Human Rights Watch has just published a new report supposedly examining Israel’s conduct during its 11-day war with Hamas in May, and it comes as little surprise that their conclusion is that Israel committed war crimes.
Little surprise because Human Rights Watch has become notorious for its rank bias against Israel, both in terms of the radical anti-Israel activists it hires as country directors and researchers, and the extremely tendentious reports that inevitably result.
A signal example of this bias is that the very first case HRW cites in its current report (titled “Gaza: Apparent War Crimes During May Fighting”) is an explosion in Beit Hanoun that was actually due to an errant Palestinian rocket (see below).
But before getting to the details, it’s important to provide some context. First, this report perfectly illustrates the kangaroo-court techniques that HRW habitually employs against Israel. For example, claiming that since its investigators “could not see” any military objective in a target supposedly hit by Israel, there wasn’t one and the strike was therefore a war crime.
Does it really not occur to HRW that Hamas might have removed evidence to make it seem a site was not a legitimate military target?
Does it really not occur to HRW that its investigators might have missed evidence, or that Israel might have its own evidence it can’t disclose in order to protect sources and methods?
HRW knows that Hamas executes alleged collaborators with Israel and that Israel must do everything possible to protect its assets within the organization. This, of course, would include not providing HRW with specific intelligence that led it to target a given site.
And if it’s a site that Israel denies hitting, does it not occur to HRW that Hamas might have cleaned the site, removing evidence that Hamas munitions caused the damage and planting evidence of Israeli munitions that had been collected elsewhere? Such may well have been the case in the Beit Hanoun incident.
Furthermore, who are these HRW investigators operating in Gaza, all of whom are local Gaza residents? Why, in the interest of transparency, doesn’t HRW disclose their names? Do any of these people also work for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or similar groups, or do they have family members who do? Even if they wanted to, could the local HRW investigators safely provide evidence that Hamas would prefer to keep secret?
Did HRW have unfettered access to Gaza? Could it go wherever it wanted, whenever it wanted, without official “guides” or “minders”? If not, shouldn’t HRW disclose just what limitations it agreed to and how it justifies accepting these limitations?
Did HRW ask to see Hamas tunnels and underground facilities, to independently judge, with expert help, if they undermined the buildings above?
Did HRW ask to see Hamas tunnels and underground facilities to determine if they were indeed targeted and damaged by Israeli strikes? If not, why not?
Did HRW investigators ask Hamas to prove that its tunnels are not hidden underneath residential areas? If not, why not?
Did HRW investigators descend into the Gaza roadways that collapsed into deep craters after bombings, to see if indeed there was evidence of underground Hamas facilities? If not, why not?
Debunking HRW’s specific charges
Here is how HRW describes the three incidents that constitute the evidentiary basis for its report:
“On May 10 near the town of Beit Hanoun, an Israeli-guided missile struck near four houses of the al-Masri family, killing 8 civilians, including 6 children. On May 15 a guided bomb destroyed a three-story building in al-Shati refugee camp, killing 10 civilians, 2 women and 8 children from two related families. And on May 16 a series of Israeli airstrikes lasting four minutes struck al-Wahda Street in Gaza City, causing three multi-story buildings to collapse, killing 44 civilians. The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups, but presented no details to support that claim.”
We will deal here with the first and third cases, and provide an update in the future with details concerning the second case.
It’s frankly astounding that HRW would cite as an Israeli war crime the explosion in Beit Hanoun that devastated the al-Masri family since it’s been clear from the start that it was caused by an errant Palestinian projectile. According to a tweet from the Defense for Children International-Palestine group—definitely not pro-Israel—the explosion occurred on the first day of fighting at around 6 p.m., just as Hamas began attacking Israel.
Crucially, this was before Israel initiated its military response, proving without any doubt that the explosion and the resulting deaths were due to a Palestinian rocket. Israeli sources have specifically confirmed this timing.
Moreover, HRW bases its conclusion that the projectile was Israeli solely on local witnesses who claim to have seen it approaching.
That misfired Palestinian rockets did explode in Gaza has been amply established. The IDF published infrared drone video from the first few days of fighting showing a Palestinian rocket being launched and two seconds later exploding in a residential area of Gaza:
WATCH as a Hamas rocket aimed at Israel misfires and falls back into Gaza.
But this isn’t the 1st time—Hamas misfired 350 rockets in the last 3 days.
These rockets result in the deaths of innocent Gazan civilians.
It’s time for the world to hold Hamas accountable. pic.twitter.com/vmhmXTZrl6
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) May 13, 2021
In all, some 680 Palestinian rockets fell short and exploded in Gaza, according to the Israeli military. There is no question that, as in the Beit Hanoun case, these errant rockets caused Palestinian casualties. The present author has conservatively estimated that around 91 Palestinians were likely killed by these stray rockets.
We now turn to the May 16 bombing on al-Wahda Street in Gaza City, causing three buildings to collapse and resulting in the deaths of 44 people. At least in this case there is no doubt that the building collapses were triggered by the Israeli strike. However, the buildings across the street did not collapse, and the explanation for this difference may well be that the Hamas tunnels and excavations undermined the buildings above them.
According to HRW: “The Israeli military has presented no information that would demonstrate the existence of tunnels or an underground command center in this vicinity … Human Rights Watch did not find any evidence of a military target at or near the site of the airstrikes, including tunnels or an underground command center under al-Wahda street or buildings nearby.”
Again, HRW seems to believe that Israel is somehow obligated to disclose to it sensitive information relating to sources and methods. And as to HRW’s claim that it found no evidence of tunnels or other underground Hamas facilities under al-Wahda street, the question again is not what evidence they did or didn’t find, but what they were allowed to investigate.
For example, were the locals employed by HRW allowed to explore the large craters in al-Wahda street? If not, why doesn’t HRW disclose this?
In 2004, before Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, an HRW report discussed ground-penetrating radar and other engineering techniques that Israel could use to find tunnels in Gaza, rather than destroying homes concealing the tunnel openings. So HRW cannot claim ignorance of these techniques.
Which raises an obvious question: Did HRW employ ground-penetrating radar or other engineering techniques to independently verify whether there are tunnels under al-Wahda street? Surely, Hamas would have no reason to oppose this since they deny the existence of such tunnels. So did HRW try to use these technical methods? If not, why not? If yes and Hamas refused, why is this not disclosed?
In 2009, Robert Bernstein, the founder and long-time chairman of Human Rights Watch, publicly denounced the organization in a New York Times op-ed, with words that could have been written yesterday:
“But how does Human Rights Watch know that these laws have been violated? In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes. Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers. Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza ‘did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.’
“Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world. If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.”
This HRW report, like its other work on Israel, is fatally compromised by the organization’s malignant hatred for the Jewish state, its effective denial of Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, and its betrayal of its own founding principles. Were Bernstein alive today, how depressed he would be to learn that the organization he founded and poured so much of his life into has only gotten worse—much worse.
Alex Safian is associate director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).