Human Rights Watch, as we’ve noted, has issued a report condemning Hamas-led rocket attacks on southern Israel during the Gaza war as war crimes.
NGO Monitor has six questions about the release. I think two are certainly worthy of response; three, I think, are misconceved, and one, perhaps, simply needs fleshing out.
I’ll post HRW’s summary and NGO’s questions below the jump, but first to the questions I see as substantive:
*HRW repeatedly dates the precipitation — if not the launch — of the Gaza war to what essentially was Israel’s defensive raid in November; sovereign states, one would think, have not just a right, but a duty to proactively prevent kidnapping raids. Even during ceasefires. In fact, if there’s a rupture in a ceasefire in this case, it’s precisely in the planning of such a raid.
"As NGO Monitor correctly points out, HRW has never shied away from noting the U.S. origin of Israeli weaponry and has called on the United States to end such assistance; Yet Iran, a supplier and trainer of Hamas, does not appear once in the 31-page report and the two references to weapons smuggling are in passing (one is in a footnote.)
The three that are misconceived:
*NGO Monitor suggests the timing of the report is suspicious, and might have been released to distract attention from its outreach for membership and funds in Saudi Arabia; another group, the International Crisis Group, filed a report on rocket attacks in April, and six months seems a long time to compile findings, the watchdog’s watchdog suggests.
Not really; It took HRW just a month and a bit less (June 30) to adjudicate Israel’s use of drones in the same war. HRW reports on the Israel-Hezbollah war in July-August 2006, did not come out until August 2007 (assessing Hezbollah’s alleged war crimes) and September 2007 (assessing Israel’s.) So this was actually fairly quick for HRW.
*"Why does HRW perpetuate the ‘balance’ between terrorist groups and their targets?" I don’t see any attempt to "balance" Hamas and Israel in this report. In fact, to the degree that there are references to Israel’s alleged violations, it’s clear HRW sees these as more far-reaching in terms of effect on the civilian population. But HRW’s point in making those references is clear: Nothing justifies attacks on civilians. If anything, HRW’s thesis is that the notion of "balance" is misplaced; civilians are definitionally innocent.
*"Why is Israel absurdly blamed for Hamas’ rocket fire from populated areas?" It isn’t; HRW is reporting the chronology of Hamas’ retreat into populated areas, and is not blaming Israel at all:
Numerous Palestinians in Gaza told Human Rights Watch that during the course of Israel’s aerial campaign and subsequent invasion of Gaza in late December and early January, members of Palestinian armed groups redeployed from more open and outlying regions – many of which were either controlled by Israeli ground forces or “covered” by armed aerial drones, helicopters, and fighter aircraft – into densely populated urban areas. The International Crisis Group quoted an Islamic Jihad fighter as saying, “the most important thing is achieving our military goals,” among which was to continue firing rockets in defiance of the stated Israeli aim to end the rocket attacks. He told the Crisis Group, “We stay away from the houses if we can, but that’s often impossible.”
While fighting in urban areas is not prohibited under the laws of war, parties to a conflict are obligated to adopt measures to minimize the risk to the civilian population. During the recent fighting and at other times, Palestinian armed groups have placed fellow Palestinians at grave risk of Israeli counter-attacks by firing rockets from within or near populated areas. In doing so, they violate the laws of war by failing to take all feasible precautions to avoid placing military targets within or near densely populated areas, to remove civilians under their control from the vicinity of military targets, and to protect civilians from the danger resulting from military operations.
And here’s the question that perhaps needed a little beefing up:
Why did HRW fail to condemn Hamas for extensive use of human shields? What is the basis for the claim that Hamas “did not…force civilians to remain in areas in close proximity to rocket launching sites”?
The basis is clear in the full quote: HRW just didn’t find any original evidence of the use of forced human shields:
Human Rights Watch researchers did not find any cases where Hamas or other armed groups forced civilians to remain in areas in close proximity to rocket launching sites.
The HRW report does cite an earlier International Crisis Group report that quotes Hamas terrorists as admitting to "shielding" — firing from populated areas in order to deter Israel from responding — but apparently HRW doesn’t lend it much credence:
The International Crisis Group interviewed three Hamas fighters in January who said they “often fired [rockets] in close proximity to homes and from alleys, hoping that nearby civilians would deter Israel from responding — indicating the intent to use civilians as shields. The Crisis Group’s report and the staff who conducted the interviews did not provide further details or specific cases of shielding. The Crisis Group reported that after the conflict, some Gaza residents unsuccessfully “urged a government investigation of, and accountability for, fighters who endangered civilians” by firing from populated areas.
