The measure of a human rights organization is
to be found not just in the strides it takes to seek justice for the oppressed
and victimized but also in the compromises it makes to keep itself out of trouble.
Because of the business that human rights defenders are in, they must be held
to a standard higher than we demand of others.
Unfortunately, one of the best Human Rights Watch has failed that test during
the war in Lebanon this summer.
To its credit, HRW has risked much opprobrium for taking Israel to task for
systematically breaking international law during its assault on Lebanon. That
has culminated in a predictable campaign of harassment by pro-Israel organizations
in the U.S. as well as by the usual suspects, such as Alan Dershowitz
that have accused its researchers of libeling Israel and being anti-Semitic.
Such attacks reached an obscene pitch after HRW's executive director, Kenneth
Roth, observed in publicity material accompanying a recent report that Israel
appeared to have treated south Lebanon as a "free-fire zone" and that
its strikes had failed to distinguish between civilians and Hezbollah fighters.
Roth, a Jew whose father fled Nazi Germany, was accused in typical hyperbolic
fashion of engaging in "the de-legitimization of Judaism, the basis of
much anti-Semitism" (New York Sun), being "an ally of the barbarians"
and "reflexive Israel basher" (David Horowitz), and resorting to a
"slur about primitive Jewish bloodlust" (Jonathan Rosenblum).
I do not underestimate the damage that such criticism risks doing to the reputations
of HRW and Roth. But I also know that no concession to such intimidation can be
justified, not if we are to search for the truth or hope to defend the principal
victims of violations of international law, the civilian populations of poor and
Name-calling, however distasteful, cannot justify HRW distorting its findings
to placate the Israel lobby. But that seems to be just what is happening.
The most egregious example is to be found in an Aug. 10 interview
between the New York Times and a senior HRW researcher, Peter Bouckaert,
about a recent report, "Fatal Strikes," in which the organization
provides evidence that Israel fired indiscriminately on Lebanese civilians during
Rather than concentrating on HRW's findings of war crimes in Lebanon
the focus of the research Bouckaert digresses:
"I mean, it's perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting
civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don't accuse
the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians. Our accusation, clearly
stated in the report, is that the Israeli army is not taking the necessary precautions
to distinguish between civilian and military targets. So, there is a difference
in intent between the two sides. At the same time, they are both violating the
After an observation like that stuffed in a brief space with so many
double standards HRW should not complain if one day it finds itself short
of friends prepared to come to its aid when next the likes of Dershowitz batter
it with the anti-Semitism canard. Those who indulge in slurs (against Arabs)
can hardly call on our sympathy when they themselves are victims of the same
kind of innuendo.
First, how does Bouckaert know that Israel's failure to distinguish between
civilian and military targets was simply a technical failure, a failure to take
precautions, and not intentional? Was he or another HRW researcher sitting in
one of the military bunkers in northern Israel when army planners pressed the
button to unleash the missiles from their spy drones? Was he sitting alongside
the air force pilots as they circled over Lebanon dropping their U.S.-made bombs
or tens of thousands of "cluster munitions," tiny land mines that
are now sprinkled over a vast area of south Lebanon? Did he have intimate conversations
with the Israeli chiefs of staff about their war strategy?
Of course not. He has no more idea than you or I what Israel's military planners
and its politicians decided was necessary to achieve their war goals. In fact,
he does not even know what those goals were. So why make a statement suggesting
Similarly, just as Bouckaert is apparently sure that he can divine Israel's
intentions in the war, and that they were essentially benign, he is equally
convinced that he knows Hezbollah's intentions, and that they were malign. Whatever
the evidence suggests in a war in which Israel overwhelmingly killed
Lebanese civilians and is still doing so, and in which Hezbollah overwhelmingly
killed Israeli soldiers Bouckaert knows better. He admits that both violated
the Geneva Conventions, a failure he makes sound little more than a technicality,
but apparently only Hezbollah had evil designs.
How is it "perfectly clear" to Bouckaert that Hezbollah was "directly"
targeting Israeli civilians? It is most certainly not clear from the casualty
It is also not clear, as I tried to document during the war, from the geographical
locations where Hezbollah's rockets struck. My ability to discuss those locations
was limited because all journalists based in Israel are subject to the rules
of the military censor. We cannot divulge information useful to the "enemy"
about Israel's myriad military installations its army camps, military
airfields, intelligence posts, arms stores, and Rafael weapons factories.
What I did try to alert readers to was the fact that many, if not most, of those
military sites are located next to or inside Israeli communities, including Arab
towns and villages.
