Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Human Rights Watch and Israeli War Crimes

On December 7, Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical report on the Israeli bombing of a private home during its most recent attack on Gaza. The attack, which killed ten members of the Dalu family as well as two other civilians in other nearby homes, “was a clear violation of the laws of war,” the report concluded. Moreover, “anyone responsible for deliberately or recklessly committing a serious violation of the laws of war should be prosecuted for war crimes.”

In response to an HRW request that they explain the attack, Israeli military officials first said it was “an accident that it was investigating,” then that the target was “a senior member of Hamas’s armed wing,” and finally that the target was a “terror operative” who was “in charge of rocket launching.” The HRW report noted that Israel had provided no information that supported any of these “explanations” and failed to respond to subsequent HRW requests that it do so.

The HRW investigation found that the probable target was Mohamed al-Dalu, one of the ten family members killed in the attack, a “low-ranking police officer” who (according to Gazan officials, whose account is not challenged by HRW) was in charge of a unit that provided security to Gazan officials and visiting dignitaries. “Police are presumed to be civilian, and thus immune from attack, unless they are formally incorporated into the armed forces of a party to the conflict or are directly participating in the hostilities,” the HRW report observed, but “even if al-Dalu was a legitimate military target under the laws of war, the likelihood that the attack on a civilian home would have killed large numbers of civilians made it unlawfully disproportionate.” Disproportionate attacks, defined in the report as “attacks in which the expected civilian loss exceeds the anticipated military gain,” are “serious violations of the laws of war.”

To my knowledge, so far no other human rights organization of international body, like the UN, has issued similar critical reports, though it is possible more may be forthcoming. So we should be grateful to HRW. Even so, and despite its strong language on war crimes and the need to prosecute them, in two respects the HRW report is misleading.

First, the report quotes Fred Abrahams, an HRW official who conducted the research in Gaza: “The Israeli claim that the attack on the Dalu home was justified is unsupported by the facts….The onus is on Israel to explain why it bombed a home full of civilians killing 12 people.” The problem is that Abrahams’ comment could be read (whether or not that was his intention) as implying that Israel might have had a legitimate reason to attack the home, it’s just that it hasn’t provided one yet.

Put differently, because the HRW report does not challenge the Israeli claim that its attack was necessitated by its right to defend itself against Gazan rocket attacks, by implication the report appears to be conceding that Israel might have had “legitimate military targets” in Gaza, even though the Dalu home wasn’t one of them.

However, Israel had no just cause to attack Gaza in the first place, because the attack--like the much larger “Operation Cast Lead” four years earlier--was not one of “self-defense” but was designed to suppress all resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinian people. Consequently, not only was the Dalu home an illegitimate target, but in the present circumstances Israel has no right to attack any targets in Gaza.

Second, the report’s emphasis on “proportionality” is misleading. The principle of proportionality means that even legitimate targets in a legitimate war may be attacked only if the foreseeable civilian casualties (“collateral damage”) are both unintended and in some sense not disproportionate to the military gain. Thus, the proportionality principle does not apply to the attack on the Dalu home, both because Israel lacked a just cause even for “proportional” attacks on Gaza as well as because policemen engaged in essentially civilian activities are not legitimate military targets.

The operative moral and legal principle, then, is that of noncombatant immunity, perhaps the most important principle that governs and restrains the conduct of war. Throughout its entire history, Israel has attacked private homes and even apartment houses known to contain many civilians. For example in 1982 Israel bombed several apartment houses in Beirut in order to kill Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders believed to be in them, killing hundreds of civilians (but none of the intended targets); as well, during in its attack on Gaza in 2008-09 Israel deliberately destroyed a home containing a large extended family, killing some twenty-five of them. (For the full evidence on these and similar attacks, see my current article in International Security, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza”

In short, so long as the occupation and repression of the Palestinians continues, Israel doesn't have any "legitimate military targets" in Gaza--even if its attacks on such "targets" were not so obviously indiscriminate and heedless of the noncombatant immunity laws. Attacks on civilian targets are the Israeli way of war, usually failing the legal and moral principle of just cause and always failing the principle of just methods. Thus, the HRW report could have been even stronger, for no Israeli “explanation” of its attack on the Dalu home can change the fact that it was criminal in both law and morality—and not merely in just war moral philosophy, but in the common moral sense of nearly every human culture.


Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this clear explanation. Does HRW view the rocket attacks on Israel as a human rights violation? Is that the reason for the difference between the two positions?

Brian Walt

Jerome Slater said...

