Gerald M. Steinberg
Wall Street Journal – Europe
JERUSALEM — Yesterday’s elections in the Palestinian territories closed the book on the Arafat era. The end of four decades of terror and corruption rightly generates great optimism about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Mahmoud Abbas, the new leader, can now move to end the chaos in Palestinian society and channel the massive aid flows away from off-shore bank accounts and illegal arms to economic development.
Even with the best of intentions, however, a much wider effort will be needed to reverse decades of hatred and terrorism. Third parties can help in this immense task–in particular the wide network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in human rights and humanitarian issues. Yet, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the track record of these NGOs has been abysmal. Like the United Nations, today they’re part of the problem, not the solution.
With their multi-million-dollar (and euro) budgets, superpowers such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and dozens of smaller allied groups in the region have contributed to incitement to terrorism–when they should support reconciliation. Their activities amplify Palestinian rhetoric that labels Israel as an "apartheid regime", and Jews as "imperialists" and "colonialists", while whitewashing terror and condemning the Israel defensive actions.
In contrast to their PR images as peace-makers, the one-sided approach boosts the most radical Palestinians and undermines moderate voices. The double standards by which HRW and Amnesty excuse non-state terrorism as being outside the framework of international law, while using terms such as "war crimes" to condemn Israeli defensive actions, help to fuel violence. When human rights groups repeat the language used by the rejectionists from Hamas, Fatah’s al Aksa brigades, and elsewhere, Palestinian opposed to terrorism are silenced. And by ignoring the vast corruption of the Palestinian leadership, the international NGOs have helped to keep this elite in power, and blunted support for reform.
Some groups, such as Denmark’s Rebellion, have gone further by directly supporting terror organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–which sent the 16 year old suicide bomber who killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv last October. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, the NGO community has lost direction, making a mockery of the human right ideals that it claims to uphold.
The contribution of NGOs to incitement in the Palestinian territories was highlighted in September 2001 at the UN-sponsored Durban conference against "racism and xenophobia". The conference equated Zionism with racism, justified terror as "resistance against occupation", and denounced Israeli defense as a "violation of international law". Later, groups such as Christian Aid, Oxfam, War on Want , etc. promoted the extremist Palestinian position in condemning Israel’s separation barrier as an "apartheid wall", while referring to the anti-terror actions in Jenin and elsewhere as "war crimes". Some of these NGOs are also active in promoting the proposed economic boycott on Israel in order to further delegitimize defensive actions against terrorism.
The NGO political agenda also resulted in the relative neglect of mass killings in areas such as Central Africa or Sudan, where there is less media coverage and political mileage. Since 2000, attacks by HRW and Amnesty on the actions of democratic Israel amounted to more than double the number devoted to the murderous regime in Sudan. HRW only put Sudan on the top of their agenda after media and U.S. government reports of the mass brutality. Before then, the human rights NGOs were asleep at the wheel.
But despite these failures, the "halo effect" protects the NGOs them from the same type of accountability that they demand from others. When Kenneth Roth, the head of New York-based HRW, alleges Israeli abuses, or Irene Khan of Amnesty repeats Palestinian myths in Jenin, few question their motives or credibility. Mr. Roth recently used part of his $22 million annual budget to hold a press conference at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel (the main Palestinian public relations hub) to publicize a glossy 135-page report purporting to document Israeli military excesses in Gaza, based on unverified claims of Palestinian "eyewitnesses".
A few days later, Christian Aid (a major London-based "charitable organization"), issued its own report ("Facts on the Ground") alleging that Israeli "land grab policy" is making peace impossible. As in previous activities by this group (such as the film, "Peace under Siege"), Palestinian corruption and incitement were essentially ignored. These conflict-enhancing activities are facilitated by allocations from European governments, powerful philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation, and church groups all claiming to promote peace.
Recently, however, these excesses have begun to erode the "halo effect": the NGOs and their funding agencies have become the subjects of reports by monitoring groups. The NGO role in the Durban conference led to strong protests from the U.S. government, critical press reports, and hearings by a Congressional committee on the role of powerful charitable organizations, such as the Ford Foundation, in this activity.
In response, Susan Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, declared a ban on funding for groups that advocate "bigotry or violence" or denial of "very existence of legitimate, sovereign states like Israel." But implementation is spotty. While advocating transparency for others, Ford fails to provide updates on the groups it still supports. Some individual donors have gone further, attempting to press HRW and other groups to shift the counter-productive emphasis on Israel.
If these initial efforts gather steam, the NGO community might be able to provide a positive contribution to ending the violence and promoting understanding. In the post-Arafat era, they can also help to reverse decades of incitement and promote reform within Palestinian society, thereby also restoring some credibility among Israelis.
Mr. Steinberg is the editor of www.ngo-monitor.org, and directs the program on conflict management at Bar Ilan University in Israel.
There’s a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to Gerald Steinberg’s diatribe against human-rights groups as supposed obstacles to peace ("The Unhelpful Hand," editorial page, Jan. 10). For example, Human Rights Watch’s repeated condemnations of terrorism, including authorship of the definitive critical study of suicide bombing in Israel, somehow "contributed to incitement to terrorism." Our strong and widely publicized rejection of unjustified criticisms of Israel at the 2001 nongovernmental conference on racism in Durban, South Africa become a "contribution of NGOs to incitement in the Palestinian territories."
Mr. Steinberg dismisses human-rights criticisms of Israeli war crimes and other violations simply because Palestinians have also condemned them. For him, there is no difference between "Israeli defensive actions" and blatant violations of the Geneva Conventions, which seek to spare civilians from government excesses even in time of war or serious security threat. Israeli abuses are fueling radicals in Muslim countries and eroding Western sympathy for the embattled country, but criticizing those abuses somehow "boosts the most radical Palestinians and undermines moderate voices."
Mr. Steinberg, a man who describes himself as a professor and NGO leader while omitting from his author’s biography that he is a security consultant for the Israeli government, should leave such twisted reasoning for fairytales.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East Director
Human Rights Watch
Letters, Wall St. Journal (Europe)
February 8 2005 (as corrected on February 9 2005)
HRW Agenda Clouds Response
Sarah Leah Whitson’s letter ("The Middle East Through the Looking Glass," Jan. 18) attempts to discredit my detailed analysis of Human Rights Watch’s destructive role ("The Unhelpful Hand," editorial page, Jan. 10) with the ultimate trump card–the claim that I am a "security consultant for the Israeli government." If all academics invited occasionally to express their views in government settings were disqualified from writing editorials, newspapers would be much thinner. And Ms. Whitson’s boss, Ken Roth, who served as a prosecutor in New York before heading HRW, would lose a major platform to promote his ideology. Or perhaps her problem is with the legitimacy of this activity only with respect to the Israeli government-a position reflected in HRW’s agenda.
Beyond this awkward attempt to stifle debate, Ms. Whitson’s substantive points are thin reeds indeed. As Anne Bayefsky, Shimon Samuels and other delegates to the 2001 Durban conference have testified, HRW’s representatives were parties to shifting the conference’s focus from battling racism to attacking Israel. While Ms. Whitson highlights HRW’s single "definitive" study of suicide bombing, she does not explain why they buried all the evidence of Arafat’s role, in the spirit of Durban. And her claim that the defense of Israeli lives against terror constitutes the source of radical Islam (abetted by HRW’s accusations of "Israeli war crimes") is both foolish and outside the human rights framework for which HRW solicits contributions.
In summary, Ms. Whitson’s letter is another example of the NGO political agenda that inflames incitement and hatred. It also highlights the importance of watching the watchers.
Gerald M. Steinberg
Editor, NGO Monitor