At least it is now possible, because some army positions were temporary, to reveal
that many communities in the north had artillery batteries stationed next to them
firing into Lebanon and that from Haifa Bay warships continually launched warheads
at Lebanon. That information is now publicly available in Israel, and other examples
are regularly coming to light.
I reported, for example, the other day that the Ha'aretz newspaper
referred to legal documents to be presented in a compensation suit that show
that the Arab village of Fassouta, close to the border with Lebanon, had an
artillery battery stationed next to it throughout much of the war. A press release
this week from a Nazareth-based welfare organization, the Laborers' Voice, reveals
that another battery was positioned by an Arab town, Majd al-Krum, during the
war. Arab member of Knesset Abbas Zakour has also gone publicly on the record:
"During a short visit to offer condolences to the families of victims killed
in Hezbollah's rocket attacks, I saw Israeli tanks shelling Lebanon from the
two towns of Arab al-Aramisha and Tarshiha."
In other Arab communities, including Jish, Shaghour, and Kfar Manda, the Israeli
army requisitioned areas to train their troops for the ground invasion of south
Lebanon. According to the Human Rights Association, based in Nazareth, army officials
justified their decision on the following grounds: "The landscape of Arab
towns [in Israel] is similar to Arab towns in Lebanon."
Aside from the fact that this effective use of Israeli civilians as human
shields by the army outdoes any "cowardly blending" (in the words
of Jan Egeland of the United Nations) by Hezbollah in Lebanon, it also makes
any attempt at second-guessing the targets of the Shi'ite militia's rockets
futile. Unless Bouckaert was given a private audience with Hezbollah's leader,
Hassan Nasrallah, or drove around with a Katyusha rocket team, his talk is pure
It might be possible to dismiss Bouckaert's comments as the private opinion
of one researcher (even if one of HRW's most senior) were it not for the fact
that the organization has stood by his statements in correspondence with me.
I have been told that Bouckaert's assertions are justified because "we
generally conclude that the use of weapons that can't be targeted/are not precise,
e.g., are indiscriminate, when fired into civilian areas, are in and of themselves
evidence of targeting civilians."
In fact, I know from conversations with Israeli journalists that Hezbollah's
rockets were not as inaccurate as HRW would like to assume. Several important
military sites were hit by Hezbollah rockets, though none of those incidents
were reported and apparently cannot be as long as the military censorship rules
I have also seen the deep scarring and charred brush on a hillside in northern
Israel where an important army bunker used by military planners is located
evidence that Hezbollah knew exactly what was there and successfully aimed many
of its rockets at the site.
Is it still possible to presume that Hezbollah is "directly" targeting
civilians, as Bouckaert claims? HRW again:
"We can conclude that they [Hezbollah] are targeting civilians and
not just failing to discriminate sufficiently because the weapons themselves
are not capable of being targeted with any real degree of precision, according
to our arms division, so they know full well that the likelihood is that the
weapons will not hit their target/will kill civilians."
What are we supposed to make of this argument from the world's foremost human
rights organization? HRW is accusing Hezbollah of committing graver war crimes
than Israel, even though it killed far fewer civilians both numerically and
proportionally, because its rockets are "less accurate." HRW is saying,
in effect, that whatever Hezbollah's and Israel's respective intentions and
whatever the respective outcomes of their attacks, Hezbollah must be treated
as the greater pariah because its technology is inferior. Whether or not Hezbollah
was aiming for military targets is irrelevant, says HRW, because its primitive
rockets were likely to hit civilians as opposed to Israel, which struck
at Lebanese civilians with precision weapons.
And all of this, of course, entirely ignores Israel's use of as many as 100,000
cluster bombs, leaving an indiscriminate legacy of bomblets across south Lebanon
that will kill and maim for months, and possibly years, to come. Is that not "clear"
proof that Israel was "deliberately" targeting Lebanese civilians?
HRW's logic appears to be arguing that Hezbollah had no right given
its inadequate rocket technology to defend its country from Israel's
massive bombardment of Lebanon's civilian population. In other words, it had
no right of self-defense because its military arsenal was inferior. It should
have sat out the weeks of aerial attacks, refusing to engage Israel until the
Israeli army decided it was time to mount a ground invasion. Only at that point,
HRW implies, did Hezbollah have the right to strike back.
Such an argument effectively legitimizes the use of military might by the
stronger party, thereby making nonsense of international law and the human rights
standards HRW is supposed to uphold.
This sophistry is fooling no one, least of all, of course, Israel's apologists.
They will keep up their relentless defamation of an organization like Human
Rights Watch as long as Israel comes under its scrutiny. By trying to appease
them, our human rights champions damage only themselves and those they should
be seeking to protect.