Yes, HRW--and all other serious human rights experts--consider that rocket attacks against Israeli civilians are human rights violations. What HRW and others fail to question is whether Israel has the right to attack Gaza, as opposed to ending the repression that leads to those attacks.

Gerald Steinberg said...

Jerome -- I am surprised that you still give HRW allegations any credence. They make it up as they go along (or write the conclusions before the pseudo-research). There is no methodology and no one there has any clue regarding combat, etc. Their founder, Robert Bernstein, disowned Ken Roth and co. in the NY Times a number of years ago. Their "senior military analyst" (Garlasco) left quickly and signed a vow of silence, lest the dirty little secrets leak. The entire Goldstone fiasco was due to HRW. To go beyond the ideological spin, read the reports on (read "The Transnational Politics of Warfare Accountability: Human Rights Watch versus the Israel Defense Forces" International Relations, 26 (2012)

Jerome Slater said...


I assume you are the Gerald Steinberg of the NGO Monitor in Israel. If so, your ongoing capacity to ignore the most obvious facts about the history of Israeli attacks on civilian targets--whether intended or merely grossly indiscriminate--seems to be bottomless.

I notice that you don't challenge the factual findings of the HRW report. And it is complete nonsense to say that "the entire Goldstone fiasco was due to HRW: the Goldstone Commission did its own extensive investigations, and in any case the same conclusions about Israeli war crimes in Cast Lead were reached--and documented--in Amnesty International, B'tselem, and other investigations. If you read my article--not to mention dozens of other reports--you will find a detailed summary of the matter.

None of the facts reported by Goldstone, HRW, AI, and hundreds of newspaper articles about Cast Lead have been successfully challenged. Without even going into the obvious moral issues, you and the Israeli rightwing are living in a fact-free bubble that is inevitably going to burst.

Ideological spin, indeed! Meaning what--that the overwhelming majority of specialists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israelis and Jews around the world, including me--more and more of whom can no longer ignore Israel's behavior-- are ideologically anti-Israel or anti-Semitic? (If you think that of me, you might want to check my personal history of ties to Israel)

Who, then, is "ideological" here? What chutzpah! Most of Europe and the increasing number of Jewish scholars and activists (like most of the HRW and AI people)in the US and around the world; Israelis like Sternhell, Avnery, Eldar, Menachem Klein, Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, and a whole host of your fellow Israeli political scientists and historians--or you and a handful of political scientists, including (to my astonishment) my fellow Princeton PhD Michael Oren, who have the capacity and training to observe and understand the implication of obvious facts, but for clearly ideological reasons, ignore them?

Gerald Steinberg said...

Goldstone Report would have been a different document." He recognized belatedly that his 500 page report was a piece of fiction -- a cut and paste job from HRW and NGO subcontractors, none of whom had any idea what actually happened in the 36 incidents they supposedly examined -- all bogus war crimes charges against Israel. Double standards, anyone? Goldstone was a member of the HRW board (until NGO Monitor noted the conflict of interest), and a close confident of Roth's, until the cognitive dissonance finally became overwhelming. And then there is HRW's embrace of the Ghaddifi family as "human rights reformers", HRW's policy of ignoring Syria until 2011; fund raising in Saudi Arabia where any mention of women's rights was taboo; Roth's obsessive tweeting about Israel, .. the list is far too long. And since you consider yourself an expert on urban warfare, as practiced by Hamas, Hezbollah, etc., have you ever had any military experience, or are you like the folks at HRW?

YMedad said...

You write: "Israel had no just cause to attack Gaza in the first place, because the attack...was not one of “self-defense” but was designed to suppress all resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinian people."

But do the Pals. have a right of resistance?

Could it be that perhaps the Pals. are occupying Gaza? And Israel has a right of resistance?

Okay, I may be 'extending' the boundaries of the dialogue, but nevertheless, who is to make a judgment on these questions?

If the Arabs resident in Mandate Palestine rejected any Zionist claim of Jewish national rights then, continued to do so and Mash'al last week determined that Israel has no right to any borders whatsoever, does not this orientation provide Israel, a recognized country any right of defense? After all, the pre-1967 terror by Fatah, whatever justification you could provide for it, existed when Israel was not in occupation of any form, belligerent, legal or otherwise, and surely had no 'settlements' in place beyond its borders.

Of course, if one is ideological, one ignores historical facts, turns a blind eye to decisions taken with international legal force and refuses to acknowledge the intentions made clear in public pronouncements by Arab leaders who assert they represent Palestinian Arabs. Which explains your line of thinking. I presume.

