Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Have a Problem With Israel

When it comes to the Jewish State, NGO bigs are as biased as the UN

Members of the Israeli security forces search the area following an attack by an unidentified gunman, who opened fire at a pub in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv killing two people and wounding at least seven others on January 1, 2016, police and medical officials said. An eyewitness told Channel 1 television the assailant used an automatic weapon against people at a pub. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ / AFP / JACK GUEZ
Members of the Israeli security forces respond to a shooting in Tel Aviv.

Sunday morning’s massacre in Orlando by yet another jihadist came just days after two Palestinians walked into a Tel Aviv café and started blasting people away, reminding Americans and Israelis how much they have in common. Both have open societies that find themselves major targets of Islamic terrorists who are pleased to brutally end the lives of innocent people. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated grimly that “this terror threatens the entire world and it is necessary that the enlightened countries urgently unite to fight it.” But Netanyahu has been delivering this message for decades, and he has no more reason to feel optimistic now than previously. 

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For his part, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon managed to again illustrate the UN’s inanity when it comes to the Mideast. When the barely newsworthy news emerged that Hamas was publicly celebrating the murder of innocent Israelis, Ban pronounced himself “shocked” to hear it. Since Hamas devotes itself both by charter and practice to murdering innocent people and has done so for the past three decades, Ban’s “shock” raised this question: has he been asleep for the past 30 years or can he simply not hear the proverbial dinner bell? The evidence shortly followed that he at least has the wit to appreciate who butters his bread: he admitted he had removed Saudi-led forces in Yemen from a UN list of armies that kill and maim children under threat from Saudi Arabia and other members of The Petrodollar Caucus that they would cut their funding to the UN if he didn’t comply.

Ban seemed only slightly less clueless than Catherine Ashton, the European Union official who, when a rocket fired from Gaza killed a worker in Israel in March 2010, proclaimed herself “extremely shocked” that this could occur. This was about 15 months after Hamas fired thousands of rockets and shells into Israel, events that did garner a certain amount of notice. The world leaders whom Prime Minister Netanyahu hopes will urgently confront terrorism are growing steadily sharper-witted: whereas in 2010 the EU’s foreign policy chief was “extremely shocked” to learn about Hamas, by last week the UN Secretary General was only “shocked.”

The odor of petrodollars at the UN never really subsides, especially when it comes to Israel, which the Islamic bloc dominating the UN wishes would disappear. A watchdog group called UN Watch, headed by Canadian lawyer Hillel Neuer, does superb work shining a spotlight on the steady flow of moral embarrassments at the UN, a 24/7 job if ever there was one.

But when it comes to the Arab world’s conflict with Israel, the non-governmental behemoths whose public relations machines match that of the UN—Humans Rights Watch and Amnesty International—have a slant that is every bit as biased, and every bit as eye-rolling, as the UN’s. For years the two organizations could consistently distribute Israel’s sworn enemies’ version of the facts with complete impunity. That changed somewhat with the founding in 2003 of  NGO Monitor, a team of academics and researchers formed to “watch the watchers.” Gerald Steinberg, a Cornell-educated political scientist, created the Israel-based think tank to ensure HRW and Amnesty faced the kind of scrutiny to which they were entirely unaccustomed, and which they have come to regard as distinctly unwelcome. The two organizations revel in what Steinberg calls their “Halo-effect.” 

“If HRW or Amnesty says something happened,” says Steinberg, “the media report that it actually happened.” But the reality of absurdly-biased staffers, no transparency, pre-ordained rushes to judgment and extremely shoddy fact-gathering have all been well-documented by NGO Monitor, to the organizations’ discomfiture. “No one wants to look at how sausage is made,” says Steinberg about how HRW and Amnesty function, “because you would never want to try it if you knew.”

NGO Monitor has worked doggedly to make it easier for people to see just how partisan these organizations are, and how frequently they are just plain wrong. When, in 2002—in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing campaign that killed 1,100 Israelis and maimed 5,000 more—Israeli Defense Forces tried to stop the bloodbath, HRW and Amnesty avidly promoted Palestinian claims that Israel had committed “war crimes” and “massacres” in the West Bank town of Jenin. They issued endless statements supporting Palestinian accusations that Israel had killed 500 people there. That these claims were later proven utterly false made little difference: the damage had been done, and by then the organizations had moved on.

Similarly, after the 2008-2009 Gaza war in which Israel acted to stop a sustained barrage of rockets fired by Hamas at its civilians, a UN report named after its lead investigator, Richard Goldstone, accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians. The organizations enthusiastically touted the report only to go silent when Goldstone publicly recanted, admitted that the report had been wrong, and stated that he regretted it had been issued.

In 2009, HRW’s founder and longtime chairman, Robert Bernstein, published a New York Times op ed stating HRW simply disregarded fundamental facts in service of its obsessive animus toward Israel. Entitled “Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast,” the piece condemned HRW for distorting facts to fit its anti-Israel focus. 

“Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah choose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields,” Bernstein wrote. “They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.”

