Another Casualty of the Gaza War (USA Today)
By Gregory Wallance
July 24, 2014
Report accusing Israel of ‘war crimes’ threatens credibility of human rights groups.
Imagine that your heavily armed and extremely hostile next-door neighbor starts shooting large-caliber bullets into your house. The bullets hit almost every room but do not kill anyone due to your prudent defensive measures. You start firing back and then offer a ceasefire. He keeps firing and starts digging a tunnel from his basement into your backyard. No one can stop him. In fact, some neighbors are demonstrating against you with placards calling you foul names. Your children can’t go to school, you can’t go to work, and no one can visit you for fear of being killed.
Finally, your bullets kill one of his children even though you had only been trying to kill your neighbor. When the shooting stops, the prosecutor charges you with pre-meditated murder because you are known to be a good shot. Your neighbor isn’t even arrested.
I don’t know about you, but if the attack had happened to me, I would be pretty damn angry. Yet on Monday, Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading human rights organizations, issued a report on the fighting in Gaza that accused Israel of “war crimes” because one of its “accurate missiles” had struck a hospital (unlike in my parable, no one was killed but four patients and staff were wounded). Therefore, according to Human Rights Watch, given the accuracy of the Israeli weapons, this must have been an “intentional or reckless attack” deserving of a war crimes prosecution even though, according to Israel, the hospital grounds were being used by Hamas to fire rockets and Israel had given an advance warning.
Human Rights Watch devotes just two paragraphs of its multipage report to Hamas, which the group accuses of “indiscriminate firing” on Israeli population centers without suggesting that Hamas acted intentionally (or even recklessly) and refrains from a provocative “war crimes” charge against Hamas in favor of the watered-down “in violation of the laws of war.” But words, like bullets, have consequences, which in this case is permanent damage to the credibility of Human Rights Watch and its like-minded sister human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, and therefore to the cause of human rights.
There’s a history here. Following the Gaza War in 2008-09, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a fact-finding mission chaired by a distinguished South African jurist, Richard Goldstone, whose 2009 report found that both Israel and Hamas had intentionally targeted civilians. As evidence of Israel’s alleged intent to kill civilians, the Goldstone Report focused on the deaths from an Israeli bomb of nearly 30 members of the al-Simouni family in their home.
Subsequently, Judge Goldstone recanted his own report’s conclusion that Israel had intentionally tried to kill Palestinian civilians. “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different report.” In fact, the finding of a subsequent Israeli military investigation, and the reason for Goldstone’s change of view, was that an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image had caused the al-Simouni bombing.
Goldstone’s critical mistake, apparently shared by the Human Rights Watch report, was to conclude from the fact alone of civilian deaths from Israeli precision weapons that the deaths were intentional. But war is not that simple. In Afghanistan in December 2001, a U.S. Special Forces air controller called in a 2,000-pound bomb strike on his own outpost that killed or wounded more than 25 American and Afghan soldiers. The controller, who somehow survived, was not a murderer. He had only replaced the battery on a GPS device then used to target a Taliban outpost north of Kandahar — without appreciating that replacing the battery would cause the device to reset the coordinates to its own location.
Human rights staffers are temperamentally unsuited to discriminating between tragedies and war crimes in the fog of the Israeli-Palestinian clashes. They identify with whomever they perceive to be the underdog — and in this case, to them, it is the Palestinians. Their identification is emotional because it is an emotional conflict, which is hardly conducive to objective judgment.
Israel is not exempt from human rights scrutiny but it is also entitled to balanced, impartial reporting done in a deliberate manner. The most recent Human Rights Watch report doesn’t meet that standard and only further drives a stake into its own credibility and that of other human rights organizations. And we are not going to get that credibility back.
Gregory J. Wallance is a lawyer, writer and human rights activist in New York City and a board member of Advancing Human Rights, which seeks to use social media to promote human rights.