For years, major human rights groups have been losing credibility as they scramble for grants and respectability and thus shy away from criticizing governments than can effectively fight back. Such is the case with Amnesty International and Israel’s repression of Palestine, writes Paul de Rooij.
By Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International has issued three reports on the Massacre in Gaza in 2014 and given the scale of the destruction and the number of fatalities, any attempt to document the crimes committed should be welcomed. But these reports are problematic and raise questions about this organization in particular and the human rights industry more generally.
First some background: July 2014 marked the onset of the Israeli massacre in Gaza (I will dispense with the Israeli sugar-coated operation names). The Israeli army trained for this attack for several months before finding a pretext to attack Gaza, shattering an existing ceasefire; this was the third such post-“disengagement” (2004) attack, and possibly the worst so far.
At least 2,215 were killed and 10,000+ wounded, most of them civilians. The scale of destruction was staggering: tens of thousands of houses rendered uninhabitable; several high-rise buildings struck by huge American-supplied bombs; schools and hospitals targeted; 61 mosques totally destroyed; water purification and sewage treatment plants damaged; Gaza’s main flour mill bombed; all chicken farms ravaged; an incalculable devastation.
Israeli control over Gaza has been in place for decades; with violence escalating over time, and the people of Gaza have been under siege for the last eight years. Israelis have placed Gaza “on a diet,” permitting only a trickle of strictly controlled goods to enter Gaza, enough to keep the population above starvation. Gaza is surrounded on all sides, blocked off from the outside world: military bulldozers raze border areas, snipers injure farmers, and warships menace or destroy fishing boats with gunfire.
Periodically Israelis engage in what they term “mowing the lawn” massacres and large-scale destruction. It is this history that must serve as the foundation of any report that attempts to describe both the intent of the participating parties and the relative consequences.
Context-Challenged By Design
The ongoing crimes perpetrated against Gaza are chronic, and indeed, systematic. Arnon Soffer, one of Israel’s Dr. Strangeloves and “intellectual father of the wall” isolating Palestinian territory from Israel, had this to say about Gaza in an interview with Ruthie Blum for the Jerusalem Post:
Q: “Will Israel be prepared to fight this war?”
Arnon Soffer: “…Instead of entering Gaza, the way we did last week, we will tell the Palestinians that if a single missile is fired over the fence, we will fire 10 in response. And women and children will be killed, and houses will be destroyed. After the fifth such incident, Palestinian mothers won’t allow their husbands to shoot Kassams, because they will know what’s waiting for them.
“Second of all, when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.”
In other words, to determine the reasons behind Israeli actions, one only has to read what their Dr. Strangeloves say it is no secret. The aim is to create miserable conditions to drive the Palestinians off their land, warehouse the population in an open-air prison called Gaza, and to disproportionately repress any Palestinian resistance. Israelis have to “kill and kill and kill, all day.” Such pathological reasoning put Israeli actions into perspective; they are major crimes, possibly genocidal, and should have significant consequences.
First, the nature of the crimes requires recognizing them as crimes against humanity, arguably one of the most serious crimes under international law. Second, Israeli crimes put the violence of the Palestinian resistance into perspective. Palestinians have a right to defend themselves. Third, the long history of violence perpetrated against the Palestinians, and the resulting power imbalance, suggest that one should be in solidarity with the victim.
Amnesty International, however, refuses to acknowledge the serious nature of Israeli crimes, by using an intellectually bankrupt subterfuge; it insists that as a rights-based organization it cannot refer to historical context doing so would be considered “political” in its warped jargon. [AI’s three reports on the Gaza attacks are “Families Under the Rubble: Israeli Attacks on Inhabited Homes,” Nov. 5, 2014; “Nothing is immune: Israel’s destruction of landmark buildings in Gaza,” Dec. 9, 2014; and “Unlawful and deadly: Rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict,” March 26, 2015.]
An examination of what AI considers “background” in its reports confirms that there is virtually no reference to relevant history, e.g., the prior attacks on Gaza, who initiated those attacks, the Goldstone report on the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of Gaza, etc. So, AI saw no need to mention a pattern of serious crimes. It also doesn’t recognize the nature of the Palestinian resistance. Nowhere does AI acknowledge that Palestinians are entitled to defend themselves.
And, finally, AI cannot express solidarity with the victim; hey, “both sides” are victims! After choosing to ignore the serious Israeli crimes, it sits on the fence castigating “both sides” for non-compliance with International Humanitarian Law that determines the rules of war. Thus, AI criticizes Israel not for the transgression of attacking Gaza, but for utilizing excessive force or targeting civilians.
