Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an international nongovernmental organization headquartered in New York. It has representatives around the world, including what it describes as ‘Israel, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Authority Territories.’ It has taken a particular interest in the Arab-Israel conflict and has produced no fewer than 15 press releases and reports, all published on its websites, since April 24, 2002.
Unlike Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), HRW has shown a willingness to examine central human rights issues from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. In addition to its virulent criticism of Israel, it has at least shown a willingness to explore Palestinian violations of basic human rights.
This article will focus on three issues:
The background to HRW’s reports and activities, including its mission statement;
The report, Erased in a Moment, Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians; and
The potential impact of this report on human rights work on Israelis and Palestinians.
HRW’s mission statement declares that the NGO is:
Dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to prevent people from inhumane conduct in wartime and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable….We enlist the public and international community to support the cause of human rights for all…
HRW’s mission statement already differs from that of PHR in that it does not claim to be a professional organization, (physicians, in the case of PHR), but defines itself explicitly as a broad public advocacy organization.
HRW has produced scathing reports critical of Israel, but to its credit, it does provide balance in the scope of the areas it covers. First this article will look at cases where HRW has taken a very strong line against Israel and then, it will analyze a report concerning the human right abuses Israeli citizens are suffering from in the form of a planned and coordinated suicide bombing campaign.
Human Rights Watch as part of their "World Report" in 2001, which can be found at http://www.hrw.org/wr2k1/mideast/israel.html, attacked Israel’s policy on building permit distributions and house demolitions in Jerusalem stating that it "violates provisions in international law against collective punishment." This problematic report reflects little knowledge and strong links to Palestinian perspectives in what is essentially a political struggle. Justus Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs recently published Illegal Construction in Jerusalem, A Variation of a Global Phenomenon, in which he argues that house demolitions are a part of a global epidemic of illegal construction, which poses huge problems for the provision of municipal infrastructure. He claims to have produced the first systematic analysis of illegal construction using Palestinian and Israeli sources as well as international urban planning case studies and research. Despite hundreds of reports produced by NGOs on the subject of construction in Jerusalem, not one has used so wide a selection of sources. As a result, these NGOs offer radically different conclusions. In particular, Weiner points out that demolitions are used all over the world, including the United States and Gaza, under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) but are spared the political slurs. Weiner even produces documentary evidence that the PA funds illegal construction, a subject never addressed by the NGOs. The Palestinian Authority also actively discourages Arab residents of the City from obtaining licenses because it does not recognize Israeli sovereignty. Weiner argues that houses destroyed in Jerusalem are structures without licenses, which impede the ability of the City Council to supply efficiently vital public services, such as roads, water networks and electricity links. He devotes considerable space analyzing the output of internationally acclaimed NGOs and severely criticizes their omissions, which lead to flimsy conclusions. More details of his publication and his analysis of NGOs can be found at www.jcpa.org. It should be noted that the situation is different in the West Bank and Gaza Strip where house demolitions are used a deterrent against terrorism.
HRW attracted considerable international attention when it criticized the U.N. Jenin Report, August 2, 2002. The UN report concluded that no massacre had taken place in Jenin. Hanny Megally, the Executive Director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division declared:
The U.N. report on events in Jenin is seriously flawed…the report does not move us forward in terms of establishing the truth. Its watered-down account of the very serious violations in Jenin exposes the risk of compiling a report without any first-hand information.
In May, HRW produced a detailed report entitled, Jenin: IDF Military Operations, which can be found at www.hrw.org/reports/2002/israel3/. The report alleged:
at times…IDF military attacks were indiscriminate… failing to make a distinction between combatants and civilians…particularly in the Hawashin district, the destruction extended well beyond any conceivable purpose of gaining access to fighters, and was vastly disproportionate to the military objectives pursued.
The HRW report was heavily criticized by the Israeli authorities for relying too much on anecdotal evidence and unsubstantiated testimonies from residents in the Jenin camp. More information can be found here. HRW argued in its defense that the IDF was not forthcoming with information.
