Justice and Human Rights Denied: Five Years of NGO Silence on Shalit
Since June 25, 2006, when Gilad Shalit’s captivity began, NGOs that claim a human rights mandate have demonstrated little interest in Shalit’s human rights. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Gisha, and Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) did not conduct sustained campaigns on his behalf. Gilad Shalit was simply not a priority for these NGOs.
Instead, they used this issue to condemn Israeli responses to terror from Gaza. Their statements immorally equated Shalit, who was illegally held incommunicado and without access to the International Red Cross, and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisoners according to international legal standards.
In turn, international institutions, such as the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Council did not devote enough resources to the blatant violations of Shalit’s rights. In fact, while Shalit was held in Gaza without access to the Red Cross, the Red Cross sheltered Hamas officials in its East Jerusalem offices for more than a year, in violation of the organization’s alleged mandate of political neutrality. Similarly, the Goldstone Report, which was primarily based on NGO documents and lobbying, downplayed Shalit’s captivity.
In addition, NGOs have not condemned the immoral extortion exacted by Hamas on Israel, resulting in freedom for hundreds of terrorists, including murderers serving life sentences, who were tried and convicted according to due process of law. Aside from adding to incentives for future attacks against civilians, the use of Gilad Shalit as a hostage to force the release of individuals who have not completed their sentences seriously undermines international legal principles and promotes impunity for heinous crimes.
Instead, Gisha wrote, “We join in…of course the relief felt by the Shalit family and the families of the prisoners who will be released,” (emphasis added); Adalah, Al Mezan, and Arab Association for Human Rights “consider the release of 1,027 Palestinian and Arab prisoners from Israeli prisons a positive step” (emphasis added); Shawan Jabarin of Al Haq claimed that “This transfer and deportation of protected persons goes against the Geneva Conventions…This latest deportation is just another step in Israel’s policy to drive Palestinians out…[The Israeli] philosophy behind that is that if you live outside, you won’t come back and you will take your family with you”; and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) released a statement entitled “Closure of Gaza Must Be Lifted as Shalit’s Pretext Diminished.”
Amnesty International continued its immoral equivalence (see below) with a release titled “Israel-Hamas prisoner swap casts harsh light on detention practices of all sides.” Amnesty’s statement reflects gross legal incompetence by absurdly and immorally claiming that Hamas, PFLP, and Islamic Jihad terrorists are considered “protected persons” such that they are afforded the benefits of the Geneva Conventions. Amnesty also stated, “This deal will bring relief to Gilad Shalit and his family after an ordeal that has lasted more than five years. Many Palestinian families will feel a similar sense of relief today when they are reunited with their relatives, many of whom have spent decades under harsh conditions in Israeli detention” (emphasis added).
Al Haq and Addameer referred to “political prisoners” and stated that “the exchange deal should be a cause for celebration, notably for the 1,028 concerned families.” Regarding prisoners who were released outside the West Bank and Gaza, they claimed, “Unlawful deportation or transfer also constitutes a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (GC IV) and qualifies as one of the most serious war crimes.”
While claiming to defend Gilad Shalit’s rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) instead immorally equated Shalit, who was illegally held incommunicado and whose family did not know his medical condition, with Palestinian prisoners who were temporarily unable to visit with their relatives in Israeli prisons because the security situation demanded a closure of the Gaza border.
- Following criticism from NGO Monitor about Amnesty’s silence on Shalit (March 2009), Amnesty published a report entitled “Detainees used as bargaining chips by both sides in Israel/Gaza conflict.” In the same paragraph demanding that Shalit “should be allowed immediate and regular visits from the ICRC and regular communications with his family and the outside world,” Amnesty immediately continues, “The Israeli authorities must permit the immediate resumption of family visits for Palestinian detainees from Gaza, and lift the blockade on Gaza.” This equivalence was repeated in November 2009, “following reports that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit may be released in a prisoner exchange.”
- In June 2009, HRW issued a statement “Allow Shalit Contact With Family, International Red Cross,” with a subtitle “Three Years of Incommunicado Detention Is Cruel and Inhumane.” However, this press release is compromised by three paragraphs arguing that “Israel has also deprived Palestinian prisoners of family visits” (emphasis added). A similarly flawed HRW statement was published in June 2010.
These statements also ignore that prisoners in Israeli jails are held in accordance with, and in many cases above, international legal standards. Importantly, Palestinian prisoners continue to have regular contact with Red Cross officials and are allowed communications with family members.
