Human rights NGOs, and their half-hearted, belated, and weasel-worded condemnations of rocket attacks

Nov 21, 2012 | Or Avi Guy

Human rights NGOs
'Code Red'- Israeli mum protecting child

Human rights organisations are supposed to advance a universal approach, according to which every person in entitled to certain rights and liberties, based simply on his or her humanity. The most basic of these rights is the right to life. Yet time after time those very same organisations prove that some humans – those from groups they personally identify or sympathise with – have more rights than others. Most recently, this double-standard was evident in the response by various human rights organisations to the ongoing rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza on Israeli cities and towns. In between ‘code red’ sirens, you could almost hear the silence of human rights organisations.

International human rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovsky (‘Israel Bombarded by Rockets, Human Rights Watch Nowhere in Sight,’ 14.11.2012) pointed out at the beginning of the current escalation, that despite ongoing rocket and missile attacks on Israeli civilians from Gaza, which greatly increased in 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) continuously failed to issue condemnations of this unequivocal war crime.

Prior to the current escalation, some 850 rockets and mortars landed in Israel, since the start of the year. Each and every one of them was launched intentionally at civilians- children in schools and kindergartens, mums and dads on their way to work, elderly in their homes, students at universities, and farmers working on their land. Each one of those rockets and mortars was a violation of international humanitarian law. Israel repeatedly complained about them to UN Security Council and the UN Secretary-General (see here the full list of letters sent to the UN regarding rocket attacks from Gaza). And still, as Ostrovsky wrote:

“Although the mission statement of HRW might begin with their pledge to be ‘… protecting the human rights of people around the world,’ when it comes to the human rights of Israelis, HRW is nowhere in sight.”

He also points out that over periods of intense rocket attacks from Gaza earlier this year, HRW was not silent on the Middle East. They still had time to issue condemnations of Israel on other matters, such as settlements.

One day after Ostrovsky’s article was published, after days of intensified shelling from Gaza, HRW finally issued a statement, calling for both sides to “avoid harm to civilians”:

“Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza need to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians as hostilities between the two sides intensify.
Palestinian rocket attacks into civilian areas violate the laws of war prohibition against targeting civilians, and Israel should ensure it is only targeting military objects, Human Rights Watch said[…]
‘Israeli and Palestinian forces alike need to make all feasible efforts to avoid harming civilians,’ said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ‘There is no justification for Palestinian armed groups unlawfully launching rockets at Israeli population centers.'”

Ignoring the intensifying shelling from Gaza for weeks, months and years, was a troubling policy. Only commenting on this phenomenon in the context of an active armed conflict between Hamas and Israel, and waiting until the comment could include both sides, seems like suspicious timing.

Still, this could have been seen as a small step in the right direction. After all, HRW usually disproportionally criticises and condemns Israel, and here not only do they at least attempt to appear balanced by calling on both sides to not harm civilians, they even refer to the illegality of Hamas’ attacks. But of course, instead it had to feature moral equivalence between terrorists’ rockets aimed to harm civilians and the IDF defensive acts attempting to target rocket launchers, arsenals (hidden in densely populated residential areas) and launching pads. Furthermore, HRW’s version of the sequence of events leading to the escalation clearly places the blame on Israel:

“Hostilities between Palestinian armed groups and Israel have escalated since an Israeli military incursion on November 8 that left a 13-year-old Palestinian boy dead, followed by a Palestinian attack on an Israeli military vehicle on November 10. Between November 10 and 15 armed groups have fired more than 200 rockets into Israel, injuring eight Israeli civilians, and strikes by Israeli forces wounded scores of civilians in Gaza.”

Later in the report, they reiterate this misleading sequence of events.

The exact sequence of events of November 8 are actually unclear, but what is crystal clear is that the violence that day began when Gaza militants attacked an Israeli patrol, leading to an exchange of fire, not when the boy was killed in unclear circumstances.Official statements by the US, Canada, Britain, and Australia have all pointed to Hamas attacks and shelling as the cause of escalation.

The rest of the statement reveals the absolute biases of HRW, as it is clear that the point of the press release is to point the finger at Israel, concealed by the appearance of balance in the first few lines of the statement. After subtly blaming Israel for “starting it,” and issuing a routine, blasé statement about Hamas attacks being illegal, HRW go on to place most of the responsibility for violation of human rights on Israel:

“The laws of war require forces to take all feasible precautions to ensure that attacks are only carried out against military targets, not civilians, and attacks should be canceled if it becomes apparent the target is not military. It is unlawful to carry out an attack in which the expected civilian loss is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain.
‘Israeli forces attacking Palestinian armed groups cannot ignore the presence of civilians, including those seeking to help wounded fighters,’ Stork said. ‘The high number of civilians wounded in the November 10 Israeli counter-attack [when Israel responded to a anti-tank missile attack on a patrol jeep] also raises concerns that it was unlawfully disproportionate.'”

In other words, according to HRW’s skewed interpretation of international law, proportionality depends not on the nature of the target (military target, as opposed to targeting civilians), the severity of the threat or the means used to eliminate this threat, but on a cynical “casualty count”. According to this interpretation, it would seem that Israel is not allowed to attack rocket-launching sites when civilians might be present. Since terrorists intentionally operate in Gaza from within highly dense residential areas, around schools, hospitals, and even mosques, that means in effect that, according to HRW, Israel is not allowed to act against any military target in Gaza in protection of its own citizens.

