On June 13, 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a press statement accusing Israel of “apparent war crimes in Gaza” during the Hamas-orchestrated violence along the border. HRW issued a similar statement on May 14 (coinciding with the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem).

There is little new in HRW’s statement, which largely repeats its previous false claims. Importantly, between HRW’s May 14 and June 13 publications, in response to a case brought by NGOs, the Israeli High Court heard testimony and issued an opinion affirming the IDF response.  The court carefully examined and summarily rejected HRW’s central claim that Israel violated international law by “repeated use of lethal force in the Gaza Strip since March 30, 2018, against Palestinian demonstrators who posed no imminent threat to life.”

If anything, the interviews published by HRW in the statement reinforce the evidence showing that Palestinians have engaged in extreme acts of violence, and that the casualties are connected to it.

The only new element is the intensification of HRW’s calls for BDS, specifically demanding that “Third countries should impose targeted sanctions” against senior Israeli officials (emphasis added). Ironically, the call for sanctions comes at a time when HRW has repeatedly told the Israeli government and the courts that it does not promote BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) against Israel (Omar Shakir work visa case).

This publication, like other HRW responses, lacks credible methodology and manipulates the presentation of facts and law to advance a political narrative, rather than engage in professional human rights research. NGO Monitor has identified the following key failures:

Calls for Sanctions against Senior Israeli Officials

HRW demands BDS against Israel, including “Third countries should impose targeted sanctions against officials responsible for ongoing serious human rights violations” (emphasis added).

As is clear from later in HRW’s statement, this refers to the most senior members of the Israeli government, such as “[IDF] chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

In parallel to calling for sanctions against Israelis, HRW is in the middle of legal proceedings in Israel where they claim not to support sanctions. Omar Shakir, whose work visa was not renewed because of his active and on-going support for BDS, tweeted: “@hrw investigation finds that Gaza killings apparent war crimes. @AvigdorLiberman, @netanyahu sanctioned policy to fire on demonstrators who posed no imminent threat to life. Time for targeted sanctions against those implicated in serious abuses” (emphasis added).

Specious Methodology, Reliance on Non-credible Sourcing

HRW has no military expert on staff and lacks access to necessary information regarding the events along the Gaza border throughout the past three months. As such, the NGO has no ability to conduct a credible investigation. HRW’s statement (as most of its publications), therefore, rely almost entirely on interviews with people who claim to have “witnessed” events.

HRW states that it “interviewed nine people who witnessed Israeli forces shooting protesters in Gaza on May 14” and “another who saw a journalist shot and killed.” HRW further claims that “Seven of these interviewees not only witnessed people being shot, but were also themselves shot.” Given that tens of thousands of individuals were present at the protests, HRW does not reveal how or why it selected these nine individuals. HRW does not provide readers with the questions asked to the interviewees, whether translators were used, and whether Hamas or other terror officials were present during the interview.  HRW does not say what it did to verify interviewee claims.

If anything, however, the interviews confirm the extreme Palestinian violence. For example, the last individual mentioned in HRW’s statement, an 18-year old “said he was shot in the ankle…about 30 meters from the fences.” His own description acknowledges: “Around me there were a few guys throwing stones, and others burning tires, flying kites, and using slingshots.”

In addition to unverifiable interview claims, HRW relies on other sources that lack credibility. For example, HRW cites Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P) for details regarding children killed in the violence. DCI-P has close ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist organization – one of the parties to the violence taking place along the Gaza border (see NGO Monitor’s report “The European-Funded NGO PFLP Network” for details).

Given its PFLP links, it is not surprising that DCI-P systematically erases the context of Palestinian terrorism and underreports Palestinian minors participating in hostilities. As such, it does not appear that DCI-P has condemned Palestinian Islamic Jihad for the recruitment and use of a 16-year-old minor as a soldier during the May 14 violence.

HRW also cites the Palestinian non-governmental organization (NGO) Al Mezan. Al Mezan refers to the Israeli army as the Israel Occupation Forces (IOF), and routinely erases the context of Palestinian terrorism, Hamas’ use of human shields, and illegal rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.

HRW also states that it “obtained a video from another Gaza resident and links to a Facebook page. The page, which appears to belong to an individual by the name of Ahmed al-Titi, features numerous violent and hate filled videos. During the past two weeks he shared a video in support of Palestinian martyrs and a violent video that states that “the resistance will reveal its surprise for Israel, let’s hit Tel Aviv!”

Distorts Factual Situation and Fails to Promote Universal Human Rights

As is the norm in HRW publications, the NGO erases the context of Palestinian terrorism and Hamas’ rejectionist agenda. HRW writes that “the vast majority of protesters were unarmed,” while “some” engaged in violence. Given that there were tens of thousands of Gazans along the border, even a small minority perpetrating acts of violence would be significant.

As explained in the Israeli government’s response to two petitions from NGOs in the Israeli Supreme Court, “ In this context, it should be emphasized that due to vulnerabilities in the barrier and the security significance of a breakthrough by a hostile Palestinian mob, the threat of the breakthrough creates, at times, a tangible, proximate danger to the lives and bodily integrity of both civilians and soldiers. And if this threat [infiltration] were to be realized, eliminating the danger (which at this stage would become immediate) would necessitate the use of live ammunition on a larger scale.”

HRW minimizes machine-gun fire, molotov cocktails, firebombing kites, tire burning, rock throwing, damaging the fence, and other violent acts by Palestinians. It should be noted that the severe environmental damage caused by mass tire burning and the deliberate destruction of agricultural land with “fire kites” are war crimes under international law and the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.  HRW says nothing about this.

HRW similarly minimizes the threat facing the thousands of Israeli civilians living within a couple hundred meters of the border. HRW thus negates the seriousness of Palestinian intentions and attempts to breach the border. At the same time, HRW also blatantly ignores Hamas’ regular use of terror tunnels, and the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars on Israeli civilian communities. While HRW falsely accuses Israel of war crimes and international prosecution of Israeli officials, it allows for impunity for Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups.

Distorting International Law and the Findings of the Israeli High Court

HRW, as it has done repeatedly throughout the violence along the Gaza border, wrongfully applies a “law enforcement” paradigm to the violent events, instead of the international humanitarian law (IHL, armed conflict) framework.

Under IHL, combatants can be targeted as well as civilians directly participating in hostilities for any reason as long as the attack complies with the rules of proportionally. Considering that tens of thousands of individuals have been involved in the protests, with approximately 100 killed – over half identified by the terror groups themselves (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP) as members – the IDF clearly acted within international standards. HRW has provided no credible evidence that the targeted individuals were not combatants, nor engaging in hostilities at the time.

On May 25, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition against the rules of engagement along the Gaza border, which essentially repeated the claims made by HRW.

Contrary to HRW’s statement, the court was not “unwilling[] to apply international law.” Indeed, it considered “the clear standard on the use of lethal force set out in international human rights law.” However, the court determined that this was not the only relevant paradigm, and that, especially in cross-border violence, lessons from international humanitarian law (IHL) played a role.