The better question might be, why was HRW unable to track down similar information? Have the Gaza residents who urged an investigation gone to ground?
UPDATE: Gerald Steinberg makes a valid point about HRW and its attempts at "balance" in the comments below; the striving for an artificial balance between Israel and Middle East oppressors does inform much of HRW’s Middle East work, as I’ve noted elsewhere, and should be taken into account in assessing this report. Narrowly, though, I don’t think HRW’s references to Israel I’ve cited here are aimed at "balance"; they are, instead, refutations of radical justifications for assaults on civilians.
Anyway, after the jump, the HRW and NGO Monitor releases:
The HRW report summary:
Since 2001, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have fired thousands of rockets deliberately or indiscriminately at civilian areas in Israel. Such attacks virtually stopped during a ceasefire that began in June 2008 but escalated in November 2008 after an Israeli military incursion into Gaza. The rocket attacks continued during and since Israel’s three-week-long military offensive in Gaza that began on December 27.
Palestinian rocket attacks – which have killed three Israeli civilians and wounded dozens of others since November – are an ongoing threat to the nearly 800,000 Israeli civilians who live and work in range of the rockets. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have sought to justify the attacks as appropriate reprisals for Israeli military operations and the ongoing blockade against Gaza, and as a lawful response to the Israeli occupation of Gaza. As noted below, international humanitarian law (the “laws of war”) does not support these asserted justifications.
While Hamas has at times significantly decreased the level of rocket fire from Gaza, including by pressuring other armed groups to stop unauthorized attacks, it has taken no apparent action to prosecute or otherwise hold accountable Hamas forces or other Palestinian armed groups for launching unlawful rocket attacks against Israeli civilian areas.
The rockets fired by Hamas and other armed groups are primarily locally made “Qassam” rockets, with a range of 16 kilometers. A smaller number are Soviet-designed “Grad” rockets, with a 21-kilometer range. The rockets have hit Israeli cities and towns close to the 1949 armistice line between Gaza and Israel, primarily Sderot; in 2008, rockets also struck Ashkelon and Netivot. Since late December 2008, some longer-range rockets have struck as far as 40 kilometers inside Israel, including, for the first time, the cities of Beer Sheva and Ashdod.
None of these rockets can be reliably aimed. Under international humanitarian law applicable to the fighting between Palestinian armed groups and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), such weapons are inherently indiscriminate when directed towards densely populated areas. The absence of Israeli military forces in the areas struck by the rockets, as well as statements from the leaders of Hamas and other armed groups, indicate that many of these attacks are deliberately intended to strike Israeli civilians and civilian structures. Individuals who willfully authorize or carry out deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians are committing war crimes.
The rocket attacks have caused civilian casualties and property damage. Civilian structures damaged in recent attacks include a kindergarten, a synagogue and private homes. An Israeli early warning siren system, which gives civilians roughly 10 to 45 seconds to find cover in prepared shelters, depending on their distance from the launch site in Gaza, has undoubtedly limited the number of civilian casualties. However, the repeated attacks have, over months and even years, taken a psychological toll on the population in areas close to Gaza. The laws of war prohibit attacks the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population. Because of the rocket attacks, thousands of people have moved away from frequently targeted areas such as Sderot municipality.
The rocket attacks have also placed civilians in Gaza at risk. The unpredictable nature of the crude rockets has meant that rockets have struck areas not only inside Israel but also inside Gaza; on December 26 a rocket hit a house in Beit Lahiya, killing two Palestinian girls, ages 5 and 12. In addition, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have frequently violated the laws of war by firing rockets from within populated areas. In doing so, they failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid placing military targets within densely populated areas, such as by removing civilians under their control from the vicinity of military targets, and protecting civilians from the danger resulting from military operations.
The Israeli government said the military offensive in Gaza that began on December 27, 2008, which it called “Operation Cast Lead,” was intended to destroy the ability of Palestinian armed groups in Gaza to fire rockets into Israel. The armed groups have fired thousands of rockets at Israel since 2001, killing 15 civilians inside Israel. At least 1,500 rockets were fired in 2008 alone. These attacks virtually stopped during a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that went into effect on June 19, 2008, but resumed after Israeli forces killed six Palestinian fighters during an incursion into Gaza on November 4, 2008. After major military operations ended on January 18, 2009, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza continued to fire rockets into Israel, although in gradually reduced numbers.
Palestinian armed groups in Gaza that have claimed responsibility for firing rockets into Israel include Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades, the Fatah-aligned al-Aqsa Brigades, the Public Resistance Committee’s Salah al-Din Brigades, and the Ali Abu Mustafa Brigades of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Hamas and Islamic Jihad are responsible for the majority of rocket attacks, and claim to have fired 820 rockets from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009.