Even when Palestinian violation of human rights are mentioned, HRW’s approach is puzzling:

“One Palestinian armed group, the Popular Resistance Committee, said on November 10 that it had launched four rockets at Israeli communities close to Gaza as a ‘revenge invoice’ for the deadly Israeli shelling. Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, said it fired 13 rockets toward the city of Ashkelon. Individuals responsible for attacks that deliberately or recklessly target civilians, or that cannot distinguish between civilians and military objectives, are responsible for war crimes.
The websites of several Palestinian armed groups cited the Israeli shelling that killed four and wounded dozens of other Palestinian civilians as justification for the rocket attacks. Reprisal attacks against civilians violate the laws of war, regardless of laws-of-war violations by the other side.”

Firstly, any reference to Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets, even if deemed illegal, is always framed in the context of so-called initial Israeli aggression, which is presented as justification for the Palestinian attack. Secondly, internationally recognised terror organisations are referred to as “armed groups,” and terrorists are referred to as “individuals” or “fighters,” thus downplaying the fact that those “groups” and “individuals” are intentionally trying to harm and terrorise civilians, and say so. And isn’t that the phenomenon that the statement was meant to protest against, to begin with? By not treating terrorist organisations as such, by instead pretending that their open policy of targeting civilians is solely the responsibility of “individuals” who order such attacks, HRW is effectively turning a blind eye to an open policy of deliberate refusal to abide by international humanitarian law.

By doing this, and by drawing severe limitations over legitimate defensive military acts in protection of Israeli civilians, thus undermining Israel’s right to defend itself, and by drawing the moral equivalence between targeting civilians and attempting to stop rocket attacks on civilians, HRW’s response undermines its commitment to its own stated values. Under the guise of “balance” it, once more, exposed its own bias with human rights principles twisted and adapted to accommodate the open sympathy of most Human Rights Watch Middle East unit analysts with the Palestinian cause. I doubt that this is the reaction Ostrovsky was hoping for when he wrote his article.

HRW is not alone. According to an NGO-Monitor report from November 15, a long list of NGOs, all waving the flag of human rights and protection of civilians, have failed to point the finger at Hamas or condemn the rocket and missile attack from Gaza.

Amnesty International, urged that “All sides must step back from the brink to protect civilians,” (14.11. 2012):

“Israel’s assassination of Ahmad al-Ja’abari, the head of Hamas’ military wing has placed civilians in Gaza and southern Israel at grave risk by re-igniting the armed conflict there, said Amnesty International… Amnesty International has gathered evidence that suggests at least two of these [Israeli] attacks, on 8 and 10 November, were indiscriminate and, therefore, in violation of international humanitarian law.”

In other words, Amnesty International, in even less “diplomatic” words than HRW, places the blame for the escalation on Israel. It even goes further to accuse Israel of alleged ‘indiscriminate attacks’. Moreover, even more blatantly than HRW, Amnesty greatly undermines Israel’s right to defend itself militarily:

“‘The Israeli military must not carry out further indiscriminate attacks, or attacks in densely-populated residential areas that will inevitably harm civilians,’ said Harrison.”


That’s right. According to Amnesty, if Hamas operates from civilian residential areas, as it does, all Israeli counter-attacks are simply forbidden.

The Amnesty statement, however, does mention, barely and briefly, rocket attacks on Israeli civilians by “Palestinian armed groups”:

“Palestinian armed groups fired more than 120 rockets into southern Israel between 10 and 12 November, injuring at least 4 Israeli civilians. Amnesty International condemns the firing of these rockets – which are not directed at a specific military objective.
‘Palestinian armed groups in Gaza meanwhile must not fire indiscriminate rockets into Israel. The international community must put pressure on both sides to fully respect the laws of war and protect civilian lives and property,’ said Harrison.”

Biased comments, placing blame on Israel, failing to mention Hamas and avoiding the word “terrorism” at all costs, were also the approach of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Oxfam and many others.

Of course, human rights organisations are not the only ones discriminating between the rights of Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has also been ignoring the rights of Israeli civilians, and has been mute on the subject on ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza. Times of Israel (‘Foreign Ministry slams UN human rights chief for “ringing silence” on Gaza rocket fire,’ 15.11.2012) reports that spokesman Yigal Palmor complained in a press release titled “Has the High Commissioner for Human Rights gone mute?” about the fact that despite more than 800 rockets fired into Israel from Gaza in the past year, the OHCHR has not issued any condemnations of these attacks:

“The lives of one million Israelis are threatened, and daily life in southern Israel has been severely disrupted. Children do not attend school; civilians sleep in shelters[…] This has been the bitter reality of one-seventh of Israel’s population for the past years.
This terrorist activity is carried out by Hamas and other terrorist organizations that operate under Hamas protection.
And yet the High Commissioner has gone mute. Not a word of sympathy, not a word of concern for the violation of the human rights of Israeli citizens. Just a ringing silence.
Israelis do have human rights. The High Commissioner simply does not care about them.”

Israelis do have human rights. It is about time that human rights organisations and UN agencies act upon their mandates and missions and pursue the universality of those rights. Otherwise, they are undermining the very values they are attempting, at least in theory, to protect and entrench.

Or Avi-Guy




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