By Kathleen Peratis
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
In early August Human Rights Watch issued a 49-page report, "Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon," charging Israel with war crimes in its conduct of the war in Lebanon. Many of the Lebanese civilian casualties could not be explained by Hezbollah soldiers' hiding among civilians, Human Rights Watch charged. Although Hezbollah fighters did hide among civilians, the rights group discovered that in about two dozen instances, involving about a third of the civilian deaths, there had been no Hezbollah presence at the time of the attacks and the targets had little or no military value.
The report was based on the same methodology that Human Rights Watch has used for more than 20 years in situations in which many witnesses have an incentive to lie: face-to-face probing and on-site inspections -- in this case in Beirut and southern Lebanon.
The critics of reports on this subject -- Amnesty International made similar charges -- have been ferocious. They have not merely deployed the common defense of accusing the accusers of getting the facts wrong. They have gone much further and accused the accusers of bad intent. For example: NGO Monitor, echoing other critics, claims that "central in the strategy" of Amnesty International is "to delegitimize Israel."
But the real vitriol has been reserved for Human Rights Watch and its executive director, Kenneth Roth. Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel has called Roth "loathsome." An editorial in the New York Sun accused Roth of "de-legitimization of Judaism" because his group condemned Israel's strategy as "an eye for an eye." Rabbi Aryeh Spero in Human Events Online referred to Roth as a "human rights impostor," and likened him to "Nazis and Communists." On Sunday, the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed by NGO Monitor's Gerald Steinberg titled "Ken Roth's Blood Libel."
Is it possible that some of the witnesses lied? Sure it is. It's even possible, though it's something of a stretch, that many of the witnesses deliberately misled Human Rights Watch researchers. But it simply will not do to "rebut" a detailed report such as the group produced by accusing Human Rights Watch or its executive director, whose father fled Nazi Germany, of anti-Semitism (or other bad motives) and let it go at that. Indeed, the critics barely mention, much less discuss, the 24 incidents described in the report. Generally they merely assert the undisputed fact that Hezbollah did often hide among civilians. Steinberg broadly asserts, without citing any actual evidence: "When the details were examined by NGO Monitor's research staff, or Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University, the claims have often been shown to be false or unverifiable." Often? Where? When? He does not say.
No one expected the Anti-Defamation League and others to applaud the Human Rights Watch report, but one is entitled to expect something more serious by way of a response. "You're biased" is not a rebuttal.
At least some of the report's critics seem to believe that Israel should be exempted from the rules of war. Thus, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who has accused Human Rights Watch of "immorality at the highest level," says: "The moral issue, the human rights issue that overrides everything else in this conflict is that if Hezbollah, Syria and Iran don't understand that they will pay an overwhelming price for these rocket attacks on Israel, then eventually these rockets will be armed with chemical weapons and the warheads with nuclear weapons. In other words, the Holocaust would be in the works."
In other words, if the "overwhelming price" Israel causes the enemy to pay is indiscriminate under the rules of war, Israel must do it anyway. And Human Rights Watch is worse than naive to expect otherwise.
I don't think Foxman and NGO Monitor and others who want selective exemption of Israel from the rules of war have faced the implications of getting what they wish for, such as: Who will decide when the law can be ignored? And: If the law is mowed down, where will we find refuge when the devil turns on us?
America's security has not been enhanced by its violation of human rights principles, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay. Israel's strength lies not only in its might but in its moral principle, which it should not abandon, even in a time of war.
The writer, a lawyer in New York, is a member of the board of Human Rights Watch and a regular columnist for the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper.