Norman Finkelstein Shames Human Rights Watch
- Human Rights Watch Must Retract Its Shameful Press Release
By NORMAN G. FINKELSTEIN
Even by the grim standards of Gaza, the past five months have been
Some four hundred Palestinians, mostly unarmed civilians, have been
killed during Israeli attacks. (Four Israeli soldiers and two
civilians have been killed.) Israel has sealed off Gaza from the
outside world while the international community has imposed brutal
sanctions, ravaging Gaza's already impoverished economy.
"Gaza is dying," Patrick Cockburn reported in CounterPunch, "its
people are on the edge of starvation.A whole society is being
destroyed.The sound that Palestinians most dread is an unknown voice
on their cell phone saying they have half an hour to leave their home
before it is hit by bombs or missiles. There is no appeal. "
"Gaza is in its worst condition ever," Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz,
"The Israeli army has been rampaging through Gaza--there's no other
word to describe it--killing and demolishing, bombing and shelling
indiscriminately....This is disgraceful and shocking collective
Predictably Gaza teetered on the precipice of fratricidal civil war.
"The experiment was a success: The Palestinians are killing each
other," Amira Hass wryly observed in Ha'aretz , "They are behaving as
expected at the end of the extended experiment called 'what happens
when you imprison 1.3 million human beings in an enclosed space like
It is at times like this that we expect human rights organizations to
How has Human Rights Watch responded to the challenge? It criticized
Israel for destroying Gaza's only electrical plant, and also called on
Israel to "investigate" why its forces were targeting Palestinian
medical personnel in Gaza and to "investigate" the Beit Hanoun massacre.
On the other hand, it accused Palestinians of committing a "war crime"
after they captured an Israeli soldier and offered to exchange him for
Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. (Israel was
holding 10,000 Palestinians prisoner.) It demanded that Palestinians
"bring an immediate end to the lawlessness and vigilante violence" in
Gaza. (Compare Amira Hass's words.) It issued a 101-page report
chastising the Palestinian Authority for failing to protect women and
girls. It called on the Palestinian Authority to take "immediate steps
to halt" Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.
Were this record not shameful enough, HRW crossed a new threshold at
the end of November.
After Palestinians spontaneously responded to that "unknown voice on a
cell phone" by putting their own bare bodies in harm's way, HRW rushed
to issue a press release warning that Palestinians might be committing
a "war crime" and might be guilty of "human shielding." ("Civilians
Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks")
In what must surely be the most shocking statement ever issued by a
human rights organization, HRW indicted Palestinian leaders for
supporting this nonviolent civil disobedience:
Prime Minister Haniyeh and other Palestinian leaders should be
renouncing, not embracing, the tactic of encouraging civilians to
place themselves at risk.
The international community has for decades implored Palestinian
leaders to forsake armed struggle in favor of nonviolent civil
disobedience. Why is a human rights organization now attacking them
for adopting this tactic?
Is it a war crime to protect one's home from collective punishment?
Is it human shielding if a desperate and forsaken populace chooses to
put itself at deadly risk in order to preserve the last shred of its
Indeed, although Israeli soldiers have frequently used Palestinians as
human shields in life-threatening situations, and although HRW has
itself documented this egregious Israeli practice, HRW has never once
called it a war crime.
It took weeks before HRW finally issued a report condemning Israeli
war crimes in Lebanon. Although many reliable journalists were daily
documenting these crimes, HRW said it first had to conduct an
independent investigation of its own.
But HRW hastened to deplore the nonviolent protests in Gaza based on
anonymous press reports which apparently got crucial facts wrong.
Why this headlong rush to judgment?
Was HRW seeking to appease pro-Israel critics after taking the heat
for its report documenting Israeli war crimes in Lebanon?
After Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech in 1967
denouncing the war in Vietnam, mainstream Black leaders rebuked him
for jeopardizing the financial support of liberal whites. "You might
get yourself a foundation grant," King retorted, "but you won't get
yourself into the Kingdom of Truth."
HRW now also stands poised at a crossroads: foundation grants or the
Kingdom of Truth?
A first step in the right direction would be for it to issue a
retraction of its press release and an apology.
HRW executive director Kenneth Roth "commended" Israel during its last
invasion for warning people in south Lebanon to flee--before turning
it into a moonscape, slaughtering the old, infirm and poor left
behind. It would seem that Palestinian leaders and people, too, merit
some recognition for embracing the tactics of Gandhi and King in a
last desperate bid to save themselves from annihilation.
Email HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson--whitsos @ hrw.org -
and HRW executive director Kenneth Roth--RothK @ hrw.org .
Norman Finkelstein's most recent book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the
misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of
California Press). His web site is www.NormanFinkelstein.com.
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