WASHINGTON, May 3 (JTA) The State Department has substantially changed how it reports two areas of acute concern to U.S. Jews: terrorism and Israel’s human rights record. Israel got much higher marks in the 2004 human-rights country report, published in February, than it did in 2003 not because of any significant changes on the ground but apparently because of a shift in how the Bush administration views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With terrorism, the department is passing responsibility for statistics to the newly created National Counterterrorism Center, which is broadly expanding how a terrorist act is defined. Hate crimes abroad soon will be counted as terrorist attacks, which could redefine how anti-Semitic attacks are treated as well. Both changes could have far-reaching implications for how Israel and its enemies are perceived in the United States and around the world, because international media and Congress often cite State Department reports as authoritative. In the “occupied territories” annex to its 2004 country report for Israel, the State Department removes the traditional “holding sentence” the department’s term for the sentence that reflects its overall assessment of a country’s human rights record. Essentially, the department is reserving judgment about Israel’s human-rights record. The holding sentence for the 2003 report was, “Israel’s overall human rights record in the occupied territories remained poor and worsened in the treatment of foreign human rights activists as it continued to commit numerous, serious human rights abuses.” That statement disappears in the 2004 report. The closest statement to any overall assessment is, “There were reports that Israeli security forces used excessive force, abused and tortured detainees.” Attributing such abuses to “reports” suggests that the State Department is pulling back from a long record of criticizing Israel’s practices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By contrast, the Palestinian Authority earns exactly the same holding sentence in both the 2003 and 2004 reports: “The P.A.’s overall human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses.” State Department explanations suggest the change came because of a shift in how the Bush administration perceives the conflict. The United States appears readier to accept longstanding Israeli claims that the blurred distinction between Palestinian combatants and civilians often makes it hard to assign blame in incidents that end with Palestinian deaths. “I mean, there were over 800 Palestinians that were killed in the year. And, you know, when you look at those cases, how many of them were fighters, how many of them were civilians that were in an area where the fighters were and they got hit by mistake, and how many of them might have been deliberate?” Michael Kozak, the assistant secretary of state, said in a recent briefing on the report. “It’s very hard to sort those all out. So what we’ve tried to do is just try to report the incidents as factually as possible and then the reader can draw his own conclusion.” Another State Department spokesman said an effort to keep reports concise was another reason that many allegations of Israeli human-rights abuses disappeared between the 2003 and 2004 reports. The 2003 report cited at length allegations that Israeli troops had confiscated, destroyed or looted Palestinian property. Though human-rights groups say land confiscation continued unabated, the 2004 report played down such reports and attributed them to others. The State Department report did not explain the discrepancy. Other areas of improvement in the human-rights reports had to do with how Israel treats religious minorities in Israel proper, and how it treats Palestinian prisoners. In 2003, the summary sentence on religious freedom said Israel “generally respected” freedom of religion, but with “some restrictions,” many of them having to do with the difficulties of Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel. The 2004 report noted the same difficulties, but dropped the phrase “some restrictions” in the summary sentence. Similarly, both reports note complaints of government underfunding made by minority religions and non-Orthodox Jewish streams, but the 2004 report drops a damning statistical analysis that appeared a year earlier. Both reports say Israel’s prison system “generally met international standards.” The subtle difference between 2003 and 2004 is that the latest report includes within that assessment holding centers for Palestinian detainees, while the 2003 report grades such camps as “generally poorer” than conventional Israeli prisons. The response in the Jewish community has been muted. Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel activists are pleased about the latest human-rights report but have not called attention to the changes. Even pro-Arab and human rights groups have been slow to note the change. Some say that’s because they long ago lost confidence in U.S. objectivity when it comes to Israel and other close allies. “Regimes that are allies are treated with greater deference,” said Michael Rosenbluth, the Amnesty International-USA country coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian territories. Others saw an erosion of standards. Edward Abington, a Washington lobbyist for the Palestinian Authority who helped draft the reports in the mid-1990s when he was U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, said that State Department used to go out of its way to publish an objective report. This year, by contrast, “It was almost as if the occupied territories section became a section detailing Palestinian Authority abuses without reference to the fact that the West Bank was occupied by Israel,” he said. The change in how the government counts terrorist statistics has implications not just for Israel, but for Jewish communities abroad. The methodology developed in the 1980s was designed to target the state-sponsored terrorism common at the time, said John Brennan, the center’s interim director. But that methodology is inadequate in today’s reality, with “transnational” terrorist groups such as Al-Qaida. “Political violence, such as hate crimes, were not counted,” Brennan said but now they will be. That could extend to hate crimes that target a country’s Jewish minority. Another change, starting with the 2005 report, will be how the agency defines “international terrorism,” Brennan said. He cited two Chechen suicide bomb attacks on Aeroflot flights last year. One flight had only Russians aboard, the other included one Israeli. Under the current definition, the latter counted as “international terrorism”; the former did not. The coming change in terrorism reporting has attracted the attention of U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who has said he believes the department is using the new methodology to explain away a startling increase in the number of terrorist incidents from 2003 to 2004. In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Waxman notes an increase in “significant terrorist attacks,” from 174 in 2003 to 651 in 2004. He notes that Brennan attributes the leap to the change in methodology though the methodology is set to change only in time for the 2005 report. “Congress and the American people should know whether terrorism is increasing or not,” he said.
Israel fares better in human-rights report