Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published three reports this month critical of the Palestinian Authority (PA). First, this 101-page report faults the PA for failing to prevent violence against Palestinian women and girls. Next, HRW declared that the Palestinian Authority “should stop giving a wink and a nod to rocket attacks against civilians and take immediate steps to halt them.” And, one week ago, HRW issued this press release:
Calling civilians to a location that the opposing side has identified for attack is at worst human shielding, at best failing to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack. Both are violations of international humanitarian law.
On Monday, the BBC reported that the IDF had warned Wael Rajab, an alleged Hamas member in Beit Lahiya, that that they were preparing to attack his home, and that a call was later broadcasted from local mosques for volunteers to protect the home.
“There is no excuse for calling civilians to the scene of a planned attack,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.”
Various media have reported that other Palestinian officials and armed groups have voiced support for these tactics. In a visit to Baroud’s house on Sunday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority reportedly said: “We are so proud of this national stand. It’s the first stop toward protecting our homes … so long as this strategy is in the interest of our people, we support this strategy.”
“Prime Minister Haniyeh and other Palestinian leaders should be renouncing, not embracing, the tactic of encouraging civilians to place themselves at risk,” said Whitson.
Apparently, this latest press release was the last straw for our favorite defender of truth, justice, and free speech, Norman Finkelstein. He’s just written an article for Counterpunch (of course) titled, “Human Rights Watch Must Retract Its Shameful Press Release”:
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.
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.
Similar fighting words can be found over at the blog of Helena Cobban, “a writer and internationally syndicated columnist on global affairs” who contributes to the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Review, New York Times, Salon, and the Economist.
Cobban sits on the Middle East advisory committee of Human Rights Watch–and, not so long ago, she was defending her colleagues against the smear attacks of “Israel’ s blindly ardent defenders.”
But, hey that was then, this is now. HRW’s latest publications have prompted her to denounce “Sarah Leah and the rest of HRW’s very comfortably paid apparatchiks” and to lash out against “Human Rights Watch’s august leaders sitting in their comfy homes in New York.” (By the way, what’s the view from Cobban’s window? “The fall colors here in central Virginia are just spectacular this year.”)
Cobban argues no crime, no foul since “there has been no suggestion of any coercion being applied on anyone to participate in this quite voluntary human-shielding action.”
Maybe Cobban should pay a visit to the Crimes of War Project website, which, just prior to the invasion of Iraq, published this important reminder about prohibited behavior during times of war:
They further include prohibitions against the use of human shields or hostages, whether voluntary or involuntary, and whether by attackers or defenders, in order to protect military objectives.
Both attacking and defending military forces have independent and non-derogable legal obligations toward civilians in the course of combat operations. Their respective obligations merit equal emphasis in media reporting and commentary as well as in monitoring by human rights organizations and other concerned individuals, non-governmental organizations, and governments and international institutions.
They key words here are “voluntary or involuntary.” There’s a reason for that prohibition. By holding governments accountable–even for “volunteers”–it (hopefully) minimizes civilian casualties in times of war. And by including “voluntary” human shields under that umbrella, it prohibits governments from later claiming that civilians herded into military facilities were there of their “own free will.”
Bending these rules sets a deadly precedent, whether it’s done by the Palestinian Authority or Israel.