AI’s favorite term to describe such events is “disproportionate.” But the term disproportionate is problematic because it suggests that there is no dispute about the nature of the action, just the means or scale. While AI bleats that a one-ton bomb in a refugee camp is disproportionate, it would seem that using a 100kg bomb would be acceptable. Another AI favored term is “conflict,” a state of affairs where both sides are at fault, where both are victims and transgressors.
Notice that while AI avoids recognizing major crimes by using its rights-based framework, it suddenly changes its hat and takes on a very legalistic approach to criticize the violence perpetrated by the Palestinians. It manages to list the full panoply of international humanitarian law. [My criticism is directed at Amnesty International, the international organization, not its well intentioned letter-writing volunteers.]
The key thing to watch in the upcoming International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of the 2014 Gaza Massacre will be whether the Court will follow the Amnesty approach. Any investigation that doesn’t focus on the cause of the violence and who ultimately initiated it will result in another fraud, and no pixel of justice.
Criminalizing Palestinian Resistance
Amnesty International dispenses with the Palestinian right to defend themselves by stating that the Palestinian rockets are “indiscriminate” and proceeds to repeatedly call their use a war crime. Palestinian resistance forces are also told not to hide in heavily populated areas, not to execute collaborators, and so on. While Palestinians are told that their resistance amounts to war crimes, the Israelis aren’t told that their attacks are criminal per se only a matter of scale.
Citing the “Unlawful and deadly rocket and Mortar Attacks,” the report repeatedly condemns Palestinian rocket firing, but Amnesty confuses the term “inaccurate” for “indiscriminate.” For instance, Israeli fire killed 1,639 civilians out of 2,215 total killed, or 74 percent, while Palestinian fire killed seven civilians out of 73 total killed, or 10 percent. Thus, Israel killed proportionately far more civilians, albeit with more accurate weapons, showing that it is possible to target indiscriminately with precision munitions.
There is also a possibility, which AI seems to disregard, that the Israeli military targeted civilians intentionally. A report by Defense for Children International states: “As a matter of policy, Israel deliberately and indiscriminately targeted the very spaces where children are supposed to feel most secure.”
Regardless of the accuracy of the weapons, the key issue is one of intent. Amnesty dwells on an explosion at the Shati refugee camp on July 28. On the basis of one field worker, Israeli-supplied evidence and an unnamed “independent munitions expert,” Amnesty writes:
“Amnesty International has received no substantive response to its inquiries about this incident from the Palestinian authorities. An independent and impartial investigation is needed, and both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities must co-operate fully. The attack appears to have violated international humanitarian law in several ways, as the evidence indicates that it was an indiscriminate attack using a prohibited weapon which may well have been fired from a residential area within the Gaza Strip and may have been intended to strike civilians in Israel. If the projectile is confirmed to be a Palestinian rocket, those who fired it and those who commanded them must be investigated for responsibility for war crimes.”
Amnesty certainly provides enough comic material; an occasional joke makes it easier to read a dull report. The evidence for the provenance of this missile is taken at face value although it is supplied by Israel, but of course, it requires an “investigation” it is suggesting that both Israel and the Palestinians should investigate this incident. If the Palestinian resistance was responsible for this explosion, then it was caused by a misfiring; thus there was no intention for consequent deaths. Suggesting that this amounts to a war crime is rather silly.
But the title of the section advertising the report on the AI website suggests a motive for harping on this incident; the title reads “Palestinian armed groups killed civilians on both sides in attacks amounting to war crimes.” This conveys a rather warped and negative view of the Palestinian resistance they kill civilians on both sides and it suggests that it is not possible to be in solidarity with them.
Tyranny of Reasons
After any Israeli attack, Israeli propagandists regularly offer a rationale about why a given target was struck. They say there were rocket-firing crews at hospitals, schools, mosques, the power plant, etc. Presto! These places can be bombed whether or not these statements are true or whether civilians are present. What is disconcerting in AI’s reports on Israeli attacks is that AI imputes reasons or justifications for the targeting of buildings or families.
One finds statements such as: “Amnesty International believes this attack was targeting one individual. The apparent target was a member of a military group, targeted at a time when he was at home with his family. The fighters who were the apparent targets could have been targeted at a different time or in a different manner that was less likely to cause excessive harm to civilians and destruction of civilian objects. The apparent target of Israel’s attack was Ahmad Sahmoud, a member of the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing. […] Surviving family members and neighbours denied this.”
Amnesty parrots the rationales provided by the Israeli military one only needs to look at the footnotes of its reports. And Amnesty discounts the intentional bombing of buildings to create misery among the Gazan middle class to demoralize a key sector of society. Or the motive that by destroying the power plant Israel is creating generalized misery for the Gazans.
AI Is Not Anti-War
One would expect a human rights organization to be intrinsically opposed to war, but AI is a cheerleader of so-called “humanitarian intervention,” and even “humanitarian bombing.” [See Alexander Cockburn, “How the US State Dept. Recruited Human Rights Groups to Cheer On the Bombing Raids: Those Incubator Babies, Once More?”, CounterPunch newsletter, April 1-15, 1999]
Even with this predisposition, AI was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize yet another questionable recipient for a prize meant to be given only to those actively opposed to wars. Today, one wonders if AI is going to jump on the “R2P” (Responsibility to Protect) neocon bandwagon.
A consequence of its “not-anti-war” stance is that it doesn’t explicitly criticize wars conducted by the United States, UK or Israel, only some occasional excesses that merit AI’s lame rebuke often prefaced with the term “disproportionate” or “alleged.” This stance is evident in its latest reports, accepting that the Israeli attack on Gaza was legitimate, but that in its conduct, “both sides” engaged in actions deserving of criticism.
Another concern is that Amnesty International lacked the resources to conduct a proper report on the 2014 Gaza Massacre and wasn’t given direct access to Gaza. So, it chose to focus on two aspects of the Israeli attack: the targeting of entire families and the destruction of landmark buildings. Within these two categories it chose to focus on a handful of cases of each.
The main problem is that by harping on a few cases to the exclusion of the totality, AI misses the forest for the trees. There is no mention of some of the most significant total figures, say, the number of hospitals and schools destroyed, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Gaza, the tens of thousands of artillery shells used … and so on. The quantification would be of interest because it would show the scale of the crimes and give context to why Israeli stockpiles of artillery shells required restocking by the United States in the middle of the attack.
The seriousness of Israel’s overall crime is lost by dwelling on a subset of a subset of those crimes. Amnesty isolates a few examples, describes them in some detail, and then suggests that unless there were military reasons for the attacks, then there should be an “investigation.” Oh yes, Amnesty has sent some polite letters to the Israeli authorities requesting some comment, but the Israelis have been rather non-responsive.
Given AI’s warped framework one would expect symmetry in the way the attacks are described. While AI provides the total number of rockets fired by the Palestinian resistance, AI provides no similar numbers for the tens of thousands of Israeli artillery shells fired and the tonnage of bombs dropped on Gaza. That’s because the Israeli military propagandists were all too happy to provide detailed statistics about the Palestinian rockets, and AI does not seem to express any misgivings about using this data.
Each report contains a methodology section admitting to the fact that AI didn’t have direct access to Gaza, noting that all its research was done on the Israeli side and by two Palestinian fieldworkers in Gaza. The inability to enter Gaza possibly explains the reliance on many Israeli military statements, blogs and the Foreign Ministry about the Palestinian rocket attacks.
One can check the footnotes and find a significant number of official Israeli statements that provide so-called evidence. It is rather jarring to find Amnesty relying on information provided by the attacking military to implicate Palestinian resistance in war crimes. How appropriate is it to use “Hamas’ Violations of the Law” issued by Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or “Declassified Report Exposes Hamas Human Shield Policy” issued by the Israeli military?
It is also jarring to find Amnesty referring to Israeli claims that rockets were fired from schools, hospitals and the electric power plant. This information was provided as a justification for the Israeli destruction of those sites, but in the report, AI uses it to wag its finger at the Palestinian resistance.
Amnesty’s access to Israeli victims of Palestinian rockets produced emotional statements by the victims and fit with Israeli propaganda needs. Israeli PR was keen to take journalists or visiting politicians to the border towns to show the rocket damage, and Amnesty seems to have been pleased to go along. At the same time Israelis barred AI access to Gaza. After all, any information coming out of the area would not fit Israeli PR requirements. Given this imbalance, why send any researchers to the Israeli border area at all?
Execution of Collaborators
AI has announced the upcoming publication of a fourth report relating to Palestine, on the execution of collaborators. One can speculate that it will take the Palestinian resistance to task for killing suspected spies. But there is a conundrum: AI is not opposed to wars, yet it is opposed to the death sentence. Thus, it is opposed to some deaths as justified, but silent about others as unjustified. Couple this stance with an unwillingness to recognize the Palestinians’ right to defend themselves and surely AI will deem the execution of collaborators as abhorrent.
The reality is that there are many Palestinians in the West Bank who collaborate with Israel. They are evident at all levels of society, even in the so-called Palestinian Authority government, which has committed to protect them. Indeed, collaboration with Israel in the West Bank is a relatively low-risk activity. In Gaza, there are also collaborators who are used to infiltrate and inform on the armed resistance groups and to sow black propaganda.
The collaborators also are complicit in some of Israel’s deadly strikes. During the Gaza Massacre, they were instrumental in pinpointing the location of the resistance and its leadership. In most countries, treason/espionage in time of war justifies execution, but it is doubtful that AI will accept this and will instead urge a judicial process with no death sentence.
The key aspect of the forthcoming report will be whether AI deems the Israeli use of collaborators to gather information for targeted assassinations and to fragment Palestinian society an abhorrent practice. With a society already under massive stress due to economic hardship and military repression, collaborators are a pernicious means to break morale and undermine Palestinian resilience. Will AI criticize Israeli use of collaborators, or will its report merely castigate Hamas for the way it deals with collaborators?
Purpose of Reports
All AI reports follow the same boilerplate formula: a brief overview, a methodology section about data sources, some emotional quotations by the victims, a section on accountability, and then some recommendations. These reports are trite, barely readable, and certainly not very useful either for legal purposes or to educate its volunteers.
So why were these reports published and who actually reads them? AI would like to be known as one of the leading human rights organizations and thus it must be seen as reporting on major violations/crimes. Its volunteers must be given the impression that AI cares for some of the wholesale atrocities and not merely the retail crime or violation.
The timing of the publication of one of its Gaza report (“Unlawful and deadly: Rocket and mortar attacks…”) is rather curious. The report dealing with the Palestinian rockets was published a few days before the Palestinian accession to the International Criminal Court. Is that a mere coincidence?
While some Palestinians are gearing up to prosecute Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity, a leading human rights organization publishes a report which harps on the theme that Palestinians are guilty of war crimes. It should be remembered that AI has published reports in the past that were exploited for propaganda purposes, e.g., the throwing-the-babies-out-of-the-incubators propaganda hoax that helped justify the first Gulf War in 1990-91. In that case, President George H.W. Bush showcased the report on the eve of the U.S. assault. When it was pointed out to AI that they were pushing a propaganda hoax, AI doubled its estimate of the number of children dumped from the incubators. To this day, AI has never apologized for playing a role in selling an American war.
The three reports on Gaza contain a list of recommendations to Israelis, Palestinians and other states. One is struck by the impotence of the recommendations to Israel. AI urges Israel to cooperate with the UN commission of inquiry; allow human rights organizations access to Gaza; pay reparations to some victims; and ensure that the Israeli military operates within some legal bounds. Given that Israel can do as it pleases, ignoring commissions of inquiry, loudly proclaiming that it will engage in disproportionate attacks (i.e., the Dahiya doctrine), and that it refuses to compensate any Gazan from the previous massacres, all these recommendations ring rather hollow.
As for the Palestinians, Amnesty urges them to address their grievances via the ICC. It is curious that while international law provides the Palestinians no protection whatsoever, AI is urging Palestinians to jump through international legal hoops. It is also questionable to suggest a legal framework meant for interstate conflict when dealing with a non-state dispossessed native population. And of course, AI fails to mention that Israel has avoided and ignored international law with the complicity and aid of the United States.
Finally, AI requests other governments to assist the commission of inquiry and to assist in prosecution of war criminals. It remains to be seen whether this commission of inquiry will actually publish a report that has some teeth. AI also urges other countries to stop supplying weapons to “both sides.” There is no mention of the fact that the U.S. resupplied Israel with weapons during the Gaza Massacre in 2014. It is very unlikely that the U.S./UK will stop arming Israel, and thus AI’s recommendations are ineffective.
Amnesty trumpets that it has 7 million supporters world-wide, though a few months ago this number was 3 million. One should marvel at this explosive growth. If AI can really tap into the support of even a fraction of these volunteers, then AI can urge them to do something that has tangible results, e.g., recommending that its members/supporters boycott Israeli products or products produced by Western companies complicit in Israeli crimes.
Such action would be far more effective than the silly recommendations that are regularly ignored by Israel and its Western backers. Alas, it is difficult to conceive that Amnesty will issue a call for a boycott to its ever expanding legion of supporters.
The Human Rights Industry
There are thousands of so-called human rights organizations. Anyone can set one up as a non-governmental organization and determine the parameters within which the NGO will operate, whose rights will be most protected and who qualifies as human. Then, the NGO can churn out press releases, host wine-and-cheese receptions, bestow prizes, lobby politicians, launch investigations, and castigate the enemy du jour. Maybe some celebrities will join the NGO’s board!
The human rights framework is so elastic that it can be molded to fit legitimate purposes or be stretched to produce propaganda. The history of some of the largest human rights organizations show that they were originally created with the propaganda element foremost in mind. This suggests that what NGOs generate (reports, etc.) merit scrutiny not so much for what they say, but for what they omit. [See Kirsten Sellars, The Rise and Rise of Human Rights.]
In the Palestinian context, a simple test on the merits of a so-called human rights organization is whether they challenge state power, call for accountability and prosecution of well-connected war criminals, and urge their supporters to do something more than write out checks or write polite letters to governments engaged in criminal acts.
Another test of a human rights NGO is whether it is in solidarity with the victims of violence and whether victims are treated differently depending on their degree of support or demonization by “the West.” In Amnesty’s case, consider that on the one hand it provides long lists of “prisoners of conscience” (POC) held in Cuba, Syria etc., but on the other hand it explicitly doesn’t make the list of Palestinian POCs available. [See Malcolm Smart, Letter: Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience lists and the reason for double standards, Aug. 9, 2010.]
We have no means of knowing how many Palestinian POCs, Amnesty cares about and whether its volunteers engage in letter-writing campaigns on their behalf. One thing is certain, while the majority of Cuban political prisoners are considered POCs, only a tiny fraction of the Palestinian political prisoners have been bestowed the POC status.
And, of course, AI doesn’t give a hoot about political prisoners who might have engaged in violence regardless of the injustices that they face. Palestinians are one stone throw away from being ignored by Amnesty International. Some victims are more meritorious than others.
In trying to justify AI’s double standard, Malcolm Smart, AI’s Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, stated: “By its nature, the Israeli administrative detention system is a secretive process, in that the grounds for detention are not specified in detail to the detainee or his/her legal representative; inevitably, this makes it especially difficult for the detainee to challenge the order for, by example, contesting the grounds on which the detention was made. In the same way, it makes it difficult or impossible for Amnesty International to make a conclusive determination in many cases whether a particular administrative detainees can be considered a prisoner of conscience or not.”
Thus, AI admits that Israeli military courts can, in effect, determine who is considered a Palestinian POC or not. All the Israeli military courts have to do is maintain the court proceedings as secret or otherwise not to reveal the “evidence.” Alternatively, they can simply imprison the victims without trial or declare that they are members of a “banned” organization. And any organization seeking liberation of Palestine or to confront the Israeli dispossession of Palestinians is deemed to be a “terrorist organization.” So, presto! Israelis are spared those pesky letters from AI volunteers.
Currently, AI will play along with this charade, and also ignore Palestinians of “political” organizations. Double standards in the treatment of victims raise questions about the nature of any human rights NGO.
Human Rights, Denatured Justice
Pushing for the observance of human rights doesn’t necessarily imply that one will obtain justice. The human rights agenda merely softens the edges of the status quo.
As Amnesty’s position on the Israeli attacks on Gaza illustrate, pushing human rights can actually be incompatible with obtaining justice. In that sense, human rights can become a bastardized, neutered and debased form of justice just another way to show that might (or at least the skillful use of money, power and politics) makes right.
The selective application and effectiveness of international law is bad enough, but a pick-and-choose quasi-legal framework with no enforcement is even worse. If one seeks justice, then it is best to avoid the human rights discourse; above all, it is best to avoid human rights organizations.
Palestinians should be wary of humanitarian do-gooders peddling human rights snake oil. In exchange for giving up their resistance and complying with AI’s norms, it is not likely that Palestinians will obtain a pixel of justice. One should be wary of human rights groups that play the role of Israel’s lawyer and are bereft of solidarity with the victims. When organizations like Amnesty International come wagging their finger it is best to show them the door.
Paul de Rooij is a Dutch mathematician and economist.
–Nabeel Abraham, et al.; International Human Rights Organizations and the Palestine Question, Middle East Report (MERIP), Vol. 18, No. 1, January-February 1988, pp. 12 – 20.
–Dennis Bernstein and Francis Boyle, Amnesty on Jenin: an interview, CAQ, Summer 2002, pp. 9 — 12, 27.
–Paul de Rooij, AI: Say It Isn’t So, CounterPunch, Oct. 31, 2002
–Paul de Rooij, Amnesty International: The Case of a Rape Foretold, CounterPunch, Nov. 26, 2003.
–Paul de Rooij, “Double Standards and Curious Silences / Amnesty International: A False Beacon,” CounterPunch, Oct. 13, 2004.