself as a civilian or as medical personnel), yet HRW chose to deny these systematic war crimes by Hamas, just as HRW did in the case of Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war.

In contrast, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, HRW’s researcher in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Bill Van Esveld, belatedly acknowledged the use by Hamas of human shields. This inconsistency further demonstrates the framework of HRW’s censorship in reports that condemn Israel.

The missing evidence of Hamas’ exploitation of schools, mosques, hospitals, and cultural centers is extensive. A video (dated January 8, 2009) clearly shows a Palestinian fighter using civilians waving a white flag as human shields: after preparing an improvised explosive device (IED) to attack IDF soldiers, he attempted to evade capture amongst a group of civilians waving a white flag.

Hezbollah engaged in similar activity during the 2006 Lebanon War, and there too, HRW ignored this flagrant violation of humanitarian law by the terrorist organization.


Taken together, these “research reports” alleging Israeli “war crimes” and based on carefully selected and in many instances, manufactured evidence, highlight the absence of professionalism in HRW’s publications. Occasional reports focusing on Hamas, published to create the facade of artificial balance and quickly forgotten, and with no operative impact, do not alter this conclusion.

Criticism of HRW’s “White Flags Deaths”