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HRW’s latest Gaza report is a pathetic effort

Jul 29, 2021 | Ahron Shapiro and Tzvi Fleischer

Gaza, as viewed from Israel. (David Berkowitz/Flickr)
Gaza, as viewed from Israel. (David Berkowitz/Flickr)

Human Rights Watch’s latest report accusing Israel of committing possible war crimes during the May 2021 mini-war launched by Hamas in Gaza against Israel is a poorly researched and factually bankrupt smear centred around three incidents, all of which have already been widely reported and explained.

One appears highly likely to have been caused by a Gazan rocket, not the IDF, and the two other incidents involved civilian casualties and collateral damage incurred when legitimate military targets were attacked, and are therefore certainly not war crimes.

HRW’s effort essentially amounts to insisting that it found no evidence to support IDF claims – though the report admits that the primary HRW researchers compiling the report were unable to enter Gaza to check –   and insisting that, if everything the IDF claimed about the attacks were lies, then they were war crimes.

Moreover, virtually the only source that HRW used to cast doubt on IDF accounts was claims from Palestinian witnesses in Gaza – who are not free to say anything that Hamas does not want them to say.

 

Incident 1: May 10, 2021 explosion near the al-Masri house in Beit Hanoun

Casualties: Eight civilians killed, including 6 children, 18 injured

How HRW presents Israel’s side:  

“Official Israeli claims about this attack are unclear and contradictory.

“On May 11 the Israeli news website Ynet reported that the Israeli military had said that six children in Gaza had been killed by ‘failed launches’ by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

“On May 16 the Israeli military published on social media a poster featuring men they said were Palestinian ‘activists’ whom Israeli forces had killed in the Gaza Strip since May 10. These included ‘Mohammed Ali Mohammed Nusseir,’ one of the men killed in the strike. The poster did not say when and where they had died. The same day, an article by the Israeli news website Walla reported that the Israeli military said that it had killed eight ‘activists’ from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including Nusseir, again without saying when and where they had been killed.”

HRW’s allegation: “The limited blast and fragmentation damage at the scene suggests the use of a munition with a small explosive yield. The lack of an impact crater suggests the munition detonated in mid-air. Remnants of the munition photographed on the morning of May 11 indicate that the weapon used was a type of guided missile used to attack armored vehicles, fortified positions, or personnel in the open.”

Evaluating HRW’s allegations: According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, the Ynet story cited above is correct. The explosion was caused by one of the approximately 700 Gazan rockets that fell short and landed in the Gaza Strip. Even the notoriously anti-Israel NGO Defence of Children International – Palestine could not rule out the explosion was caused by a Gazan rocket.

Furthermore, the IDF, which has taken responsibility for targeting errors in previous conflicts, has not taken responsibility for this incident.

Finally, HRW undermines its own claim that the IDF was responsible by admitting in the report that “Lacking guidance systems, the [Gazan] rockets are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians.”

The fact that Nusseir, a member of a terror group, was also killed and the IDF included his name in social media and news articles identifying him as such is slightly confusing given the fact that he was not actually killed by IDF fire. Nevertheless, the truth is that, as HRW admits in its own report, the IDF has never taken credit for this explosion as an attack, and it seems likely that the inclusion of Nusseir in the IDF’s own tally could have been an honest mistake in the IDF Spokesperson’s office. [I say that as a former member of that unit -A.S.]

Certainly, HRW’s depiction of the kind of explosion it believed it to have been does not jibe with the kind of attack the IDF would use to target a specific individual, if Nusseir had truly been the target.

Moreover, maps of Israeli “red alerts” showing missile fire coming out of Gaza reveal a flight of missiles being fired from Gaza into Israel at exactly the time this incident occurred, 6:10pm on May 10, and passing over Beit Hanoun, exactly where these people were killed.  Furthermore, at that time, the conflict had just begun and Israel had not even begun to strike Gaza in retaliation for the Hamas attacks.

The evidence seems overwhelming, regardless of what Palestinian witnesses told HRW staff that may have suggested otherwise.

 

Incident 2: May 15, 2021 bombing of the residence of Hamas commander Alaa Muhammad Abd al-Alam Abu Hatab in the al-Shati refugee camp

Casualties: Ten Palestinians killed, including women and children.

How HRW presents Israel’s side: For the IDF explanation of the incident, HRW links to a report from the New York Times from May 16, 2021:

“In a statement about the attack on Friday that killed 10 family members, the Israel Defense Forces said it had ‘attacked a number of Hamas terror organization senior officials, in an apartment used as terror infrastructure in the area of the Al-Shati refugee camp.’ Neighbors of the family, though, said no Hamas official was present at the time of the attack.”

The independent intelligence organisation Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre presented the results of its own investigation on June 22:

“At 01:30 on May 15, 2021, the Israeli Air Force attacked the house of Alaa Muhammad Abd al-Alam Abu Hatab (Abu Youssef Abu Hatab) in the al-Shati refugee camp. The house was completely destroyed. According to official reports nine people were killed in the attack, two women and seven children, but pictures of the funeral showed ten bodies. One body may have been found later (al-Mezan Center website, May 15, 2021; PCHR website, May 15, 2021; Defense for Children International — Palestine, May 15, 2021). According to reports, Alaa Muhammad Abd al-Alam Abu Hatab was a commander in Hamas’ military wing. According to unofficial local reports, he was killed in the attack, although according to Hamas’ media, he is considered MIA (al-Hurah TV website, May 15, 2021; Abood Awni El Tanani Twitter account, May 15, 2021; Palinfo, May 16, 2021).”

HRW’s claims: “Everyone Human Rights Watch interviewed about the attack said they were not aware of any militants in or near the building at the time of the attack. Human Rights Watch found no other evidence of any Palestinian armed groups’ presence in the building at the time of the attack, or any evidence that there was a bunker underneath the building. Mohammed al Sayed, a relative of Abu Hattab, the building owner, who rented space on the ground floor of the building for 14 years, said that Abu Hattab had no connection with any armed group.”

Evaluating HRW’s allegations:

The above claim by HRW, “Everyone Human Rights Watch interviewed about the attack said they were not aware of any militants in or near the building at the time of the attack” actually contradicts testimony found in another section of the same HRW report, which reads as follows:

“One civilian living in the immediate area of the attack, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch that a member of the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, was in the building at the time of the attack.”

HRW actively ignores this evidence when summarising its conclusions.

Nor does HRW offer any evidence that Alaa Muhammad Abd al-Alam Abu Hatab, the admitted owner of the building who was apparently killed in the attack was not a Hamas terrorist other than the fact a relative of his who lived in the building told it so. This is the weakest possible evidence, given the source, much weaker than the anonymous source HRW buried who said there was a Hamas military presence in the building.

Moreover, even if it were true that Israeli intelligence had been mistaken about the presence of the gathering of Hamas commanders in the building, mistakes based on failed intelligence do not constitute war crimes. Israel maintains that Alaa Muhammad Abd al-Alam Abu Hatab himself was a Hamas commander and his home was used for Hamas activities and is thus a legitimate military target. There is no allegation from HRW that Israel bombed with any prior knowledge of the number of civilians that were in the home at the time.

 

Incident 3: The IDF’s May 16, 2021 bombing of tunnel and bunker targets under Al Wahda Street, Gaza City resulting in the unintentional collapse of nearby buildings

Casualties: Forty-four civilians – 18 children, 14 women, and 12 men, injuring 50, caused by the collapse of three buildings not directly targeted by the IDF but close to bombing sites.

How HRW presents Israel’s side: For Israel’s defence, HRW cites multiple newspaper articles quoting IDF objectives of destroying tunnels and bunkers as well as the type of ordnance used which the IDF claimed was specialised to the task at hand and designed to minimise collateral damage.

HRW’s Claims: HRW alleges that the IDF lied to reporters and had used different, much more powerful and less discriminating ordnance than it had admitted to. HRW claims it “did not find any evidence of a military target at or near the site of the airstrikes, including tunnels or an underground command center under Al Wahda street or buildings nearby. An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful.”

