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Letter to NY Sun re Human Rights Watch
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From Maurice Ostroff to The Editor NY Sun

Sir,

 

 A critic's first duty is to get his facts right

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Roth’s statement “A critic's first duty is to get his facts right” ‘Roth's False God' (NY Sun August 23). It is particularly appropriate as it is HRW’s failure to separate fact from conjecture that gives rise to the severe criticism that has unfortunately diminished the stature of this very important humanitarian organization.

For example in his letter of August 8, ‘Roth's Supersessionism' Roth states categorically that  Human Rights Watch researchers found no Hezbollah soldiers or arms anywhere in sight of a very large number of the civilians killed in their homes or vehicles by Israeli bombs.

HRW workers may well have found no signs of arms or Hezbollah soldiers when they arrived. But that none were there immediately prior to, or at the time of the relevant attacks is conjecture. So too, is the assumption that the casualties found were all civilians. Permit me to explain.

In a letter I wrote to Mr. Roth on August 20, (which remains unacknowledged), I attached photographs of Hezbollah fighters on heavily armed vehicles in the midst of high rise residential areas. According to Chris Tinkler of the Australian Sunday Mail, the extremists use high-density residential areas as launch pads for rockets and heavy caliber weapons. Dressed in civilian clothing so they can quickly melt back into suburbia, the fighters carrying automatic assault rifles ride in on trucks laden with cannons.  (My complete letter to Mr.Roth, including the photographs, may be found on the web at http://tinyurl.co.uk/nlio)

 

A little research reveals that it is futile to expect evidence of a rocket launcher, even soon after a firing. According to the Global Security Organization, mobile rocket launchers move out from underground facilities, fire from preplanned firing positions, and return in a few minutes to protected caves or to alternate firing positions.

 

Surely it is unforgivable for a serious organization to ignore evidence of this nature

 

It is also puzzling that Mr. Roth seems to be unconcerned about Hezbollah’s locating of military objectives near concentrations of civilians; a serious a war crime and that the laws of armed conflict do not preclude attacking a legitimate military target in the proximity of civilians.

I quote article 51.7 of the protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions, which specifically states; “The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations”? This reinforces Art. 28 of the Fourth Geneva convention, which expressly states
"The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”

Sadly, in ignoring the regular, cynical and grossly illegal practice by Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah of hiding behind civilians, and even launching their rockets from civilian houses HRW fails to distinguish between cause and effect. Where have HRW investigators been while this inhumane practice has been deliberately used from day one in Jenin and Gaza?

 

How do HRW investigators manage to obtain information certain enough to permit them to condemn Israel, a state, struggling for its existence, when seasoned journalists admit difficulty in ascertaining facts in Hezbollah territory? For example, CNN’s Nic Robertson admitted that Hezbollah controlled an anti-Israel piece he wrote and that in examining damaged buildings he was unable to "see if perhaps there was somebody there who was, you know, a taxi driver by day, and a Hezbollah fighter by night....” (http://newsbusters.org/node/6552)

Mr. Roth’s reference to Qana is also subject to doubt. If HRW investigations are to be credible, they dare not ignore any shred of evidence, even evidence produced by bloggers who have raised strong suspicions that the Qana tragedy may have been staged by Hezbollah. More so since the exposure by bloggers of Dan Rather’s story on 60 minutes and the admission by Reuters that photos have been doctored. I am not claiming that the accusations are accurate. I do state categorically that in a search for truth they cannot be ignored and must be investigated.  (See http://tinyurl.com/jljdb)


There are other aspects, which cannot be ignored if one is determined to ascertain the facts. It was reported that the roof of the building was intact when first viewed. Journalist Ben Wedeman of CNN noted that there was a larger crater next to the building, but observed that the building appeared not to have collapsed as a result of the Israeli strike.

There were also widespread reports that civilians were unable to flee Qana due to destruction of bridges and roads. In the circumstances one wonders how HRW investigators journalists and rescue teams had no problem getting there in droves.

 

It is sad and disappointing that HRW has not raised strong criticism of Hezbollah’s violation of every humanitarian law in cruelly withholding any shred of information about the kidnapped soldiers. The deliberate cruelty inflicted on the families is beyond comprehension. Is it too much to expect HRW to demand that the captives be visited by the Red Cross and be permitted to telephone their families in he presence of the neutral parties?
 
In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post Mr. Roth accused Israel of indiscriminate bombardment. With respect, I suggest that a more realistic understanding of 'Indiscriminate bombardment" would have been achieved if HRW investigators had taken the trouble to interview and even to participate in planning sessions with a number of  IAF pilots and an equal number of Hezbollah  missile launchers to ascertain the factors they take into consideration in selecting their targets. There can be no doubt who would be judged guilty of  "indiscriminate bombardment".