Bernstein warned that HRW’s credibility would erode if it continued to ignore facts, and it has. NGO Monitor scours published information to make sure that, whenever possible, HRW’s sausage-making process is revealed for inspection. When Arab media reported that HRW’s head of Mideast operations, Sarah Leah Whitson, had gone to Saudi Arabia—one of the world’s most egregious human rights violators—to solicit Saudi kingpins for cash so HRW could further its work against Israel, NGO Monitor made sure this news was not buried. HRW’s Executive Director, Ken Roth, tried mightily to spin his way out of this scandal, but the facts were not easily spun. 

The same is true of NGO Monitor’s exposure of the rabidly anti-Israel activities of both Whitson and her deputy, Joe Stork, prior to joining HRW. Both worked for groups that were staunchly anti-Israel before promoting themselves as fair arbiters of human rights in the Mideast. Stork actually praised the 1972 murder of Israeli athletes in Munich. 

“[W]e should comprehend the achievement of the Munich action,” wrote Stork, who among other things attended a conference organized by Saddam Hussein celebrating the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. “It has provided an important boost in morale among Palestinians.”

Professor Steinberg and NGO Monitor have taken on HRW’s Roth with gusto, including his propensity for tweeting out a running anti-Israel commentary that can stray wildly from the truth. In mid-2014, for example, Roth tweeted derisively about the preposterous notion that Hamas had had anything to do with the murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank that sparked the ensuing war. “Remember when #Israel insisted Hamas was behind kidnap-murder of three West Bank teens,” he tweeted. “Oops, turns out it wasn’t.”

Except that—oops—it was, as was documented shortly after Roth’s dead-wrong tweet. Commentator Jonathan Freeman has analyzed Roth’s anti-Israel bent, one that sometimes seems to have clinical dimensions. Roth “knew, knew in his marrow that the IDF was out for Gazan blood,” Freeman has written. “He might never have fired an artillery piece or sent or received coordinates or been under fire, but there are some things you just know. Like the fact that the IDF is driven by vengeance and is looking for reasons to kill Arab kids.” 

Arrogance follows ineluctably from being vested with too much authority too little scrutinized for too long, and HRW and Amnesty are poster children for this phenomenon. Their pronouncements that Israel committed “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity” for trying to take steps to protect its civilians from Hamas rockets intended to kill, maim or terrify civilians reliably follow every Israeli action. They are frequently issued only a few days—if not merely hours—after the events, without excessive pretense of a bona fide investigation that could withstand serious scrutiny, because they know there never will be any serious scrutiny. Their verdict, delivered by individuals who have never been responsible for safeguarding people from those trying to kill them, is always certain, and always the same: Israel is to blame for the deaths in Gaza.

How they manage to level such weighty accusations as “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity” without (1) objectively ascertaining the Hamas activity taking place at the sites targeted by Israel; (2) ascertaining the steps taken by Israel to avoid or minimize civilian casualties; or (3) suggesting what, precisely, Israel is supposed to do to stop rockets fired from civilian populations without harming civilians is never clear, but it also never much matters. Armed with the cachet that their names carry, they know that the media will dutifully publish their “reports,” and that any critique will generate little to no interest. Winston Churchill’s famous line that “[a] lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on” is charmingly, but badly, outdated. The publicity attending HRW and Amnesty condemnations of Israel, issued by individuals who lack expertise, experience, facts or objectivity, dwarfs that which attends the public statements by people with considerably more of those, but considerably less in the way of agenda. 

For example, U.S. General Martin Dempsey, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and seemingly better-positioned than Ken Roth to opine on the subject, concluded the following about Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks: “I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties …  [T]hey did some extraordinary things to try to limit civilian casualties.” 

Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of Britain’s forces in Afghanistan, submitted a highly detailed statement to the UN on the recent Gaza conflict which concluded that “the Israel Defense Forces took exceptional measures to adhere to the Laws of Armed Conflict and to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza … I believe Israel to be world leaders in actions to minimize civilian casualties.” 

A task force of high-ranking military officers from the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, Australia, Britain and France found that it was “categorically clear that Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza conflict met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries.  It is our view that Israel fought an exemplary campaign.”

How can HRW’s and Amnesty’s view of Israel’s performance be reconciled with the conclusions of experts? Very easily, if one simply understands that it really does not matter to them that Israeli civilians are attacked by thousands of rockets purposefully fired from civilian areas, and that there is, quite literally no way Israel can stop these attacks without hurting civilians. Indeed, “it does not matter” is the operative phase, because when it comes to Israel, what is important to remember about HRW and Amnesty is: things ain’t on the level.

With Hezbollah now up to 100,000 rockets massed on Israel’s border aimed at civilian centers and Hamas rapidly rebuilding its terror tunnel networks and replacing its rocket stores, it is only a matter of time before Israel is required to act once again to protect its civilians. Once again, it will have no earthly choice but to do so. And once again, for HRW and Amnesty it simply will not matter.

Jeff Robbins served as Chief Counsel to the Democratic Senators on the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Twice appointed as a United States Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission under President Clinton, he is an attorney in Boston. Follow him on twitter: @jeffreysrobbins

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Have a Problem With Israel