Evaluating HRW’s allegations: HRW’s claims about different bombs being used are simply that – allegations based on its own theories, without any concrete evidence whatsoever. The IDF’s records of what the planes were armed with at the time of the attack are traceable to investigators, but HRW does not appear interested in waiting for verifiable facts before publishing its own theories and allegations.

Moreover, its claims that “it did not find any evidence” there were any tunnels and command centres in the area lack all credibility, and are contrary to mountains of evidence. HRW linked to stories from the New York Times and the UK’s Independent about this incident, but it did not link to a May 26 story on the same topic from the Wall Street Journal. Had it done so, it would have had to admit that when asked point-blank, a Hamas spokesman did not deny building tunnels along Al Wahda Street or under residential neighbourhoods, potentially undermining the foundations of the apartment buildings which collapsed.

As the Wall Street Journal reported:

“When asked if there was a tunnel under Al Wahda Street or if Hamas builds tunnels under residential neighborhoods, Basem Naim, head of Hamas’s office of international relations, said: ‘How to defend ourselves, with tunnels or without tunnels, where to have the tunnels, this is our choice.’”

Moreover, at the end of Al Wahda Street is the Al Shifa Hospital that is known to house a Hamas headquarters, which is almost certainly connected to the rest of the tunnel network – which Hamas openly admitted to having. Al Wahda Street would be the natural place to run a tunnel from the Shifa headquarters.

Furthermore, Israel bombed the tunnel network extensively, including in numerous areas near Al Wahda Street, without causing similar building collapses. The IDF’s explanation for what happened in Al Wahda Street is “The underground military facilities collapsed causing the foundations of the civilian houses above them to collapse as well leading to unintended casualties.”

This is completely consistent with eyewitness accounts reporting that the buildings fell many metres below street level as they collapsed, such as this one reproduced by the Wall Street Journal:

Azzam Al-Kolak, 42, lived on the top floor of a three-story building that caved in. He said he escaped with his wife and children through his kitchen, which suddenly was on the ground level. He said engineers who visited the site told him the building dropped some 40 feet below street level.

“It felt like I was being sucked into the ground,” said Mr. Al-Kolak.

HRW’s alternative theory is that maybe Israel just randomly used different and more powerful bombs in this area compared to other areas, causing the buildings to collapse, and used them to attack the street – not the buildings. HRW further theorises the street was bombed in this fashion for no reason, since HRW claims it sighted no military targets in the area.

This is simply not credible – especially without any real evidence whatsoever.

HRW concludes with this claim about the collapse of the buildings on al-Wahda Street: “An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.”

This is true enough – an unlawful attack with criminal intent would indeed by a war crime. But there is so little evidence presented of either an unlawful attack or criminal intent, you might as well say that “If HRW researchers routinely pulled the legs off of beetles, they would be guilty of animal cruelty.”

 

Conclusion

It is very clear HRW was determined to write a report that would accuse Israel of war crimes in the recent conflict.

Yet to do so, it really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It was only able to come up with three already well-known incidents from the conflict, and then use them as the basis of war crimes accusations by largely re-writing what happened, and then saying, if it happened the way we re-imagine it, then it might be a war crime.

Moreover this “re-imagining” relies on taking as gospel claims from Palestinian witnesses in Gaza who are unable to say anything Hamas would disapprove of without risking their lives and freedom, which was apparently collected by HRW research affiliates who live in Gaza who are in exactly the same situation. Furthermore, this reimagining requires accepting a whole range of grossly improbable things, from bizarre explosions in Beit Hanoun supposedly caused by Israel ordnance even as Hamas missiles roared overhead at the same time, to Israel using different bombs in one area to everywhere else for no reason, to there being no evidence of tunnels in Gaza even though Hamas openly boasted about them.

It seems the IDF must have performed an exemplary job in avoiding errors in its thousands of strikes in Gaza during the recent conflict if this is the best a hostile NGO – determined to find something, anything, to accuse it of war crimes – could find.

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