In the Jewish community, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is frequently accused of anti-Israel bias. It’s fair to say that Human Rights Watch is sometimes even disdained.
One main reason is the way Human Rights Watch (and other similar organizations as well) cover conflicts such as the recent wars in Gaza. If Israel is accused of attacking Palestinian schools, hospitals, or residential buildings, HRW expends immense resources investigating. What soldiers fired the weapon, and what commanders authorized the mission? They document with testimony and photographs the horror of the blasts, which is then used to stir up anti-Israel outrage worldwide. Israeli claims, such as that the target was actually military and Hamas used civilians as human shields, are given short shrift and not included in the initial reports that are picked up by world media.
Yet it seems Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians are often met with a shrug. Not only are constant, indiscriminate rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Israeli cities not investigated, it often appears they are barely noted. It seems like a lengthy, detailed HRW investigative and condemnation of alleged Israeli war crimes might contain a mere paragraph mentioning that indiscriminate attacks on Israelis are also forbidden.
A second issue is that while any abuse of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli settlers or soldiers is immediately condemned and investigated, abuse of Palestinians by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority seems to generate little interest and no outrage at all. It seems like when Hamas security forces beat protestors to maintain that organization’s absolute grip on power, HRW (and others) are often content to merely note this in their next annual roundup of regional concerns. However, we all know what happens if Israeli soldiers abuse Palestinians- worldwide outrage and fury, often accompanied by emergency meetings to condemn Israel at the United Nations too.
Recent Report Condemns Hamas and the Palestinian Authority
I was therefore surprised and pleased that last week Human Rights Watch released a detailed investigation devoted entirely to human rights abuses perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas against their own populations. The opening sentence states that ‘Palestinian authorities are systematically mistreating and torturing Palestinians in detention. . .torture, both by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. . .may amount to crimes against humanity.’
HRW’s Israel and Palestine Director, Omar Shakir, is quoted as saying that, “Systematic abuse by the PA and Hamas forms a critical part of the repression of the Palestinian people.” This quote is followed by a call for the International Criminal Court ‘to investigate and prosecute people credibly implicated in these grave abuses.’ At the end of the article Shakir states, “Many governments say they want to support the rule of law in Palestine and yet year after year continue to fund police forces that actively undermine it. Purported concerns over the fragility of Palestinian institutions and other tired excuses should no longer stand in the way. Donor governments should cut ties to abusive Palestinian police and security forces and center their Palestine and Israel policies on human rights.” This is exactly what many Israeli peace activists, while advocating a two-state solution as the best way to improve the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians, have been saying for years.
None of this is to imply that human rights abuses committed by Israel shouldn’t be investigated. And the fact that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas abuse the Palestinian population is no justification for Israel to do so also. That Hamas commits war crimes against Israel does not give Israel license to commit war crimes too.
But investigation and condemnation need to be even-handed. When it is undertaken disproportionately against one side, the cause of human rights loses its moral authority and is reduced to a tool of propaganda.
This recent HRW report on Palestinian abuses is a step in the right direction. When Human Rights organizations are seen as investigating all sides fairly, their work gains legitimacy and moral authority. It then becomes harder for policy makers on any side to brush it off or ignore, and increases pressure that human rights abuses be addressed. Finally concentrating on exposing abuses committed by Palestinians, as well as Israelis, makes it more likely that Human Rights Watch will gain the respect needed to compel changes by them both.