Summary: HRW’s credibility is in serious doubt on two grounds. First, officials such as Roth consistently fail to state their criteria for using complex terms from international law such as ‘proportionality.’ The absence of criteria suggests a dominant political agenda. Second, HRW’s ‘policy statements’

As previous NGO Monitor reports have shown, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been very active in pursuing and contributing to the politicization of human rights reporting in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. With the exception of a single report issued in 2002, HRW has consistently adopted the terminology of human rights to condemn Israeli actions, leaving out important background and context. This has led to a simplistic and incomplete equation that ‘violence breeds violence.’ HRW has proven incapable of explaining the moral difference between Israeli defensive actions to defend her citizens against suicide bombers and terror attacks.

In some important respects, HRW’s latest annual report (issued in January 2004) demonstrates a general decrease in the level of politicization in discussions related to Israel. None of the 15 essays in this 407-page report focus specifically on the conflict involving Israel, in sharp contrast to a highly polemical chapter in the Middle East and North Africa section in the January 2003 report. On the one hand, this could be the result of an effort to rectify the disproportionately high attention devoted to the Arab-Israeli conflict while major human rights issues and humanitarian disasters in other parts of the world were given cursory attention. But even if there is a new trend, it does not explain HRW’s silence on fundamental violations of core human rights norms by the Palestinian leadership, including a strategy of brutal terrorism and the torture of its citizens. This constitutes a major and continuing failure.

In the January 2004 World Report, the primary discussion regarding Israel is included in the essay by Kenneth Roth entitled “Drawing the Line: War Rules and Law Enforcement Rules in the Fight against Terrorism”. In the section, headed “A Misuse of War Rules”, which focuses primarily on the American-led war against terror, Roth deplores the substitution of “war rules when law enforcement rules could reasonably have been followed.” He warns that “Washington must also remember that its conduct sets an example, for better or worse, for many governments around the world. …. Israel, to name one, has used this rationale to justify its assassination of terrorist suspects in Gaza and the West Bank.” He then proposes three criteria by which to assess the justification for the use of “war rules”, followed by an illustrative analysis of the policy related to “Israeli Assassinations.”

This analysis, which is designed to demonstrate that the Israeli policy is unjustified, repeats many of the allegations that Roth and HRW have made in the past. For example, Israel is charged with “indiscriminate” attacks that “cause disproportionate harm to civilians”. Both of these terms, established concepts in international law, are misused in this, as in other such reports, because they lack basic criteria, definitions and context. Given the scale of Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians, the question of proportionality in defensive responses is important, and Roth’s claims are no more than a statement of his opinion, far away from the carnage of shattered Israeli buses and the bodies of the victims.

To his credit, Roth does acknowledge, in a very understated way, “the violence in certain cases has been intense and sustained enough for the Israeli government reasonably to make the case that in those instances an armed conflict exists.” This also satisfies his first criteria for the justification of “targeted assassinations”.

Roth’s second criterion in this essay is based on the argument that “the targeted individual was an active participant in these hostilities”. Here, Roth argues, incorrectly, that “The Israeli government used to claim that the Palestinians targeted for assassination were involved in plotting attacks against Israelis, although increasingly the government has not bothered to make that claim.” In fact, as noted by the IDF statements and other official pronouncements, this is hardly a convincing argument. The targeted Palestinians are often “ticking bombs” directly identified in terror activities. Furthermore, the demand that Israel “provide evidence of direct involvement in plotting or directing violence” would be tantamount to providing the terror groups with early warning and information on intelligence sources, allowing them to commit more terror attacks. Clearly, this suggestion is entirely unrealistic.

The failure to deal with the complexity of these issues in a credible way is compounded by Roth’s third criteria, which suggests that terrorists “be arrested and prosecuted rather than summarily killed.” The justification for this view is that “assassinations typically take place when there is no battle raging”, demonstrating the failure to grasp the essential nature of terrorist strategies, in which there is no “battle” in any meaningful sense. On the basis of the evidence and basic common sense, it is clear that if Roth’s proposal was accepted, and Israeli police forces were sent to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror leaders in the heart of densely packed cities such as Gaza, Jenin, or Nablus (Shechem), it would result in full-scale battles, with dozens, or hundreds of casualties, and perhaps escalate out of control.

To conclude, HRW’s credibility is in serious doubt on two grounds. First, officials such as Roth consistently fail to state their criteria for using complex terms from international law such as ‘proportionality.’ The absence of criteria suggests a dominant political agenda. Second, HRW’s ‘policy statements’, such as its call to arrest Palestinian terrorists, are both unrealistic and unpractical. The fact that HRW advocates policies that would result in further loss of life is both irresponsible and indicative of a wider effort to try to undermine Israel’s position in the conflict. HRW’s reports contradict the very human rights norms that the organization is trying to defend.