Is Human Rights Watch out to nail Israel: Based on the evidence, IDF deserves to be criticized

I have worked in war zones for more than 10 years, investigating violations of the laws of war for Human Rights Watch. I’ve inspected the killing fields of Kosovo and the displaced persons camps of Sri Lanka, examined Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, and researched the effects in Gaza of Operation Cast Lead.

Fred Abrahams

These investigations are grueling and complex but we do them because we believe that by holding states and armed groups to account we can help minimize the harm to civilians in war.

Human Rights Watch never takes sides in a conflict or questions a government’s decision to use force. Our concern is not whether states and armed groups wage war, but how they wage war. We hold them to their obligations under the laws of war designed to spare non-combatants, including the rule that abuses by one side do not justify abuses by the other.

In many conflicts, both sides respond to our allegations of abuse by accusing us of partisan work. Rather than dispute the findings of our research, they claim we harbor bias or a political slant, and that we pay disproportionate attention to their violations. Sometimes they try to smear staff members as supportive of their enemies.

This “shoot the messenger approach” suggests we’ve done our work well — if we got the facts wrong, our critics would not hesitate to make that point.

This summer, we’ve heard the Netanyahu government and some of its defenders calling us names we have heard before: biased, obsessed with Israel (or Serbia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Rwanda), and even that we support terrorism. Some say we deny Israel the right to self-defense.

We hear similar comments from opponents of Israel. About our recent report on Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel, Hamas said that we put “the executioner and the victim on the same footing.” A Hamas spokesman told journalists, “It is a politicized report lacking objectivity and impartiality.” Likewise, commentators from Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have dismissed our many criticisms of their human rights violations by calling us a “Zionist organization.”

All of these criticisms have a common goal: to discredit the reporter of unwanted news and distract attention from the findings of unlawful behavior.

Now, in the wake of our reports criticizing Israeli conduct in Gaza, the Israeli government and some of its uncritical supporters are purposefully spreading misinformation about Human Rights Watch.

They have falsely claimed that we raise money from the Saudi government, and they have launched personal attacks on current and former staff, including an administrative assistant.

Recent attacks have peddled false accusations against the director and deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, Sarah Leah Whitson and Joe Stork, in an obvious attempt to deflect attention from Human Rights Watch’s reporting on the region.

Stork researched and wrote Human Rights Watch’s 2002 report on suicide attacks against civilians in Israel, one of the first such comprehensive investigations of armed group attacks on civilians, refuting the arguments made to justify them. Under Whitson’s direction, Human Rights Watch has expanded its Middle East reporting, issuing several dozen reports on abuses by Arab regimes and armed groups, as well as by Israel and Iran. The division has spearheaded a successful five-year campaign to persuade civil society leaders in 15 Arab capitals to condemn publicly armed group attacks against civilians.

To be clear: We do not raise money from Saudi Arabia or from any government, and we have always reported on abuses by both sides with neutrality. Anyone who thinks otherwise should scrutinize the work on our Web site. Israel is one of 80 countries in which we work, and in August alone we issued substantial reports on India, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Absent in these Israeli attacks is a credible rebuttal to our detailed documentation of Israel’s violations in Gaza, including the indiscriminate use of white phosphorus munitions, unlawful attacks from aerial drones and the shooting deaths of civilians in groups waving white flags.

To reach these conclusions, Human Rights Watch conducted extensive research in Gaza, despite Israel’s continued refusal to grant access. We visited attack sites, analyzed ballistics evidence, photographed wounds, and examined autopsy and other medical reports.

We conducted extensive private interviews with the victims and witnesses of suspected unlawful attacks, and experts on the ground, asking detailed questions to cross-check facts. Back in New York, all reports go through a rigorous vetting process to double-check facts and conclusions.

The Israeli government and some critics claim our witness interviews are “unreliable.” Under a repressive Hamas government, they say, Gazans are not free to speak. But we found many Palestinians who in private interviews were willing to criticize Hamas. Palestinians were the primary sources for a report on Palestinian abuses in Gaza and the West Bank that I wrote in 2008, and for a second report on Hamas’ crackdown against political opponents in April 2009. Palestinians spoke forcefully about knee-cappings, enforced disappearances and executions by the Gaza police and Qassam Brigades.

But of course Palestinian reliability is not the real issue for the Israeli government and its partisans. Even when the witnesses are Israeli soldiers, the government also strikes back, as shown by its attempts to cut funding for the Israel Defense Fund veterans group Breaking the Silence. The sources in that group’s compelling Gaza report are not Palestinians but Israeli soldiers who fought in the operation.

In all our Gaza work, moreover, we provided our findings to the IDF well in advance of each report, asking them to comment, but for the past eight months the military has refused to answer our questions and has rejected requests to meet. Now they accuse us of taking sides. In one case, the IDF posted a video after the release of our report, and critics then accused us of ignoring evidence.

Human Rights Watch investigates allegations of abuse around the world, and verifies or dismisses them based on the evidence.

The Israeli government may not like our reporting on the IDF’s conduct but the problem isn’t the messenger; it’s the IDF conduct that we report. That reporting won’t stop until the government fixes the real problem, and addresses why so many Palestinians needlessly died.

Fred Abrahams is a senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. He wrote a version of this piece for JTA.

For an opposing view on this topic, please go to Is Human Rights Watch out to nail Israel?: ‘Researchers’ build their ‘facts’ on bias