Summary: Responding to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and growing violence in Gaza, statements from powerful NGOs such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) show a clear emphasis on alleged Israeli infractions while downplaying Palestinian culpability. The following report examines NGO responses to the situation, the basis of their military and security assessments, and assesses the evidence of political agendas. NGOs statements examined in this report include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, MIFTAH, Palestine Center for Human Rights (PCHR) and others.

Following the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, Palestinian rocket and terror attacks continued, and escalated in May/June 2006. Disputes regarding the details of the Gaza beach incident increased the focus of NGOs on this violence. On Sunday June 25 eight Palestinians, including Hamas members, infiltrated into Israel and attacked an IDF position. They killed two IDF soldiers and kidnapped another (Gilad Shalit), in violation of international law. In response, the IDF sent forces into southern Gaza to search for the kidnapped soldier, and carried out air-strikes on infra-structure targets to prevent Shalit’s kidnappers from transporting him over the Egyptian border. They also arrested Hamas leaders.

Several NGOs including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Miftah, PCHR and Al Mezan issued statements and reports on these developments. Their statements consistently emphasized and condemned Israel for actions aimed at freeing the abducted soldier, while giving less weight to Palestinian responsibility for the incident. The rhetoric they used was similar, such as "collective punishment", "excessive force," "disproportionate response," "war crimes," etc. without providing criteria for use of these terms.

For example, HRW issued a press release on June 29 that highlighted criticism of Israel’s strike on a power station in Gaza but also called the kidnapping of Corporal Shalit a war crime. In keeping with HRW’s general approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the press release focused on Israel’s alleged human rights infractions (including sonic booms from IAF planes) with lesser attention to Palestinian responsibility for initiating the crisis, and the Israeli right to self-defense. Although this press release condemned the Palestinian actions, this was clearly a secondary theme, as the headline makes clear.

Amnesty International (AI) issued four press statements in a period of one week. On June 27, AI condemned the kidnapping, stating that "hostage taking…is expressly prohibited under international law" and called on the "Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PA President Mahmoud Abbas" to secure Shalit’s release. However in the same statement, AI also condemned Israel for "using excessive force" and "endangering disproportionately the lives of Palestinian civilians," although these terms remain undefined by AI. Amnesty’s statement pointedly makes no mention of the context of continued Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, or the deliberate use of civilian shields for such attacks.

In a second press statement (Link has expired) made on June 28, AI vigorously condemned Israel’s military actions in Gaza as "wanton destruction and collective punishment." It denounced "disproportionate restrictions imposed on [Palestinian] civilians," dismissing the IDF’s claim that these actions were necessary to prevent Shalit’s kidnappers from moving him out of the area. However, AI reiterated its position that the abduction violates international law and that Shalit and another Israeli, Eliyahu Asheri be released (Asheri was subsequently found to have already been killed). A third AI statement of June 29 condemned Israeli "targeting of civilian property and infrastructure", and "measures which disproportionately threaten the lives of the Palestinian civilian population" while failing to call for an end to all Palestinian terrorist activity. The statement also did not define "disproportionate", while condemning the killing of Asheri and calling for Shalit’s release.

Another AI statement of June 30 escalated the rhetoric and denounced Israel’s actions as "war crimes", although AI notably did not label the two abductions and the murder of Asheri "war crimes", a term apparently reserved for Israel. This statement also rejects the IDF’s claim that the destruction of roads was designed to prevent terrorists from moving Shalit. AI states that these actions "cause disruption to Palestinians civilians…but it does not prevent the movements of armed groups". The NGO provides no source for this claim or the military expertise, if any, on which the analysis is based.

Christian Aid (CA) also added its voice to the condemnations of Israel, in an emotive news report entitled "Gaza invasion targets civilian infrastructure" (June 28). William Bell, Christian Aid’s senior policy officer responsible for Israel and the Palestinian territories stated "the message to the civilian population of Gaza could not be clearer – collective punishment is part of Israel’s military strategy." CA, which receives annual funding from the UK government ( £3,530,000 in 2005), did not condemn the abduction of either Shalit or Asheri, nor call for their release. It referred to the kidnapping as a "capture" while Israeli actions were characterized as "attacks" and an "invasion." The NGO condemned Israel’s "military invasion and siege on a civilian population," making no mention of Palestinian terror (except in the subtitle referring to the kidnapping by "militants") and blamed Israel for the "humanitarian crisis".

Palestinian NGO Response

Palestinian NGOs also condemned Israel over its operations aimed at freeing Shalit, while generally ignoring Palestinian culpability for the IDF’s entry into Gaza. MIFTAH, a highly politicized Palestinian NGO funded by the UN, the EU, Switzerland, Norway and the Ford Foundation among others, issued a statement on the crisis on June 29, which lauded the Palestinian attack and abduction of Shalit, saying, "he was kidnapped by Palestinian resistance fighters in the Gaza Strip." The statement calls for the release of arrested Hamas leaders and does not criticize the attack, call for the release of Shalit or Asheri or demand that they be treated humanely. MIFTAH also posted a series of editorials on the crisis which justified kidnapping and killing, stating, "as long as the Palestinians are under Israeli occupation…it is only natural that they will find ways to assert their national aspirations and fight back."

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), another politicized Palestinian NGO, also condemned Israel’s actions in four separate press statements. PCHR has consultative status at the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and is funded by the European Commission, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, the International Commission of Jurists – Sweden, the Ford Foundation and Christian Aid, among others. PCHR’s first statement on June 27 called the attack against the Israeli soldiers a "military operation" and referred to Israel’s response as "collective punishment." The statement includes a single mention that an Israeli soldier was "taken prisoner", but otherwise presents the IDF operation as purely offensive. In a press release of June 29, PCHR condemned Israel’s detention of Hamas officials and called a Hamas gunman killed by an Israeli strike, "a resistance man." Not one of PCHR’s statements criticized Hamas or the other Palestinian groups for the attack and abduction of Corporal Shalit, nor do they point out that this violates international law. Instead, PCHR condemns Israel’s actions aimed at releasing the captured soldier, underlining PCHR’s role as a pro-Palestinian political organization.

Five other Israeli and Palestinian NGOs – Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Al-Mezan, HaMoked, Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), Al-Dameer, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Public Commission Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) – issued a statement on June 27 calling on Shalit’s kidnappers to provide him with medical treatment. They did not criticize his actual abduction or call for his release. In further statements made by Al Mezan, the NGO condemned Israeli "war crimes" and called the IDF response "collective punishment." On June 29, Al Dameer, Al Haq and Al Mezan Center issued a joint statement condemning Israel’s response to the kidnapping. In none of their statements did Al Mezan or the other NGOs criticize Palestinians for violating international law or call for Shalit’s release.

The biased political agenda reflected in these public relations activities is particularly problematic given that the NGOs are supported by various governments. Al Haq receives funds from governments of Holland, Denmark, Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Spain, the EU, as well as by the Ford Foundation and Diakonia. It is an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists and has consultative status at ECOSOC. Al Dameer is funded by the International Commission of Jurists – Sweden, the Ford Foundation, Christian Aid the United Nations Development Program, the European Commission and Sweden.

The current crisis has highlighted the extreme politicization in many NGOs, exemplified by their one sided and biased denunciations of Israeli actions. Their statements seek to delegitimize Israel internationally and undermine its right to self-defense. Such bias is inconsistent with the principals of universal human rights that NGOs such as HRW, AI, CA, Al Mezan, PCHR and Miftah claim to promote.