Human Rights Watch: Still Missing the Point
In a CounterPunch article criticising Human Rights Watch for singling out Hizbullah rather than Israel for harsher condemnation of its military actions during the Lebanon war, I made sure to quote the organisation fairly and accurately before seeking to refute its arguments. Unfortunately, in her recent response HRW’s Middle East policy director, Sarah Leah Whitson, did not return the favour. Possibly realising that her case was weak, she decided to paraphrase my argument instead, misrepresenting it, and only then try to rebut it.
According to Whitson, I claim to know that Hizbullah was trying to hit military rather than civilian targets in Israel during this summer’s war because on several occasions its rockets actually did strike military targets. If only, for her sake, that were my argument. As she points out, it is easy to discredit such reasoning: if Hizbullah’s rockets were entirely random, they might still have hit an Israeli military site or two by chance.
By misrepresenting my position, Whitson benefits in two ways. First, she is able to suggest that I am an apologist, naïve or mischievious, for Hizbullah’s war crimes. I am either a dupe or a dissembler. And second, she enjoys the satisfaction of asserting that she and her organisation are facing down the extremists on both sides: apologists for Hizbullah’s war crimes like me on the one hand, and the supporters of pre-emptive wars and torture like Alan Dershowitz on the other. Whitson can then smugly claim to be occupying the sensible centre.
If this is how one of the directors of HRW distorts my arguments and evidence when I carefully set out my case in black and white on the page, one has to wonder how faithfully she and her organisation sift the evidence in the far trickier cases relating to human rights, where things are rarely so black and white.
Which brings me back to my original argument. My point was not, as Whitson asserts, to claim that I knew whether Hizbullah — or Israel — was trying to distinguish between military and civilian targets during the war. Quite the reverse, in fact. I made it clear that I could not know what either side intended because I was not sitting alongside the Katyusha rocket teams or Israel’s military intelligence officers.
I took issue with HRW precisely because it appears to believe it does know what the two sides intended, even though it was no nearer to the rocket teams or Israeli command bunkers than I was. In fact, not only does it claim to know what Hizbullah and Israel hoped to achieve in the war, HRW also feels able to conclude that Hizbullah’s intentions were far more malign than Israel’s and therefore produced the greater war crimes.
I am not challenging HRW’s research, which appears to show unequivocally that Israel did commit major war crimes; I am contesting its distorted presentation of the facts it unearthed to suit what looks suspiciously like a political agenda. The impression is that HRW is trying to present a more damning picture of Hizbullah’s actions than Israel’s, despite the evidence, to avoid attracting yet more allegations of anti-Semitism from Israel’s influential defenders.
It is for that very reason, of course, that Israel’s apologists use the slur: to intimidate organisations like HRW. The inevitable conclusion, at least based on HRW’s presentation of its findings about the Lebanon war, is that the Israel lobby is succeeding.
Let’s recap on the quote from HRW’s senior researcher, Peter Bouckaert, published in the New York Times, that provoked my original article:
"I mean, it’s perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don’t accuse the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians. Our accusation, clearly stated in the report, is that the Israeli army is not taking the necessary precautions to distinguish between civilian and military targets. So, there is a difference in intent between the two sides. At the same time, they are both violating the Geneva Convention."
I hope I am not the only person discomforted by the idea that a major human rights organisation thinks it has a legitimate role divining what two sides in a war wanted to achieve rather than what they did in fact achieve, and then seeks to make judgments about war crimes based on its interpretations of such intentions.
Whitson could have distanced herself from Bouckaert’s comments, saying they were unjustified, but instead she chose to defend them. Which serves only to increase my suspicions about HRW’s agenda.
A responsible human rights organisation ought to be concerned with the events of the Lebanese conflict only, and then try to judge the degree to which the acts committed by both sides fell within the parameters of legitimate warfare, defined as self-defence and the protection of important national interests. War is never a moral event, but it can be conducted within certain constraints that should be the primary concern of human rights monitors.
According to the findings of Human Rights Watch, and reports in the media, we know much about what Israel actually did during the war. Its airforce massively attacked Lebanon’s infrastructure, such as roads and power stations, collectively punishing the populaton; its aerial bombardments resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Lebanese, the overwhelming majority of them civilians; its air strikes forced hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians to flee their homes as villages were destroyed in the south; convoys of refugees and medical personnel, as well as a United Nations peacekeeping base, were attacked; and finally, in the last few hours of war, as the deadline for a ceasefire rapidly approached, Israel dropped hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs, tiny land mines that are maiming and killing returning refugees and will continue to do so for years to come.
On all these grounds, Israel grossly violated international law — it committed war crimes. We need know nothing about its intentions to make this judgment. None of these forms of attack was necessary in terms of Israel’s right to self-defence or its right to protect its interests: the return of the two soldiers captured by Hizbullah, the pretext for the war, and the reassertion of its sovereignty.
Given that Hizbullah immediately offered a prisoner exchange for the soldiers, in return for Lebanese prisoners of war being held in Israeli jails, it is clear that options other than the ones above were available to Israel.
So what about the facts in relation to Hizbullah? Let’s examine its behaviour in the war’s two main phases: Hizbullah’s provocation of hostilities, and its conduct during the war.
We know that the Shiite group provoked the confrontation with Israel by launching a military operation on July 12 designed to capture Israeli soldiers under cover of a small and harmless volley of mortars and rockets fired at border posts and at the northern community of Shilo in what the Israeli army characterised at the time as "diversionary tactics". In a gunfight, three Israeli troops were killed as the two soldiers were captured.
This was presented as an act of unprovoked aggression by the Western media, which stripped the attack of its context. In truth, the military operation was the latest flare-up in long-running, if small-scale, hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah since Israel ended its two-decade occupation of south Lebanon in 2000. Those tensions have focused on a disputed corridor of land, known as the Shebaa Farms, claimed by Lebanon but held by Israel.
In addition, after withdrawing, Israel maintained and exacerbated the state of hostilities by refusing to release a handful of Lebanese PoWs, by failing to hand over maps of the hundreds of thousands of land mines it laid during the occupation, by repeatedly shooting at, and killing, Lebanese shepherds who strayed into the Shebaa Farms area, and, most significantly, by violating almost daily Lebanese sovereignty by sending warplanes and spy drones as far as Beirut.
Hizbullah’s operation was not the first it had launched to capture Israeli soldiers since 2000, and its motives for wanting to do so were well known to Israel. Hizbullah immediately offered to return the soldiers in a prisoner swap.
Thus, although Hizbullah’s operation may have been foolhardy, it was most certainly not a war crime under any interpretation of international law.
What about the second phase of the war, when Hizbullah began firing rockets into Israel? Again, these attacks have been stripped of their context, after much misinformation from Israel and its supporters. Hizbullah did not initiate the rocket fire, as is sometimes suggested; it retaliated after Israel began its massive bombardment of Lebanon. There was clear cause and effect, which HRW knows.
In his speeches, Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, repeatedly stated that its rocket fire was a response to Israel’s far greater attacks and would end when Israel stopped firing missiles and dropping bombs on Lebanon. When Israeli guns briefly fell silent after a US-imposed "period of calm", Hizbullah studiously observed the 48-hour lull whereas Israel quickly broke it. Each expansion of Hizbullah’s range of rocket fire was preceded by a warning from Nasrallah of what was in store if Israel continued or intensified its assault.
The rocket fire, therefore, adequately fits any reasonable definition of self-defence, not just of Hizbullah’s military assets but of Lebanon as a whole. Given the weakness of the Lebanese army — the reason, after all, why Israel was able to occupy the country for so long — Hizbullah can justifiably claim that the duty to defend Lebanon from Israeli attack fell to it by default.
So again, it is difficult to see in what way Hizbullah’s conduct during the second phase of the war can be categorised as a war crime — and even harder to understand how HRW believes it can be described as a greater war crime than Israel’s assault.
But HRW believes it has one trump card up its sleeve. It says Hizbullah should never have fired any of its rockets, even in self-defence, because they were too primitive to be accurately aimed at Israeli military targets. Even if Hizbullah intended to hit military sites (and again we cannot be sure), and even if the victims of its attacks were mainly soldiers, HRW regards Hizbullah as having "deliberately targeted" civilians because whatever rockets were sent over the border would in all probability strike civilian areas.
I have previously pointed out the paradox of HRW criticising Hizbullah for killing mostly soldiers, even with its "imprecise" arsenal, more harshly than Israel, which killed mostly civilians with its smart bombs and precision missiles. I will not labour the point again.
Instead I will repeat the questions I asked last time, and which Whitson failed to answer — presumably because, given HRW’s public position, she could find no moral high ground from which to respond.
According to HRW’s understanding of international law, what was Hizbullah supposed to do, given its inferior arsenal, when Israel started to wreck Lebanon, destroying its infrastructure, killing its civilian population and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes? If by firing just one of its rudimentary rockets, it was immediately committing a war crime, what military options were available to it as a response to what we have already seen was unwarranted Israeli aggression against the whole of Lebanon?
If for weeks on end Israel used its superior armoury from the air — relying on an air force against which Hizbullah, lacking anti-aircraft guns, had no defence — in what ways could Hizbullah engage with such warfare? Under international law, was Hizbullah required to sit tight and let the people of Lebanon die in their hundreds while it waited to see whether Israel would begin a ground invasion? Would a ground invasion have happened had Hizbullah not continued firing its rockets? And was Israel’s belated attack by land the first moment Hizbullah was entitled to fight back?
The nearest to an answer Whitson supplied in her response to my original article was the following: "[T]hese constraints [provided by international law] hardly preclude a military strategy for either side should it decide to pursue one. Hezbollah has a long history of cross-border attacks on Israeli military facilities and soldiers, including the one that launched the most recent round of fighting."
What a wonderfully complete circle her argument is. Hizbullah has the right under international law to launch a cross-border attack to capture soldiers, as it did, but then what? What rights under international law does Hizbullah have if Israel chooses to destroy Lebanon in response? Whitson offers no answers.
Let me finally suggest a further two questions for her. Does HRW characterise Hizbullah’s return of fire as a war crime even though its undiminished ability to launch rockets was what finally brought Israel’s war machine to a standstill and led to a ceasefire? And exactly how much of a war crime would the firing of those rudimentary rockets be if it turned out that not only did they halt the war but they also prevented its expansion to include Syria and Iran?
If on this occasion Whitson can address my point, I would be interested to hear her response.
JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming "Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State" published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press. His website is www.jkcook.net