Jerome Slater said...

There's hardly any point to my trying to respond to this, as it turns the truth inside out and upside down. Where could I even start?

However, I am interested in the comment that critics of Israeli policies and behavior towards the Palestinians, including Israelis, are "ideological." I wonder what Medad thinks is my ideology: anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew?

Perhaps like Henry Siegman, one of the most articulate, knowledgable and sweeping critics of Israel (who points out Israel's utterly hypocritical response response to Meshal in a Haaretz column today)? Tough case to make, since he was an ordained Orthodox rabbi and the long-time Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress (1978–1994).

Jerome Slater said...

Since Gerald Steinberg and I live on different planets, there's no point in my continuing to answer him, point by point, especially since I have dealt with the "issues" he raises--more like his especially unconvincing debater's points--in my most recent article.

However, I'm happy that he raises the point about military experience: "And since you consider yourself an expert on urban warfare, as practiced by Hamas, Hezbollah, etc., have you ever had any military experience, or are you like the folks at HRW?"

Yes, I've had military experience, serving as anti-submarine warfare officer aboard a US destroyer, 1957-60. Of course, this didn't give me any experience in urban warfare, where I rely on the real experts, including military men, who consider Israel's record in "urban warfare" to be appalling. For but one example: retired Col Desmond Travers of the Irish Army, one of the four cosigners of the Goldstone Report. After Goldstone's craven and dishonest "reassessment"--obviously because he couldn't stand the heat generated by rightwingers like Steinberg--Travers and the other two members of the Goldstone Commission issued a public statement reasserting their finding that Israel had committed war crimes in Cast Lead, and perhaps even "crimes against humanity."

Not that my naval experience is completely irrelevant here, particularly as it pertains to my "ideology." In the late 1960s Egypt acquired four submarines, leading me to write to the Israeli embassy in the US to offer my services on an Israeli destroyer, in case another war with Egypt broke out before the Israeli navy could train its own asw officers.

Of course, once I started educating myself about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,my views changed. Since then (about 40 years ago, knowledge and a commmitment to truth outweighed my Zionist "ideology" or, better said, mythology.

YMedad said...

a) turning truth... is what I thought reading you. mazing, eh?

b) you are not ideological but i am? that is an ideological statement.

c) Siegman, with who (or whom) I have met and discussed his thinking, is so ideological and woefully lacking in comprehension of facts and political evolution that to refer to him as perhaps an expert for the source of your knowledge and thinking is, is, well, let's just say laughable. As for being an ordained Orthodox Rabbi, now that he is virtually agnostic religiously, what does that say about his politics? And subsequently, yours?

d) as for you being either and/or anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew - trust me Professor (Emeritus), I am not into psychoanalysis. I just debate what I read. I wouldn't dare get into your mind.

YMedad said...

why would Egypt have been a threat to Israel (that would spur you to volunteer your military experiecne) at that time? "occupation"? "settlements"?

Jerome Slater said...

Medad: Not a difficult question. For a couple of years after the 1967 war I continued to accept the standard mythology that Nasser's goal was to destroy Israel, "to drive it into the sea." However, by 1970 or so it was becoming increasingly obvious that he, and then Sadat of course, wanted a peace settlement with Israel, on condition of an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.

Despite the growing evidence that this was the true Egyptian goal, Israel refused to consider it, which then led to the 1973 war. Today just about everyone knows that Sadat's goal in 1973 was to show Israel the price to be paid if they didn't accept the US and UN proposals for just such a settlement--which Israel did finally agree to after the 1973 war.

In short, your inappropriate sarcasm, putting "occupation" and "settlements" into quotes, misses the point, that at least for a couple of years after 1967 it was not so clear what Egypt's goals were.

By the early 1970s, I knew that it was Israel that refused to reach a reasonable settlement, not Egypt, and from then on I had no interest in volunteering for wars that were caused by Israeli intransigence and expansionism.

And, by the way, it is also the case that Israel has had several opportunities to reach peace settlements with Syria on very favorable terms, especially in 1948-49 and the late 1990s. In both cases, it was Israel that was the obstacle to peace, not Syria.

I don't doubt that you will consider this more evidence of my "ideology," since you are your far rightwing compatriots are impervious to facts, evidence, and logical reasoning from the proven facts.

There was a time when the Jewish people were renowned---not just by we Jews ourselves, but by the Christian elites--for their high moral and intellectual standards, for their commitment to reason. Thanks to people like you, who increasingly dominate the only Jewish state, that belief has become a mockery.