Using Shalit to Attack Israel
The majority of references to Gilad Shalit by NGOs claiming a human rights mandate do not focus on Shalit’s rights and ignore the many Palestinian violations of international legal obligations. Instead, they exploit his predicament, and Israel’s legitimate and legal responses to the thousands of rocket and mortar attacks, shootings, and bombing against Israeli civilians, to condemn Israel’s actions as “illegal” and “collective punishment.”
- Amnesty did not comment on Shalit’s cross-border abduction until after Israel’s military response. The first statement (June 28, 2006) declared “hostage-taking…must cease,” but featured “concern[s] [about] the excessive use of force and wanton destruction of civilian property and infrastructure by Israeli forces.”
- A second press release (June 30, 2006) demanded “Gilad Shalit should be released immediately and unharmed,” but primarily focused on Israeli “deliberate attacks” that “constitute war crimes.”
- In statements on June 1, 2010 and June 17, 2010, Amnesty mentioned Gilad Shalit as one of Israel’s “justifications for the blockade” and “collective punishment.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) – Without exception, HRW’s statements on Shalit are accompanied by condemnations of Israeli responses to Palestinian terror from Gaza.
- A June 28, 2006 statement, issued soon after Shalit’s abduction, was entitled “Israeli offensive must limit harm to civilians,” and included accusations of “needlessly punish[ing] the civilian population.” The majority of the press release, including the entire concluding paragraph, deals with Israel, indicating that Israeli “violations” were the impetus for HRW’s response, while Gilad Shalit was a secondary consideration.
- Similarly, in July 2007, HRW called on “[t]he group holding the soldier hostage [to] release [him] immediately.” However, the report also alleges Israeli violations in attempts to secure Shalit’s release: “It was only after Corporal Shalit’s capture that Israel started arresting Hamas legislators and ministers who had participated in Israeli-sanctioned Palestinian elections in January 2006…Israel’s response to hostage-taking should not include arbitrary arrests.”
- In other publications, HRW condemns the immediate Israeli responses to this illegal kidnapping and to the increased rocket attacks from Gaza: “after a Palestinian armed group from Gaza captured the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and unlawfully held him as a hostage, the Israeli Air Force fired eight missiles at Gaza’s sole power plant, rendering the six transformers inoperable” (January 13, 2009).
- In one instance, HRW downplays the violations of Shalit’s rights, while amplifying Israeli “war crimes”: “Since Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority in March 2006, following its electoral victory the previous January, and especially after Hamas captured Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit that June, Israel has made it exceedingly difficult for Palestinians to leave Gaza…Statements by Israeli officials this week appear to acknowledge that the blockade amounts to collective punishment” (January 25, 2008).
Israeli and Palestinian NGOs
- “Petition to renew family visitations for prisoners from the Gaza Strip being held in Israeli prisons,” signed by Gisha, HaMoked, Adameer, B’Tselem, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Yesh Din, the Gaza Center for Mental Health, Physicians for Human Rights, and DCI-Palestine (June 12, 2008). The petition stated, “with due respect to the wish to have Gilad Shalit receive visits and [be] released soon, collectively depriving fundamental rights from the Palestinian prisoners in order to pressure others for this purpose, is tantamount to using the prisoners as bargaining chips.” While mentioning Shalit, no demands for his rights were made in the petition or accompanying public statement, and Shalit’s use as a bargaining chip was also ignored.
B’Tselem – In the majority of its statements mentioning Gilad Shalit, B’Tselem, like the other political NGOs, does not demand his release or rightful treatment. Rather, B’Tselem alleges that Israel violates international humanitarian law through measures which it claims are meant to “punish and pressure the Palestinian leadership” (August 1, 2007), “collective[ly] punish the civilian population in the Gaza Strip,” (August 30, 2006; also here and here) and “to satisfy a desire for revenge” (September 27, 2006; and “vengeance”). Similar reports dismiss Israeli security needs (February 23, 2007).
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I)
- One week after Shalit was captured, PHR-I accused Israel of “revenge and an instilment of fear in the civilian population, both of which are clearly forbidden” (July 3, 2006).
- On March 19, 2009, Gisha official Tamar Feldman commented in press release entitled “Additional restrictions on the movement of goods into Gaza – a continuation of Israel’s immoral Gaza policy.” She declared, “the return of Shalit to his family and home is a worthwhile goal,” but continued by condemning Israel for “using its control of the crossings to tighten the strangulation of the Gaza Strip as a means of increasing its political bargaining power [which] is strictly prohibited by international law.”
Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)
- In response to reports that Israeli authorities were considering restrictions on Palestinian prisoners, ACRI released a statement (March 18, 2009): “It is important and proper to do the utmost to return Gilad Shalit to his home. However, any attempt to deny Hamas prisoners their basic rights, that every person deserves, and are illegally denied to Gilad Shalit, is wrong and will cause significant damage to Israel as a democratic state” (translated from the original Hebrew).
Lack of Sustained Campaigns
None of the Israeli or international human rights NGOs campaigned in a sustained and intense fashion for Shalit’s fair treatment and/or release. Individual statements were few and far between, and were vastly overshadowed by the hundreds of NGO reports, press releases, UN meetings, and op-eds against the blockade of Gaza and in support of the rights of Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli and Palestinian NGOs – Two different coalitions of NGOs released joint statements concerning Shalit, once two days after his capture and again on the fifth anniversary. In between, no joint efforts in support of Shalit were undertaken; in fact, in the interim some of the signatories actively campaigned together in support of Palestinian prisoners.
- “Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations: Safeguard the life and health of the abducted soldier,” signed by PHR-I, B’Tselem, Al Mezan, HaMoked, GCMHP, Addameer, ACRI, and PCATI (June 27, 2006): “This coalition of organization calls on all groups holding the wounded soldier Gilad Shalit to adhere to the Geneva Convention which decrees responsibility to protect wounded and sick members of the armed forces and responsibility to provide adequate medical attention.”
- “Human beings are not bargaining chips,” signed by Amnesty International, B’Tselem, Bimkom, Gisha, HRW, FIDH, PCHR, PHR-I, PCATI, Rabbis for Human Rights, ACRI, Yesh Din (June 24, 2011): “The organizations stress that this conduct is inhumane and a violation of international humanitarian law. Hamas authorities in Gaza must immediately end the cruel and inhuman treatment of Gilad Shalit. Until he is released, they must enable him to communicate with his family and shouldgrant him access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.”
Amnesty International – Immediately following Shalit’s capture, relative to other NGOs, Amnesty took a more active interest in his case. However, Amnesty, which was founded to defend political prisoners, did not follow up with a meaningful campaign. In fact, Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Rome Jewish Community, noted the “significant absence” of Amnesty International representatives at a June 2010 interfaith ceremony at Rome’s Colosseum that called for Shalit’s release.
Only in July 2011, five years after Shalit was taken prisoner, did Amnesty International launch an “Action” in support of his rights.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) – In addition to releasing a statement in both 2009 and 2010 on the anniversary of Shalit’s capture, HRW has mentioned Shalit in several press releases, but has not engaged in any significant campaign. Additionally, according to HRW officials, “Hamas officials refused Human Rights Watch’s request to visit Shalit and check on his conditions of confinement during a meeting in Gaza in May , saying that they would not take the risk that his location could be discovered, even though Human Rights Watch had offered to travel to the site blindfolded and to accept any other security precautions that Hamas wanted.”
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel – At the request of Miki Goldwasser, the mother of an Israeli soldier who was missing in action (his body and that of a comrade were returned to Israel in July 2008), PHR-I appealed (February 22, 2007) to Lebanese human rights organizations to press for Red Cross visitation rights and “information about their condition and whereabouts.” There is no indication that the matter was pursued beyond the initial letter.
Since then, PHR-I, which was founded “with the goal of struggling for human rights, in particular the right to health,” has largely ignored Hamas’ refusal to grant the Red Cross access to Shalit. PHR-I also mentioned Gilad Shalit in a news article on August 24, 2009, in the context of the decision of the Israel Prison Services (IPS) to prevent visits to security prisoners jailed in Israel. PHR-I alleged that the right to family visits is enshrined in international treaties, and called for the release of Shalit.
B’Tselem – Of all the NGOs claiming a human rights mandate, B’Tselem was the most consistent in identifying Shalit as an illegally-held hostage, whose basic rights were being violated by Hamas and who should be released “immediately.” At the same time, B’Tselem did not engage in a constant and intensive campaign on behalf of Shalit.
For instance, B’Tselem was the only human rights NGO to mark the first anniversary of Shalit’s capture. On the third and fourth anniversaries of Shalit’s capture, B’Tselem issued press statements calling for his release. Additionally, the “Gaza Strip” section of the B’Tselem website includes a sub-section entitled “Hamas must release Gilad Shalit immediately.” There is also a section on Gilad Shalit in the article, “The siege on the Gaza Strip.”