The NYC-based, private, non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch today issued a new statement on the Gaza crisis that goes a good distance toward correcting the serious errors they made in the statement they issued July 9, as I had noted here. Furthermore, today’s report explicitly calls for an end to the supply of all weaponry “to Israel, to Hamas, or to armed groups in the Gaza Strip… that has been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as funding or support for such material.” The report notes explicitly that “The US supplies Israel with rotary and fixed wing military aircraft, Hellfire missiles, and other munitions that have been used in illegal airstrikes in Gaza.”
Too bad that HRW, a US-based organization that, as we know, enjoys good ties (and frequently also a revolving door) with the Obama administration, buried that call for the suspension of some US arms supplies to Israel so very, very low. But still, far better to include it in this report, than not. (More details, below.)
The headline/subhead of today’s HRW statement is: “Israel/Palestine: Unlawful Israeli Airstrikes Kill Civilians/ Bombings of Civilian Structures Suggest Illegal Policy.” The headline/subhead of last week’s statement was: “Palestine/Israel: Indiscriminate Palestinian Rocket Attacks/ Israeli Airstrikes on Homes Appear to be Collective Punishment.”
HRW issued the July 9 statement less than 48 hours after Israel launched its current large-scale military assault against Gaza– under the name “Operation Solid Rock”, in Hebrew, or “Protective Edge”, in English. The statement thus constituted, as I had noted, a kneejerk rush to judgment on the rights and wrongs of the way the two sides were fighting, one that did not present any actual evidence to back up the claims it made, but that appeared to emanate much more from the political (i.e., pro-Israeli) predilections or positioning of HRW leaders, and possibly some of its analysts. Even more seriously, the legal analysis in that earlier statement was deeply flawed, since its authors seemed to endorse the arguments made by Israeli leaders that targeting commanders and fighters in Hamas or other Gaza-based resistance groups even while they were hors de combat, for example while eating, resting, or praying with their families at home, was quite okay.
Today’s statement, thankfully, corrects many or most of those dangerous errors that HRW committed last week. It is notable that today’s statement bases its analysis on actual, on-the-ground research in the form of case studies that focused on four of the civilian buildings targeted by the IDF between July 9 and July 11. Of the four, only in one case (the bombing of the Fun Time Cafe on July 11 that killed nine civilians) did the IDF allege that there was “a terrorist” located there. But, as the HRW statement noted, the Israeli military:
presented no evidence that any of those at the café, who had gathered to watch a World Cup match, were participating in military operations, or that the killing of one alleged “terrorist” in a crowded café would justify the expected civilian casualties.
In one of the other cases presented (Bureij refugee camp, July 11, two municipal workers killed), the HRW report said its researchers, “found no evidence of a military objective in the vehicle or in the area at the time.” In another (an unlocated attack on July 9 that killed a pregnant woman and her daughter), the report said that the family lived across the street from an apartment building that apparently was the prime target of the strike, but the surviving family members said they knew of none of the “warnings” that the Israelis said they had issued, or, they did not have time to flee before the attack.
In the fourth case studied, a July 10 strike on a crowded family home in the Khan Younis refugee camp that killed eight people, HRW reports that neighbors told the HRW researcher that one of those killed “was a low-ranking member of the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas.” However, the HRW report says nothing about whether this young man had been engaged in any way in combat when he was killed. The report thus makes the serious error of seeming to endorse the Israeli government’s claim that it is “okay” to target fighters in Palestinian resistance organizations even when they are hors de combat. Here is what the report said about this incident:
The Israeli military said the attack was being investigated. Even if the son was the intended target, the nature of the attack appears indiscriminate and would in any case be disproportionate.
This is actually a very troubling statement. HRW’s own judgment, expressed here, seems to be that if the son was the intended target, then “targeting” him [even though that was not what the Israeli military said they were doing… ] even when he was hors de combat, e.g., home with his family marking Ramadan, would in itself be quite okay: The only problem was that the attack did not do enough to “discriminate” between this valid target and the “civilian” family members all around him, and caused harm to civilians that was “disproportionate” to the military advantage the attack gave to Israel.
This is wrong, wrong, wrong, and woefully misguided. How many times do we have to spell this out? The essential distinction in international law is not between “fighters” and “civilians”– which are the categories used throughout this HRW report– but between “combatants” and “noncombatants”. A fighter who is not currently engaged in either the conduct, the command, or the planning of military operations is not a combatant. He (or she) is hors de combat and is a noncombatant. It is quite illegal to target such an individual.
Now it is true that the Israeli military and the serried ranks of paid hasbaristas (propagandists) who have been trying to justify and defend its actions have tried to claim that the homes targeted by the Israelis contained secret “operations rooms” or “weapons stores” and thus constituted valid targets. But they have presented zero actual evidence of this. (Bystanders and eyewitnesses have also noted that they saw no sign of the kinds of secondary explosions that would have been seen if these homes had had any significant amount of weapons stored in them.)
The lower portion of the HRW report also usefully cites (and links to; in Hebrew) an Israeli news report that “An Israeli military official stated on July 12 that the military has targeted ‘more than 100 homes of commanders of different ranks’ in Gaza.” The HRW report comments on this, quite correctly, that, “Civilian structures such as residential homes become lawful targets only when they are being used for military purposes.” Of course, this strongly contradicts the judgment expressed earlier the Khan Younis case, that “Even if the son was the intended target,” then the main problems with the attack were merely that it “appeared” indiscriminate and was anyway disproportionate. No, HRW, the attack itself was illegal because there was no evidence provided– or even apparently sought by HRW– that the (putative) target was engaged in military activities at the time of the attack.
Down at the bottom of the statement, the four case studies are presented in much more detail. (Good work, HRW. Thanks for doing this.) Regarding the Khan Younis case, the report states baldly that, “Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of the victims used the Hajj family home to perpetrate attacks.” Therefore, HRW, targeting it was quite illegal. Period. Getting into your arguments about “discrimination” or “proportionality” regarding that attack was extremely misleading.
The “action items” in this HRW report are strong and useful. They are considerably stronger than the action items in the rush-to-judgment report of last week. Here are the actions that today’s report calls for:
The Palestine Liberation Organization should direct President Mahmoud Abbas to seek the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes committed by all parties on Palestinian territory.
Governments that are providing weapons to Israel, to Hamas, or to armed groups in the Gaza Strip should suspend transfers of any materiel that has been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as funding or support for such material, Human Rights Watch said. The US supplies Israel with rotary and fixed wing military aircraft, Hellfire missiles, and other munitions that have been used in illegal airstrikes in Gaza.
But I wonder why HRW did not lead the report with this call? Let’s hope they get a lot more active, very soon, in urging a suspension of the supply to Israel of the kinds of US arms that have been used in these truly horrific, inhumane, and quite illegal acts.