Israel’s Operation Protective Edge was only a week old when Human Rights Watch charged that “Israeli air attacks in Gaza investigated by Human Rights Watch have been targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war.” The report quoted Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director: “Recent documented cases in Gaza sadly fit Israel’s long record of unlawful airstrikes with high civilian casualties.”
In reality, the “long record” compounded here was that of Human Rights Watch, which has waged a relentless campaign against the Jewish state. Its current accusations cannot be assessed amidst the fog of war any more than HRW itself can truly have “documented” or “investigated” Israel’s targeting under these conditions. However, the credibility of HRW’s accusations can be judged from its past record.
In 2006 the group charged Israel with “war crimes” on the grounds that “Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.” The first of “the most serious Israeli abuses” instanced by HRW’s director Kenneth Roth was the bombing of Srifa (or Sreifa) in South Lebanon. HRW claimed its personnel visited the village two weeks after it was hit and “saw no evidence that there had been Hezbollah military activity around the areas targeted by the IDF during or just prior to the attack: no spent ammunition, abandoned weapons or military equipment, trenches, or dead or wounded fighters.” It quoted villagers insisting “there was no Hezbollah in the neighborhood.” One even said, “Except for one person, who didn’t even belong to Hezbollah, no one in that neighborhood knew how to handle weapons.”
But the day after the bombing of Srifa, the Associated Press had reported, “In the village of Srifa . . . airstrikes flattened 15 houses after rockets were fired from the area.” The Guardian had reported the same day, “Srifa . . . was a local beauty spot . . . but it is also in the Hizbullah heartland from which rockets have been fired into Israel.” And the next month, with the fighting over, the New York Times reporter Hassan M. Fattah wrote from the scene: “A Sreifa official . . . estimated that up to two-thirds of the town’s homes and buildings were demolished, leaving more than 43 people buried in the rubble. A majority of them were fighters belonging to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party, residents said.”
This stark and definitive contradiction apparently prompted no self-reflection because HRW acted in much the same manner during the Gaza war of 2008-09, the focus of the U.N.’s famous Goldstone Report issued late
Among other outlandish charges, that report claimed that “the Israeli military bombed the [al-Bader flour] mill in a deliberate attempt to damage the civilian infrastructure of Gaza.” Israel, it said, sought thereby to starve the Gazans. Israel published its investigation of this accusation and found that the mill had not been targeted and in fact no bomb had been dropped on it. It had, however, been damaged in the course of two-sided ground combat. HRW, which had earlier endorsed the charges, now rushed to counter Israel’s explanation, claiming that “half” of a 500-pound Mk 82 bomb had been found on an upper floor of the mill a month after the damage occurred, proving it had been bombed.
But the Israeli report included a photo of the mill, dated the day after the incident, in which charring was visible outside the windows of the floor on which a fire had been ignited in battle. The aerial photo offered a crystal-clear view of the entire roof of the building, and it was undamaged: No bomb could have fallen through it. The Mk 82 is a “dumb bomb” and could not have entered otherwise. Its shell, however, could have been lugged into the building after the fact.
Ironically, while HRW’s denunciations of Israel are often couched in demands that Israel investigate this or that allegation, it always then dismisses Israel’s findings. In this case, it rejected Israel’s report and simply ignored the incontrovertible evidence in the photo.
Surprisingly, however, Israel’s account was corroborated by a department of the U.N. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), an obscure office that operates satellites and provides mapping, was tasked with furnishing information in support of the Goldstone Commission’s inquiries. UNITAR provided a photo matching those in Israel’s report, and it accompanied them with the observation that the “damage signatures” on the mill suggested that “the majority of damage . . . was caused by intense IDF ground fire.”
Perhaps because this contradicted the version put about by the Goldstone Commission as well as HRW, UNITAR’s report has been removed from the U.N.’s website. Goldstone himself eventually renounced the report bearing his name, writing in 2011: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” But HRW did not join him in reconsidering. On the contrary, Kenneth Roth rushed to print with an op-ed vowing: “the Goldstone report . . . will live on.”
This shrill defiance betrays the passion Roth harbors about Israel and which is reflected in the staff he has assembled. Sarah Leah Whitson came to HRW from the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, a fervent Arab advocacy group. When the New Republic’s Ben Birnbaum interviewed her, he “noticed that a poster for Paradise Now, a movie that attempts to humanize Palestinian suicide bombers, hangs on her door.” Whitson’s deputy, Joe Stork, came from the Midde East Research and Information Project, which he cofounded, an outgrowth of the 1960s New Left devoted to extolling Palestinian terror groups as “liberation movements.” Middle East Report, the journal Stork edited for 25 years before being hired by Human Rights Watch, went so far as to cheer the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
HRW, of course, denies any bias on Mideast issues. Roth maintains that it practices “strict neutrality on . . . political questions.” Its touchstone, he says, is law.
But Roth doggedly refused to condemn former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe Israel off the map although there is no more fundamental piece of international human rights law than the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which outlaws “direct and public incitement to genocide.” When challenged on this, Roth argued that while “incitement” of genocide is illegal, the mere “advocacy” of it is not. How to distinguish one from the other? To be considered “incitement,” he opined, an exhortation must be followed immediately or accompanied by the literal act of genocide. The Iranian statements, Roth said, “are not incitement to genocide [because] no one has acted on them.” This tortured interpretation, however, cannot be squared with the very title of the convention, which speaks first of “prevention.”
And despite his claim of “strict neutrality,” HRW has gone out of its way to stake out a position on the central political issue of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It has officially endorsed the Palestinian “right of return,” which has little to do with rights and everything to do with Israel’s existence. It refers not only to the thousands of aging Arab refugees of the 1948 war but also to millions of their descendants. It is, as everyone understands, a formula for abolishing Israel as a Jewish state, and to endorse it is implicitly to endorse the destruction of Israel.
Of course, that is exactly what Hamas is trying to accomplish. Aware that it is weaker, its strategy is to paralyze Israel’s self-defense by mobilizing international pressure. Accordingly, its interior ministry recently sent a directive to social media users in Gaza, instructing them to “always add ‘innocent civilian’ or ‘innocent citizen’ in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza” and to “avoid publishing pictures of rockets fired into Israel from [Gaza] city centers.” In this manipulative strategy, it can count on willing accomplices like Human Rights Watch.
Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His new book, Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, has just been released by Encounter.