Statements by leaders of Hamas and other armed groups, media reports and independent analysis by nongovernmental organizations, and Human Rights Watch’s interviews with residents of Gaza, suggest that Hamas can control the ability of other armed groups to fire rockets at Israel. Hamas has on several occasions effectively prevented other armed groups from firing rockets.
Leaders of Hamas and other armed groups have publicly expressed their intention to target Israeli civilians, seeking to justify their attacks as lawful reprisals for Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians. For example, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, said in a pre-recorded video released on January 5 that “continuing the incursion will only make us increase our rocket range […]. We will double the number of Israelis under fire.” Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, in a speech broadcast the same day, said, “The Israeli enemy … shelled everyone in Gaza. They shelled children and hospitals and mosques, and in doing so, they gave us legitimacy to strike them in the same way.”
Hamas leaders have also claimed that rocket attacks against Israeli civilians are justified by the “right to resist” Israeli occupation. In an interview on May 5, 2009, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal appeared to acknowledge that Hamas rocket attacks intentionally targeted Israeli civilians. In the course of describing why Hamas had decided to stop firing rockets for the time being, Meshal said:
Not targeting civilians is part of an evaluation of the movement to serve the people’s interest. Firing these rockets is a method and not the goal. The right to resist the occupation is a legitimate right but practicing this right is decided by the leadership within the movement.
Hamas claimed responsibility for each of the three Israeli civilian deaths documented in this report.
Human Rights Watch has documented laws-of-war violations by Israeli forces in Gaza, including evidence of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead. However, laws-of-war violations by one party to a conflict do not justify violations by another, and reprisal attacks that target civilians are prohibited under any circumstances. Even assuming the rocket attacks were intended as reprisals for Israeli attacks that killed and injured civilians, they still are unlawful under the laws of war. The law governing reprisals—defined as otherwise unlawful actions that are considered lawful when used as an enforcement measure in reaction to an adversary’s unlawful acts—does not permit direct or indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Moreover, a fundamental principle of the laws of war is that they apply to all parties to a conflict regardless of the justifications for going to war. Whether it is Hamas’ claims of “the right to resist occupation” or Israel’s of the right “to combat terror,” the reasons for engaging in armed conflict do not permit a party to ignore its legal obligations in the way it conducts hostilities.
Some critics of Human Rights Watch’s work have argued that its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fails to recognize the great disparity in the magnitude and extent of the attacks and losses caused during the recent fighting between Hamas and Israel and the vastly differing sophistication of the weaponry used by each side, thereby creating an artificial balance and softening criticism of Israeli abuses.
During the recent armed conflict in Gaza, IDF military operations caused far greater total harm to civilian lives and property than operations by Palestinian armed groups. The IDF killed more than 1,350 Palestinians, including a large number of civilians; Hamas and other Palestinian groups killed six Israeli soldiers and three civilians.
The conflict in Gaza was indeed characterized by great disparity in the military strength of the parties to the conflict. Palestinian armed groups primarily fought with small arms, whereas the IDF used highly advanced weaponry, including armor and aircraft. The tonnage and explosive power of weapons used by Israel in Gaza far outweighed those of Hamas. However, these discrepancies do not discount the need to examine violations of laws of war by all sides to a conflict, nor do they justify violations by Hamas.
The purpose of the laws of war is not to create parity between parties to a conflict, or to assess their violations in light of their relevant capacities, but to minimize the harm to the civilian population. Violations of the laws of war are not measured in the number of civilian casualties, but whether each side is taking all feasible precautions to minimize civilian loss. Using unsophisticated weapons does not justify failure to respect the laws of war, nor does an adversary’s use of sophisticated weapons provide a pass to its opponents to ignore those laws. Disparities in military capability, however measured, are irrelevant. The taking of civilian life can be minimized only if both parties recognize their legal obligations to abide by the laws of war however sophisticated the weaponry at their disposal.
Human Rights Watch is committed to documenting the worst violations of the laws of war committed by all sides to conflict. It is to promote the principle that civilians may never be the object of attack, regardless of the relative strength of the attacker, that Human Rights Watch has published this report.
The laws of war require parties to a conflict to investigate and take appropriate punitive action against individuals within their control who are implicated in war crimes. Hamas authorities have failed to take any action against Hamas commanders and fighters responsible for unlawful rocket attacks against Israel. Hamas has reportedly taken violent steps to prevent other armed groups from firing rockets. On March 10, the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported the alleged torture by Hamas police of 10 members of Saraya al-Quds, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad. The paper reported that Hamas police detained the 10 men, from Khan Yunis, and tortured them to coerce them to sign pledges that they would not fire rockets at Israel.