As Human Rights Watch is far too valuable a humanitarian instrument to be devalued by prejudice and bias, it is essential that it weigh evidence more carefully to ensure that reports are fair and balanced

 

NY SUN
Letter to the Editor from Kenneth Roth
August 23, 2006
URL:
http://www.nysun.com/article/38412

"Roth's False God'

A critic's first duty is to get his facts right, but not Abraham Foxman. He, embarrassingly, didn't do his homework before launching his broadside at Human Rights Watch ["No Accident," Op-ed, August 2, 2006]. Rather than correct his mistakes, the Sun compounds them, offering a litany of unsupported claims that Israel is doing everything possible to spare Lebanese civilians, and thus that Human Rights Watch's reporting on deaths due to Israeli misconduct must be biased ["Roth's False God," Editorial, August 8, 2006].

To prove that supposed bias, Mr. Foxman accuses Human Rights Watch of a "rush to judgment" in Jenin and Qana. He seems to have forgotten that it was the rest of the world that accused Israel of a "massacre" at Jenin. Human Rights Watch, however, refused to pronounce judgment until it had completed its own on-site investigation. It was only when Human Rights Watch then declared that there had been no massacre that this unfounded accusation was put to rest.

As for the 28 civilians killed by Israeli missiles in a house in Qana, Human Rights Watch's finding that there was no Hezbollah presence in or near the house to justify Israel's attack has now been conceded by even the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). After initially suggesting the opposite, the IDF finally admitted that on the day of the attack there was no evidence of Hezbollah activity or rocket fire from Qana, let alone from the house targeted. The only "rush to judgment" there was by the reflexive IDF defenders of the sort cited in your editorial.

Yet Mr. Foxman, while offering no evidence, blames the hundreds of civilian casualties in Lebanon on Hezbollah's "embedding their missiles not only in civilian areas, but literally in civilian households." Your editorial, with no greater attention to fact, suggests the same. Hezbollah does sometimes endanger civilians, and that's clearly wrong. But in some two dozen cases examined by Human Rights Watch accounting for what was then a third of the civilian deaths in Lebanon, Hezbollah was nowhere around at the time of the attack.

That's the conclusion of Human Rights Watch's detailed investigation using war-tested interview methods for probing and cross-checking accounts from multiple eyewitnesses ? the same techniques used at Jenin and Qana. Many of the witnesses talked openly of Hezbollah's presence elsewhere but were adamant that Hezbollah wasn't at the scene of the attack. Human Rights Watch also examined bombing sites for evidence of military activity such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers or military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters. If investigators were unsure, they gave the IDF the benefit of the doubt. The bottom line: the excuse of a Hezbollah presence simply doesn't explain these deaths.

Rather, having issued a warning to evacuate, the IDF seems to have assumed, in the words of Israel's minister of justice, Haim Ramon, "all those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah" and thus are fair game for attack. But many Lebanese civilians cannot leave because of infirmity, inability to pay exorbitant taxi fares, or unwillingness to risk the many deadly Israeli attacks on southern Lebanese roads. Creating a free-fire zone in such circumstances is a war crime.

The issue is not, as your editorial falsely states, "Israel's right to defend itself." That is not in question. Rather, the issue is how Israel chooses to wage that defense. Casting cheap slurs of anti-Semitism or making false charges of "moral equivalence" may help change the subject but it does not change the fact that Israel, in the way it fights, is not taking all feasible precautions to protect civilians as required by international humanitarian law.

Mr. Foxman, for his part, accuses Human Rights Watch of being "immoral" for supposedly believing that the "continuous flow of rockets, launchers, and other weapons from Iran and Syria to an illegitimate group [Hezbollah] is not worthy of consideration." Apparently Mr. Foxman neglected to examine the public letters sent by Human Rights Watch to Iran and Syria and posted prominently on the organization's website seeking to stop that flow because it is being used to deliberately and indiscriminately rain death and injury on the people of northern Israel ? a clear war crime.

Mr. Foxman does no better when he claims that "the overwhelming thrust of Human Rights Watch work regarding Israel and the Arab world falls on Israel." A recent survey of Human Rights Watch's work in the region since January 2000 showed that publications on Israel lagged behind those on each of Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and Turkey.

At a meeting with Mr. Foxman three years ago at the headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League, I asked him how much of Human Rights Watch's work he thought was devoted to Israel. He said about a third. When I explained that Human Rights Watch works regularly on some 70 countries, and that of Human Rights Watch's entire staff (then 180 people, today 230), only one works full time on abuses by Israeli and Palestinian forces, splitting her time between the two, he conceded, "I've learned something." Evidently, he has now forgotten. The Sun, for its part, didn't bother to check.

KENNETH ROTH
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch
New York, N.Y.

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