HRW also released a press release on June 7, 2002 criticizing the Knesset’s decision to cut by 24% allowances for children whose parents have not served in the army. This is a complex issue whose impact extends beyond the Israeli-Arab community. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, the poorest segment of the Israeli population, is also affected in exactly the same way, but they were ignored in this report.
In a December 10 CNN interview, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth continued the attack on Israeli policy, particularly in the case of the Jenin operation, and even talked of "conditioning" or cutting funds to Israel until it conforms to what HRW considers proper behavior. This is evidence of a clear ideological stance being taken by certain elements within the organization.
Erased in a Moment, Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians
To the organization’s credit, on November 1, it produced a 170-page document exploring the issue of suicide bombings and came out with an un-categorical condemnation:
The people responsible for planning and carrying out suicide bombings that deliberately target civilians are guilty of crimes against humanity and should be brought to justice.
The HRW website states that its report is the first full-fledged examination of individual criminal responsibility for suicide bombings against civilians in Israel and the "Israeli-Occupied Territories." It also says that those in authority, even if they do not represent a sovereign state, must be held accountable when people under their control commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. Indeed, this is the first report from a human rights NGO investigating in detail human rights abuses towards Israelis. It follows an August 6 open letter from HRW to Hamas spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin, which can be found on their website at www.hrw.org/press/2002/08/hamasltr080602.htm.
The letter states:
No matter what the aims and objectives are, such attacks flagrantly violate the most fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law…one cannot attack civilians no matter what the cause.
The report describes in detail the four organizations that carry out suicide bombings against civilians, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Many in the international NGO community have taken the line that suicide bombings are borne out of desperation and lack of hope in the future. In its text, HRW declares that the overriding aim of these attacks was to harm as large a number of Israeli civilians as possible. The report also states that whatever Israel does in the West Bank and Gaza strip, one cannot justify the indiscriminate murder of unarmed civilians. Nonetheless, ostensibly to ‘balance’ its categorical condemnations, the report spoke of Israeli ‘war crimes’ in Jenin.
How can the above report impact on human rights work in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza?
Many of the major international NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and Oxfam have chosen to ignore the context and background of the human rights situation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Amnesty International, for example, chooses to refer to Palestinian terrorists as "freedom fighters" and sees terror attacks, including suicide bombings, as a political tool resulting from desperation among the Palestinian population. The HRW report rejects such claims and categorically condemns suicide bombers as terrorists and their actions as human rights abuses. Amnesty’s recent report, Shielded From Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus, accuses Israel of war crimes without examining the context of the factories in these areas which provide suicide bombers with their deadly charges. Amnesty also claims that terrorists or freedom fighters are not bound by the same rules as armies. Similarly, these reports ignore the systematic Palestinian violations of basic ethical norms, such as the well-documented booby-trapping of civilian apartment blocks at the time of the Israeli operation in Jenin against suicide bomb factories.
What is missed in their reports is the fact that a war of attrition is taking place against two well-organized sides. There is substantial evidence pointing to the fact that the local Palestinians leadership often puts civilians lives at risk in an attempt to discredit the image of the Israeli army. The most well-known example of this is booby-trapping civilians apartment blocks at the time of the Israeli operation in Jenin against suicide bomb factories, "Defensive Shield." This is a flagrant abuse of human rights, ignored by practically all NGO reports. Moreover, many NGO reports fail to acknowledge that this conflict is ongoing and has a large ideological dimension. HRW has taken a stand in looking at both sides of the equation.
We hope the HRW report on the violations of Israeli rights will open a new chapter in human rights reporting in the Middle East conflict. If, as human rights NGOs claim, human rights are absolute and not dependent on any political perspective, there is an obligation to analyze the impact of the conflict on all sides. Double standards are intolerable. This report shows that HRW is now starting to take a consistent line in condemning abuses under its definition of human rights, by analyzing the conflict from both sides.