- Cease all rocket attacks that target civilians or are fired into civilian areas with rockets that cannot discriminate between military objectives and civilians;
- Prevent, as the governing authority in the Gaza Strip, other armed groups from launching such rocket attacks;
- Publicly repudiate attacks on Israeli civilians or civilian objects, and the argument that such attacks are permissible when carried out in reprisal for Israeli attacks that harm Palestinian civilians;
- Provide clear guidelines and training to all commanders and fighters to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law against attacks that target or indiscriminately harm civilians;
- Cease conducting attacks from locations near populated areas in Gaza in violation of international humanitarian law requiring all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attacks, and avoid locating military objectives in densely populated areas;
- Conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into the alleged violations of international humanitarian law documented in this report, including by persons working for or affiliated with Hamas-run security forces or militia, make the investigation results public and prosecute those considered responsible for war crimes in trials respecting international standards; and
- Give full consideration to the findings and recommendations of the final report produced by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Gaza fact-finding mission.
To UN Member States
- Use all relevant UN fora, including the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Security Council, to insist that Hamas and Israel conduct transparent and impartial investigations into allegations of serious laws-of-war violations during the recent hostilities in Gaza and Israel, make the results public and prosecute those considered responsible for war crimes in trials respecting international standards;
- Use all relevant UN fora, including the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Security Council, to urge Hamas and Israel to duly consider the findings and recommendations of the Human Rights Council’s Gaza fact-finding mission;
- Use the September session of the UN Human Rights Council to establish a dedicated UN mechanism that would monitor and report on efforts by all parties to transparently and impartially investigate allegations of serious laws-of-war violations committed during the recent hostilities in Gaza and Israel; and
- In the event the national authorities are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute through fair trials those considered responsible for war crimes committed during the recent hostilities in Gaza and Israel, press for the use of international prosecutions.
The NGO Monitor questions:
(Jerusalem) – Jerusalem based research organization NGO Monitor has reviewed .Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) report (“Rockets From Gaza”) on Hamas’ rocket fire on Israel’s civilian population.
While the report clearly finds Hamas guilty of war crimes and acknowledges “the psychological toll of years of rocket attacks” on Israelis, a number of questions need to be addressed:
- Why did it take HRW 6 months to issue a report that covers no new ground and largely repeats the International Crisis Group’s report of April 2009? In the interval, HRW issued two publications condemning Israel. NGO Monitor’s detailed analysis of HRW’s report on Israel’s use of drones can be found here.
- Why does HRW perpetuate the “balance” between terrorist groups and their targets? (“Whether it is Hamas’ claims of the ‘right to resist occupation’ or Israel’s of the right ‘to combat terror’, the reasons for engaging in armed conflict do not permit a party to ignore its legal obligations in the way it conducts hostilities.”)
- Why did HRW fail to condemn Hamas for extensive use of human shields? What is the basis for the claim that Hamas “did not…force civilians to remain in areas in close proximity to rocket launching sites”?
- Why is Israel absurdly blamed for Hamas’ rocket fire from populated areas? According to HRW, Hamas “redeployed from more open and outlying regions – many of which were…controlled by Israeli ground forces…into densely populated urban areas”. In other words, Israel’s operation against the rocket fire is blamed for the Hamas violations of the laws of war. And numerous rocket attacks from these same urban areas – long before the IDF operation – is not mentioned.
- Why is there no effort to uncover details of weapons smuggling into Gaza, and no mention of Iran? When HRW published speculative allegations on Israel’s use of drones and white phosphorous, they emphasized US military assistance.
- Why does HRW continue to falsify the history in order to attack Israel? This report blames Israel for the end of the ceasefire — “These attacks virtually stopped…but resumed after Israeli forces killed six Palestinian fighters…on November 4, 2008”. This version ignores the fact that Israel was responding to tunnels being completed and suggestions of another kidnapping attempt.
NGO Monitor’s President Prof Gerald Steinberg suggested some answers: “While containing no new information, this report might have had an impact if HRW published it six months ago. The fact that it is only now on their agenda exposes their biased priorities. The timing might indicate HRW’s effort to use this report to divert attention from the Saudi fundraising controversy, and as a fig leaf to cover the disproportionate focus on Israel.
On the substance, HRW failed to indict Hamas for turning the entire Gaza population into one massive human shield, and ‘researchers’ need to explain why they did not investigate the sources of the ‘smuggled’ rockets or to mention Iran. In contrast, when condemning Israel on a very thin factual foundation, HRW officials consistently criticize the American security relationship and arms transfers”.