On April 11, 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its sixth report on the Gaza War, “Turning a Blind Eye: Impunity for Laws-of-War Violations during the Gaza War.” This is yet another example of HRW’s obsessive and unjustified focus on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, at the expense of combating daily human rights violations in other regions. In comparison, HRW has issued a single report on the actions of the Iranian regime following last year’s elections.
The tendentious 62-page publication also presses HRW’s campaign on behalf of the Goldstone report, echoing 40 such statements since April 2009. Goldstone was a member of HRW’s board and has a close personal relationship with HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth. His appointment, as well as the systematic bias in his UN-sponsored report, closely reflects HRW’s agenda.
“Turning a Blind Eye” repeats the standard and unsupported HRW/Goldstone claim that “Israeli forces either failed to take all feasible precautions to verify that the targets were combatants, apparently setting an unacceptably low threshold for conducting attacks, or they failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians and to target only the former.” HRW’s recommendation, once again, is to single out Israel via “international prosecutions” and referral “to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”
As in its other Gaza reports, “Turning a Blind Eye” is premised on speculation (“In none of the cases did Human Rights Watch find evidence that Palestinian fighters were present in the immediate area of the attack at the time”) and charges that go beyond HRW’s research capacity (“the drone operators had the time and optical ability to determine whether they were observing civilians or combatants”).
HRW claims facile moral equivalence between Iranian-backed Hamas attacks and Israeli defense of its civilian population, and goes on to disproportionately focus on alleged Israeli “violations.” Twenty-seven pages address Israel, versus nine pages on Hamas. (The remaining sections include an essay on “the duty to investigate,” recommendations, and other general material.)
“Turning a Blind Eye” asserts that “the IDF has not demonstrated that [its] investigations are thorough or impartial.” This claim, like HRW’s allegations throughout the Gaza-Goldstone process, is not serious: HRW rejects “the IDF’s conclusions” because they “contradicted the findings of Human Rights Watch,” yet the evidence shows that HRW’s “findings” are politically motivated and unsubstantiated.
Marc Garlasco’s central role
Despite the forced resignation of HRW’s “senior military analyst,” Marc Garlasco, this report repeats Garlasco’s allegations as if they were credible and uncontested. HRW’s other reports on the Gaza war (“Rain of Fire,” “Precisely Wrong,” “White Flag Deaths”) have been shown to be highly problematic, both in terms of facts and pseudo-legal claims.
In “Rain of Fire,” Garlasco and his co-authors charged Israel with illegal use of white phosphorus munitions. This allegation depended upon Garlasco’s military “expertise” – even though his technical assertions were refuted by military experts including evidence provided to the Goldstone mission – and was supplemented with unverifiable and often inconsistent Palestinian testimony. In this and in many other examples, Garlasco and HRW did not have knowledge of the military conditions involved, and based claims of malevolent intent and war crimes on speculations regarding alternatives that may or may not have been available and equally effective.
Another Garlasco report accused Israel of “war crimes” resulting from the alleged use of Spike missiles fired from drones (“Precisely Wrong,” June 2009). This report, too, was fundamentally flawed. A number of experts unconnected with HRW immediately noted the major technical errors in Garlasco’s claims, which formed the basis for most of HRW’s condemnations of Israel during this period.
[For more details, see NGO Monitor’s March 2010 report: Unanswered Questions: Garlasco and HRW’s Israel Campaigns.]
Similarly, “Turning a Blind Eye” references, without independent confirmation, unverifiable allegations from local political NGOs B’Tselem, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), Al-Mezan, Breaking the Silence, and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI). As an organization whose research methodology consistently violates professional standards for human rights fact-finding, HRW is in no position to question the “thoroughness and impartiality of the [IDF] investigations.” (HRW makes no methodological claims in the report’s short section on Hamas, highlighting the moral absurdity of the comparison with Israel.)
Ideological Bias in the MENA Division
HRW’s ongoing ideological campaign against Israel, conducted by Middle East and North Africa division heads Sarah Leah Whitson and Joe Stork, and under the leadership of Roth, reinforces founder Robert Bernstein’s conclusion that HRW is acting immorally in using its power to turn Israel into a pariah state.
Under Whitson and Stork, HRW has become disproportionately focused on Israel, alleging human rights and international law violations. Whitson was active in supporting the Caterpillar boycott campaign, and Stork promoted the anti-Israel boycott movement in conferences and other venues. In 2009, Whitson led an HRW fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia, where she used HRW’s anti-Israel bias and the specter of the pro-Israel lobby to solicit funds from “prominent members of Saudi society” including a member of the governing Shura Council.
Whitson and Stork expanded the MENA staff, adding other radical activists such as Lucy Mair, who wrote anti-Israel pieces for the Electronic Intifada; Nadia Barhoum, who organized pro-Palestinian activities at the University of California, Berkeley; and Darryl Li, who worked with MERIP and with the Gaza-based PCHR, a prominent anti-Israel NGO.
Another example is HRW fellow Arezo Yazd, who contributed to “Turning a Blind Eye.” Yazd has referred to “Israel’s occupation” as “state-sponsored terrorism” and labels Israel’s security barrier “the Apartheid Wall.”
Conclusion: HRW, Goldstone, and moral failings
The extensive HRW activity on the Gaza conflict fed directly into the Goldstone Mission, which was created by the UN Human Rights Council following intense lobbying by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League, HRW, and the NGO network.
After Goldstone issued his report on September 15, 2009, HRW sought to gain support for the publication, repeatedly and obsessively pressing for the adoption of its recommendations and conclusions. The report copied many of HRW’s allegations, followed its “methodology” of sole reliance on non-credible Palestinian witnesses and evidence that could not be verified, and utilized HRW’s strategy of minimal criticism of Hamas in order to claim balance. Given that the credibility of HRW’s reports hinged on the endorsement of the Goldstone Report, HRW’s lobbying amounted to self-promotion. As demonstrated in NGO Monitor’s annual report on HRW, the number of documents that HRW produced on the Goldstone Report in 2009 surpassed the number of publications on the majority of countries in the MENA division, among them Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
HRW’s Goldstone media campaign also diverts attention from the criticism and moral failures, documented in NGO Monitor’s “Experts and Ideologues,” Jonathan Foreman’s Sunday Times (UK) report (“Nazi scandal engulfs Human Rights Watch,” March 28, 2010), the exposé on the Saudi fundraising dinner, and elsewhere.
“Turning a Blind Eye” further highlights the need for an independent investigation of HRW, a change of leadership, and a new direction within the organization.