In response to the chemical weapons attack August 21, 2013 in Syria, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a carefully worded statement (“Syria: Witnesses Describe Alleged Chemical Attacks”): “The killing of civilians on a large scale in a single incident raises concerns that serious crimes were committed” (emphasis added). Throughout the press release, HRW fails to affirm that chemical weapons were employed against civilians or that war crimes were committed (HRW does write, “those responsible for unlawful killings should be held to account,” but implies this general rule may not be relevant to this specific instance).

Yet, less than one week later, HRW was quick to blame Israel for “war crimes” after the court-sanctioned demolition of illegal buildings was carried out. (“Israel: Stop Unlawful West Bank Home Demolitions,” August 25, 2013).

Regarding Syria, Deputy Director of HRW’s MENA division Joe Stork acknowledged in an interview (after 30 minute mark), “We are not in the country…Like I said, it is really not possible for us—who are not experts in terms of the munitions—to say conclusively ‘this is it.’”

In sharp contrast, however, HRW’s hesitancy, skepticism, and admission of a lack of expertise are nowhere to be found in statements regarding alleged Israeli violations of international law during armed conflict.

Representative examples

  • Israel/Lebanon: Israel Responsible for Qana Attack,” July 30, 2006: “Responsibility for the Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 54 civilians sheltering in a home in the Lebanese village of Qana rests squarely with the Israeli military…It is the latest product of an indiscriminate bombing campaign…Such consistent failure to distinguish combatants and civilians is a war crime.” (HRW later acknowledged that these numbers were false and the details of the press release were wrong.)
  • Israel: Stop Unlawful Use of White Phosphorous in Gaza,” January 10, 2009: “Human Rights Watch researchers in Israel observed multiple air-bursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over what appeared to be the Gaza City/Jabaliya area…Human Rights Watch believes that the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas of Gaza violates the requirement under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. This concern is amplified given the technique evidenced in media photographs of air-bursting white phosphorus projectiles.”
  • Israel: Misuse of Drones Killed Civilians in Gaza,” June 30, 2009: “Israeli attacks with guided missiles fired from aerial drones killed civilians during the recent Gaza fighting in violation of the laws of war.”
  • Israel/Gaza: Unlawful Israeli Attacks on Palestinian Media,” December 20, 2012: “Four Israeli attacks on journalists and media facilities in Gaza during the November 2012 fighting violated the laws of war by targeting civilians and civilian objects that were making no apparent contribution to Palestinian military operations.”


In each of these four examples, HRW accuses Israel conclusively of “war crimes” without any qualifications or disclaimers. And, in each of these four examples, as well as dozens of others over the past decade, HRW levels the harsh accusations despite lacking factual and evidentiary basis for its claims, and without the expertise necessary to draw its speculative conclusions.  In fact, later research by NGO Monitor and others showed that, in each of these examples and in almost every case, HRW was wrong about the facts, about the technology and science, and about the legal interpretations. When it comes to Israel, HRW also ratchets up the condemnatory language. For instance, in a statement published less than a week after the chemical weapons attack in Syria (“Israel: Stop Unlawful West Bank Home Demolitions,” August 25, 2013), HRW alleges that “Demolitions of homes and other structures that compel Palestinians to leave their communities may amount to the forcible transfer of residents of an occupied territory, which is a war crime.” In fact, the term “war crime” appears 5 times in HRW’s statement (plus again in the featured quote on the website).

However, in the HRW statement about Syria, the term “war crime” appears only once – and in a general context unrelated to the specific incident of the chemical weapons attack.

Moreover, HRW a priori ascribes nefarious motives to Israeli actions, without any knowledge of the facts of the case: “‘It appears that the only purpose is to drive families off their land, which is a war crime,’ said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ‘The politics of peace talks do not make it any less unlawful for Israel to demolish Palestinians’ homes without a valid military reason.’”

In armed conflict, HRW, as well as every other NGO, faces serious limitations

-in its ability to draw conclusions about the factual elements of an incident, often due to the “fog of war”
-in the expertise of its researchers and analysts on both technical matters and questions of interpreting complex motivations by a wide range of actors
-in applying relevant international legal concepts.

HRW should explain why it is willing to admit these limitations in the context of the Syrian conflict, but unable to do so when it comes to Israel.