On March 8 2006, the U.S. Department of State released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, including an assessment of the human rights situation in "Israel and the occupied territories". In December 2005 NGO Monitor submitted a review to the State Department regarding its 2004 report. NGO Monitor’s analysis highlighted deficiencies stemming from the reliance on NGOs that display a consistent anti-Israel political bias (in sharp contrast with the norms of universal human rights), publish claims that lack credibility, and ignore the complexities of human rights requirements in the context of mass terror. Despite NGO Monitor’s recommendations, the 2005 Country Report still relied heavily on allegations from problematic NGO’s, without providing any criteria by which these NGOs and their claims were selected or assessed.
These highly politicized NGOs include the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC), the Public Committee against Torture in Israel (PCATI), Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I), B’Tselem, Adalah, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. The result is a highly distorted image of human rights practices.
The 2004 and 2005 reports have similar structures. The first section is devoted to assessing the general human rights situation in Israel and the second section deals with alleged infringements of human rights by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza.
Human Rights in Israel
The section on human rights in Israel includes some citations from problematic NGOs, although largely avoiding the most politicized claims. Many NGO citations are references to petitions brought to the Israeli judicial system on behalf of Palestinian groups or individuals. The 2004 report for example, cites a petition brought by Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHR-I) to the Israeli Supreme Court regarding allegations of abuse at an Israeli jail. The report then states that the case was closed after a new warden was appointed in the jail in question.
Similarly, the 2005 report cites HaMoked‘s petition to the Israeli Supreme Court demanding that the government release information on a secret detention facility. This is one of numerous petitions brought to the Israeli courts by HaMoked on behalf of Palestinians, and in a recent case, Nira Mashraki, an Israeli state prosecutor, submitted a response arguing that HaMoked’s claim to be a human rights organization has " no basis in reality and is designed to mislead." The failure to note such background, and other legal actions initiated by NGOs cited in the report reduces the credibility of the overall report and gives a distorted picture of the human rights situation.
Palestinian Administered Territories
The sections on human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza are more problematic in both the 2004 and 2005 reports. The 2004 report included verbatim repetition of claims published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), without substantiation. NGO Monitor has documented in detail the credibility deficiencies of these NGOs stemming from their political agendas and lack of independent research capabilities. For example the 2004 report repeats Amnesty International allegations that the death of two Palestinian children in Rafah was caused by Israeli snipers. Instead of offering credible forensic evidence, AI’s claim is based entirely on impressions based on photos taken by unnamed journalists. In addition, the 2004 State Department report quoted "Razing Rafah", a highly problematic publication from Human Rights Watch about IDF operations in Gaza which contained operational assessments from unqualified and uninformed HRW officials. HRW’s allegation that the IDF destroyed over fifty percent of Rafah’s roads, was also repeated without confirmation. As has been noted by NGO Monitor and other analysts, this claim is not based on independent research. The only sourced cited is the "Rafah Municipality."
The 2005 report has fewer examples of such unverified and unsubstantiated NGO claims. One such case however, is an HRW allegation that Israeli military investigative practices are not "impartial, thorough, or timely." No official response from Israeli authorities is provided, although IDF statistics about investigations carried out or underway are included.
However, a heavy reliance on NGO’s is still noticeable in the report and much of the information gathered seems to derive from NGO’s who are often partisan, politicized and unreliable as sources of factual information.
For example, the 2005 report cites statistics regarding torture claims during 2003 from ACRI (Association of Civil Rights in Israel), which in turn, quotes uncritically from the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI). The authors of the State Department report did not provide the criteria by which the credibility of these claims was assessed. Similarly, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel‘s claim regarding psychological abuse is repeated without verification. Furthermore, the 2003 death of Rachel Corrie, an activist in the militant International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is mentioned again. Although the report acknowledges the very different versions of this intensely disputed case, the logic for mentioning this in the 2005 report is unclear.
These deficiencies are exacerbated by the fact both the 2004 and 2005 reports fail to provide alternative sources when citing NGO allegations. For instance, in the 2005 report, the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) is the sole source for the claim that "approximately 10 thousand structures in East Jerusalem were defined by the Israeli government as illegal; consequently, Jerusalem municipal authorities and the interior ministry systematically demolished [them]." As documented by NGO Monitor, ICAHD is centrally involved in the anti-Israel divestment campaigns and similar activities based on the Durban strategy. In addition, Jeff Halper, ICAHD’s coordinator, frequently uses extreme political and ideological terminology to refer to Israel. Despite this blatant political bias and the complexities of the issues involved, no official Israeli response is provided by the State Department.
Other examples include the repetition of allegations by organizations such as Machsom Watch and Palestine Red Crescent Society, as "evidence" of IDF human rights abuses. The 2004 report cites a claim made by a Palestinian woman to Machsom Watch of IDF soldiers beating her father, but no substantiating evidence is brought to corroborate this claim. Similar claims were made in the 2005 report, for example regarding an alleged beating of a Palestinian man by IDF soldiers at a checkpoint. The report acknowledges that Machsom Watch’s claims are only allegations but repeats these claims without verification from other sources or official Israeli comment. Machsom Watch has been documented in the past for its politically motivated and at times inaccurate claims against the IDF. Allegations from self-declared political NGOs do not constitute sufficient evidence of human rights abuse.
Exploiting the NGO "halo effect"
The credibility of the State Department reports is further damaged by the repetition of anonymous NGO claims. For example, the 2004 report states: "Human rights groups claimed that IDF security services killed as many as 130 Palestinians [in Operation Days of Penitence]…although the UN put the number of those killed at 107" and "according to a reputable international organization, at year’s end one Lebanese national remained in Israeli detention." Similarly, the 2005 report includes citations such as, "human rights NGOs have claimed…", "international human rights groups stated…" and "reputable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) filed numerous credible complaints…" This practice makes independent verification of these claims impossible, and relies on the NGO "halo effect" for credibility.
Both the 2004 and 2005 reports rely on politicized NGOs for casualty figures without providing alternative figures from official Israeli sources. In the 2004 report the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and B’Tselem are cited regarding Palestinian fatalities. In the 2005 report, Palestinian casualty figures were again sourced from Palestinian Red Crescent Society and the PA Health Ministry, as well as B’Tselem. However, the reliability of these sources is highly questionable. B’Tselem openly declares its political agenda stating that it "acts primarily to change Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories", and is not an independent human rights group. Its reports, including the number of civilian casualties, require independent confirmation.
Given the impact of the US State Department Report it is important that it is credible, accurate and impartial. These elements are undermined by its reliance on politicized NGOs that are in fact part of the conflict, and the absence of criteria by which these NGOs are selected for inclusion. It is encouraging that the emphasis in the 2005 report on the context of terror is consistent with the need to assess human rights behavior in relation to security requirements, (in sharp contrast to the standard practice of many NGOs). For example, the authors note "Construction of a security barrier and effective interdiction contributed to a 60 percent reduction in the number of Israelis killed in terror attacks between 2004 and 2005 and a 30 percent reduction in casualties, according to the government." However the impact of this statement is reduced by the uncritical use of NGO claims regarding alleged human rights violations throughout the report.
Instead of documenting human rights abuses based on universal standards, these NGOs focus disproportionately on political attacks directed at Israel and the IDF, and many do not refer to the context of Palestinian terror. The uncritical repetition of the claims and allegations of these NGOs, without providing criteria for their selection, severely undermines the credibility of the US State Department’s Human Rights Reports.