Human Rights Watch flotilla stance mirrors that of US, Israel

A Human Rights Watch press conference in Gaza, May 2010. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

Supporters of Israel often accuse Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the world, of having an anti-Israel bias or even being anti-Semitic. For instance, a recent lengthy article in The New Republic accused the group of paying “disproportionate attention to Israeli misdeeds.” Similarly, Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz has said that HRW exhibits a “willful blindness when it comes to Israel, and its enemies have completely undermined the credibility of a once important human rights organization.” Indeed, there is no shortage of other similar critiques of the organization by supporters of Israel.

Given such strong condemnations, one might have anticipated that HRW would have been especially vocal in its criticism of Israel’s 31 May attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that was attempting to deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza and break Israel’s three-year old siege of the territory.

Yet despite the alarms sounded by its most staunch critics, HRW has been mostly silent on the horrific attack. When they have spoken out, they have been notably timid, essentially sharing the same positions as the US government, Israel’s closest ally. According to a search of the group’s website, the flotilla attack has only been addressed four times. By contrast, Amnesty International (the organization’s closest peer) has tackled the issue 17 times, issuing much stronger statements of condemnation than those released by HRW. The jarring difference in how these two human rights organizations have responded to the flotilla attack raises important questions about the functioning of the largest and most reputed human rights organization in the United States.

During the course of the raid on the civilian convoy, the Israeli military killed nine activists, many of whom were shot in the head from close range, according to subsequent autopsies. In response, with millions taking to the streets worldwide, one government after the next, the UN and other nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups and activists condemned the raid and called for an immediate international investigation and an end to the blockade of Gaza. Even Turkey, a close ally of both the US and Israel, responded furiously to the attack, calling it an act of “state terrorism” that threatened to damage relations between the two states. Ankara also demanded that Israel lift the siege on Gaza. Indeed, in previous statements HRW said that the siege “constitutes a form of collective punishment” (“Letter to Olmert: Stop the Blockade of Gaza, 20 November 2008 ).

In the face of this international pressure, the US and Israel stood virtually alone in rejecting an international investigation. Israel not only objected to an independent investigation, but also refused to release all of the footage and photographs it confiscated from activists and journalists onboard the ship, only releasing small fragments that were heavily edited and otherwise tampered with. Instead, Washington urged Israel to conduct an investigation of its own, in the hopes that such a probe would assuage the rising chorus of international outrage without subjecting Israeli actions to independent scrutiny. Shockingly, HRW – an organization which claims to stand up to state violence and protect human rights – essentially supported the US-Israeli position by calling for an Israeli investigation.

HRW’s support for an Israeli investigation contradicted previous findings by the organization on the likelihood that such an inquiry would be successful. “Given Israel’s poor track record of investigating unlawful killings by its armed forces,” the group acknowledges in its 31 May statement on the flotilla, “the international community should closely monitor any inquiry to ensure it meets basic international standards and that any wrongdoers are brought to justice” (“Israel: Full, Impartial Investigation of Flotilla Killings Essential”). This statement again stands in stark contrast to the position of Amnesty International, which insisted on an international investigation, along with the rest of the world, demanding in a 1 June statement “an international inquiry into the deaths caused by the raid on the aid flotilla in international waters outside Gaza” (“Israeli Authorities Urged To Commission International Inquiry,” 1 June 2010).

In a further attempt to limit the damage caused to its image in the wake of its nighttime commando assault on the unarmed civilian convoy, Israel announced an “easing” of the blockade. However, in reality these cosmetic changes were intended not to end the siege but to make it more palatable to the so-called international community. The most significant difference was the shift from a positive list of what is allowed to a negative list of what is not. Though the changes might allow a few more kinds of goods in, the new measures would hardly be enough to lift Palestinians in Gaza out of the desperate poverty into which they have been thrust by Israeli cruelty, let alone develop a viable and independent economy.

Since the attack, the Israeli military spokesperson has proudly declaring the number of trucks entering Gaza each day over the social networking site Twitter. Yet these tweets only serve to prove how inadequate the “easing” of the blockade is, as the announced number of trucks permitted to enter Gaza is well below the 400 that the UN says is needed to provide residents of Gaza with even a minimal standard of living.

Amnesty International responded to the shift in policy by stating that Israel “must now comply with its obligations as the occupying power under international law and immediately lift the blockade,” adding that as “the occupying power, Israel bears the foremost responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the inhabitants of Gaza” (“Israel Gaza Blockade Must Be Completely Lifted,” 17 June 2010). By contrast, HRW offered a statement that tepidly praised Israel, calling it a productive “first step” in a 21 June release (Israel/Gaza: Easing Blockade of Imports a First Step”). This response was also dramatically different from that of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which in the wake of the flotilla massacre called the siege “a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law,” and demanded Israel to “put an end to this closure” (“Gaza closure: not another year,” 14 June 2010). Likewise, Oxfam International called the flotilla incident “a direct result of the Israeli blockade on Gaza” (“Monday’s tragedy is a direct result of the Israeli blockade on Gaza,” 2 June 2010).

