Skip to main content

Rather than bashing the watchdogs, Israel's supporters should examine themselves As the UN Commission on Human Rights meets for its annual session in Geneva, one can understand why Israel feels picked on. Many commission members are abusive governments that will spend an inordinate amount of time condemning Israel while doing everything possible to protect themselves and their allies from critical scrutiny.

It would thus be understandable if the Jerusalem Post were to criticize the commission or others who apply a similarly blatant double standard. But in recent months, the Post's opinion pages seem fixated instead on Human Rights Watch - an organization with a long record of objectively reporting on not only Israel's conduct but also abuses by Palestinian groups and repressive governments throughout the region and the world.

Human Rights Watch reports are taken seriously by the press, the public, and policymakers of nearly all political persuasions, including the Israeli government. Yet it is precisely this credibility that seems so irksome to the Post's opinion writers. At a time when Israel desperately needs a hard-nosed, honest evaluation of its human rights practices, the Post's opinion writers seem determined to demonize those who are most capable of providing that assessment. Sadly, truth is rarely an obstacle to these attacks.

Any objective assessment would show that, horrendous as the terrorist attacks on Israel have been, the Israeli government has chosen to mount a defense not within the ample leeway provided by international human rights and humanitarian law but in violation of that law. Assassinating suspects when they could be arrested, punishing families for the acts of one of their members, employing abusive interrogation techniques, imposing punitive restrictions on the Palestinian population that go well beyond security requirements, building a security barrier not on the Green Line but with deep incursions into the West Bank to protect settlements that themselves violate the Geneva Conventions - all of these flout fundamental legal norms that Israel itself has subscribed to, along with most of the rest of the world.

By fueling hatred for Israel among Palestinians, this disregard for human rights has arguably made Israel less safe. And it does enormous damage to Israel's global reputation, transforming the country in the eyes of many from a sympathetic victim of terrorism to another (particularly powerful) human rights abuser. Yet one is hard-pressed to find an honest discussion of these abusive practices or their consequences on the Post's opinion pages - in contrast to much of the Israeli press.

The lead attacker in the Post is often Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University. For example, in a March 9 op-ed, he wrote that Human Rights Watch "was present in Durban when the NGO community hijacked a UN conference on racism to promote its own racist anti-Zionist agenda." Steinberg leaves the impression that Human Rights Watch must have joined this racist campaign, making it easy to reject the objectivity of Human Rights Watch reports on Israeli conduct. However, even if mere "presence" were a crime - many Jewish groups were also "present" in Durban - Steinberg neglects to mention the inconvenient fact, widely reported in the press at the time, that Human Rights Watch publicly disassociated itself from the NGO's manifesto because of its unfounded attacks on Israel.

In the same article, Steinberg condemns Human Rights Watch's "consistent silence" in the face of Palestinian suicide bombing "with the one exception" of our major October 2002 report - an "exception" that supposedly "proves the rule" of our indifference. Yet a simple review of our website would have shown 11 other condemnations of Palestinian bombing attacks on civilians - condemnations that Steinberg conveniently ignores.

Steinberg betrays a similar sleight-of-hand in his December 18 op-ed. He accuses Human Rights Watch of "condemning victims for defending themselves" as if there were no difference between advocating surrender and insisting that Israel's defense be conducted consistently with the same international law governing everyone else's security forces. He charges Human Rights Watch with "protecting Middle Eastern tyrants" as if we hadn't spent 15 years documenting and condemning abuses by a wide range of Middle Eastern governments.

Steinberg is not alone. Even Saul Singer, the Post's editorial page editor, ignores the facts in discussing the US government's recently released report on Saddam Hussein's atrocities, including his 1988 genocide against the Kurds. Writing on February 26, he says it is "striking" that "there is no similar report by a non-governmental agency, such as ... Human Rights Watch" - again, suggesting that our reporting on Israel must be biased if we don't even report on a genocidal killer like Saddam. Yet even a cursory review of Human Rights Watch's website would have shown extensive publications on Saddam's atrocities - publications that the Israeli press covered prominently -including what is widely considered the definitive account of the 1988 genocide.

This disregard for basic facts is not only a problem for those like Human Rights Watch who are targeted by these calumnies and fictitious allegations of bias. This fantasy-based discourse also does a deep disservice to Israel, since it discourages understanding of a major cause of increasing Palestinian animosity toward Israel and growing global disquiet about Israeli government practices.

The issue, I stress, is not Israel's right to defend itself from the scourge of suicide bombing but the method of defense. In many parts of the world, public horror at the bombing and sympathy for the Israeli victims too often gives way to outrage at Israeli indifference to the same body of international human rights and humanitarian law that prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians.

It would be in Israel's interest for Post readers to understand this sad reality. Yet the Post opinion pages might lead them to believe that the problem lies not with Israeli government conduct but with the supposed bias of groups like Human Rights Watch. If only it were so simple. Yes, some governments and organizations exaggerate Israel's misconduct or apply a double standard; but others, like Human Rights Watch, conscientiously try to call it as it is. If supporters of Israel want to defend its government effectively, they should make such distinctions. Only by rejecting the false and reflexive attacks too often found on these pages is it possible to undertake the honest inquiry that alone will help Israel to address the difficult political and security situation it faces today.

The writer is executive director of Human Rights Watch

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.