Though HRW rightly pointed out that there was little chance of Palestinians in Gaza developing an independent, sustainable economy with the continued total blockade of exports, and amorphously called on Israel to end any “unnecessary restrictions” on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, it failed to clearly and unequivocally call for a full lifting of the illegal siege. As with its failure to call for an international investigation, HRW was once again essentially echoing the position taken by Tony Blair, the current envoy of the Quartet (the US, UK, Russia and UN), who said in a 5 July statement that the move was a “big first step.”

In its 21 June release, HRW states that some restrictions are permitted under international law provided that they are “limited to what is necessary.” In the same release, the organization balanced its criticism of Israel by vigorously calling on Hamas to release its Israeli prisoner – virtually echoing the Israeli government’s justification for the siege of Gaza.

Similarly, on 27 June, Bill Van Esveld, a Middle East researcher for [[HRW]], penned an editorial in the Los Angeles Times which attempts to shift the blame for Gaza’s suffering from the merciless siege to the strip’s elected Hamas government. “The people of Gaza are now prisoners twice over,” he writes, “from the outside, Israel and Egypt have locked down Gaza’s borders,” while “within Gaza, Hamas is forcing people to live within the confines of a harsh moral code, and punishing those who try to exercise their few remaining rights and liberties” (“Danger of an Islamized Gaza”).

Though the offenses against personal freedoms committed by Hamas are well-documented and certainly noteworthy, Van Esveld ignores that it is the desperation created by far more serious Israeli violence and suffocation, and the collaborationist nature of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, that is the ultimate source of Hamas’ empowerment. Thus, he is essentially employing the classic tactic of blaming the victims, and echoing Israeli justifications for maintaining the siege by waving the spectre of “the danger of an Islamized Gaza.” “The world is rightly focused on Gaza’s Israeli prison guards,” he concludes, “but it shouldn’t forget the confinement imposed by Gaza’s own Hamas.” Such assertions closely mirror the disingenuous claims of Israeli officials, particularly Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, who declared in a 2 June New York Times op-ed, that “We, too, want a free Gaza – a Gaza liberated from brutal Hamas rule” (“An Assault, Cloaked in Peace”).

Thus, on two major issues related to the siege of Gaza and the raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, HRW has largely taken the same position as Israel and its supporters. In the aftermath of the flotilla attack, Israel, Tony Blair, the United States and HRW stood on one side, and virtually the entire rest of the world stood on the other.

Not all of HRW’s reports are so flawed, and the organization has produced some valuable material. However, they serve as a sharp contrast to its statements on the flotilla raid. In a 2006 report on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, HRW calls on the UN Secretary General to create an “an International Commission of Inquiry to investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes” (“Why They Died,” 5 September 2007). Similarly, in a 13 August 2009 statement on Israel’s 2008-09 winter invasion of Gaza HRW calls for “an international investigation into alleged laws-of-war violations by both sides,” citing “the past failure of Israel, as well as Hamas, to investigate their own forces ” (“Israel: Investigate ‘White Flag’ Shootings of Gaza Civilians,” 12 August 2009).

The organization’s pathetic display in the wake of the flotilla attack, however, does a great disservice to the cause of human rights. Unfortunately, HRW’s failures reflect a disturbing and well-documented pattern, especially regarding its work on the Middle East and the United States (the chief enabler of Israeli aggression). In 2006, journalist Jonathan Cook noticed a “shameful imbalance” in Human Rights Watch’s reportage on Israeli and Palestinian violations, “both in the number of reports being issued against each party and in terms of the failure to hold accountable the side committing the far greater abuses of human rights.” Cook concluded that such an “imbalance” had “become the HRW’s standard procedure in Israel-Palestine” (“Human Rights Watch denying Palestinians the right to nonviolent resistance,” The Electronic Intifada, 30 November 2006).

In fact, Cook’s conclusion applies more broadly to US policy and allies elsewhere around the world as well. Edward Herman, David Peterson and George Szamuely observed in a well-researched report on HRW in 2007 that “at critical times and in critical theaters [the group has] thrown its support behind the US government’s agenda, sometimes even serving as a virtual public relations arm of the foreign policy establishment.” The authors note that HRW exhibits “crude apologetics,” maintaining a steadfast “denial that the United States commits war crimes” (“Human Rights Watch in Service to the War Party …,” Zmag, 25 February 2007).

Properly educating the public about Israeli crimes, and American culpability in them, is essential if Israeli policy is to be changed and a just peace established. As the only large, international human rights organization based in the United States, HRW’s weak response to these attacks, for which the US has lent strong support in the face of massive criticism from around the world, is even more outrageous. It is time for advocates for human rights to push HRW to be a more consistent and responsible voice on behalf of Palestinian human rights.

Michael Corcoran is a journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. He is also a master’s candidate at the John McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where he majors in international relations.

Stephen Maher is an MA candidate at American University School of International Service. His work has appeared in Extra!, Truthout, ZNet and other publications. His blog is