Human Rights Watch denying Palestinians
the right to nonviolent resistance
by Jonathan Cook
The Electronic Intifada, November
If one thing offers a terrifying glimpse
of where the experiment in human despair that is Gaza under Israeli
siege is leading, it is the news that a Palestinian woman in her
sixties -- a grandmother -- chose last week to strap on a suicide
belt and explode herself next to a group of Israeli soldiers invading
her refugee camp.
Despite the "Man bites dog"
news value of the story, most of the Israeli media played down
the incident. Not surprisingly -- it is difficult to portray Fatma
al-Najar as a crazed fanatic bent only on the destruction of Israel.
It is equally difficult not to pause and
wonder at the reasons for her suicide mission; according to her
family, one of her grandsons was killed by the Israeli army, another
is in a wheelchair after his leg had to be amputated, and her
house had been demolished.
Or not to think of the years of trauma
she and her family have suffered living in a open-air prison under
brutal occupation, and now, since the "disengagement",
the agonising months of grinding poverty, slow starvation, repeated
aerial bombardments, and the loss of essentials like water and
Or not to ponder at what it must have
been like for her to spend every day under a cloud of fear, to
be powerless against a largely unseen and malign force, and to
never know when death and mutilation might strike her or her loved
Or not to imagine that she had been longing
for the moment when the soldiers who have been destroying her
family's lives might show themselves briefly, coming close enough
that she could see and touch them, and wreak her revenge.
Yet Western observers, and the organisations
that should represent the very best of their Enlightenment values,
seem incapable of understanding what might drive a grandmother
to become a suicide bomber. Their empathy fails them, and so does
Just at the moment Fatma was choosing
death and resistance over powerlessness and victimhood -- and
at a time when Gaza is struggling through one of the most oppressive
and ugly periods of Israeli occupation in nearly four decades
-- Human Rights Watch published its latest statement on the conflict.
It is document that shames the organisation, complacent Western
societies and Fatma's memory.
In its press release "Civilians Must
Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks", which
was widely reported by the international media, HRW lambasts armed
Palestinian groups for calling on civilians to surround homes
that have been targeted for air strikes by the Israeli military.
Noting almost as an afterthought that
more than 1,500 Palestinians have been made homeless from house
demolitions in the past few months, and that 105 houses have been
destroyed from the air, the press release denounces Palestinian
attempts at nonviolent and collective action to halt the Israel
attacks. HRW refers in particular to three incidents.
On November 3, Hamas appealed to women
to surround a mosque in Beit Hanoun where Palestinian men had
sought shelter from the Israeli army. Israeli soldiers opened
fire on the women, killing two and injuring at least 10.
And last week on two separate occasions,
crowds of supporters gathered around the houses of men accused
of being militants by Israel who had received phone messages from
the Israeli security forces warning that their families' homes
were about to be bombed.
In language that would have made George
Orwell shudder, one of the world's leading organisations for the
protection of human rights ignored the continuing violation of
the Palestinians' right to security and a roof over their heads
and argued instead: "There is no excuse for calling [Palestinian]
civilians to the scene of a planned [Israeli] attack. Whether
or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking
civilians to stand in harm's way is unlawful."
There is good reason to believe that this
reading of international law is wrong, if not Kafkaesque. Popular
and peaceful resistance to the oppressive policies of occupying
powers and autocratic rulers, in India and South Africa for example,
has always been, by its very nature, a risky venture in which
civilians are liable to be killed or injured. Responsibility for
those deaths must fall on those doing the oppressing, not those
resisting, particularly when they are employing nonviolent means.
On HRW's interpretation, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would
be war criminals.
HRW also applies a series of terrible
double standards in this press release.
It refuses Palestinians the right to protect
homes from attack, labelling these civilians "human shields",
even while admitting that most of the homes are not legitimate
military targets, and yet it has not said a word about the common
practice in Israel of building weapons factories and army bases
inside or next to communities, thereby forcing Israeli civilians
to become human shields for the army.
And HRW prefers to highlight a supposed
violation of international law by the Palestinians -- their choice
to act as "human shields" -- and to demand that the
practice end immediately, while ignoring the very real and continuing
violation of international law committed by Israel in undertaking
punitive house demolitions against Palestinian families.
But let us ignore even these important
issues and assume that HRW is technically correct that such Palestinian
actions do violate international law. Nonetheless, HRW is still
failing us and mocking its mandate, because it has lost sight
of the three principles that must guide the vision of a human
rights organisation: a sense of priorities, proper context and
Priorities: Every day HRW has to choose
which of the many abuses of international law taking place around
the world it highlights. It manages to record only a tiny fraction
of them. The assumption of many outsiders may be that it focuses
on only the most egregious examples. That would be wrong.
The simple truth is that the worse a state's
track record on human rights, the easier ride it gets, relatively
speaking, from human rights organisations. That is both because,
if abuses are repeated often enough, they become so commonplace
as to go unremarked, and because, if the abuses are wide-ranging
and systematic, only a small number of the offences will be noted.
Israel, unlike the Palestinians, benefits
in both these respects. After four decades of reporting on Israel's
occupation of the Palestinians, HRW has covered all of Israel's
many human rights-abusing practices at least once before. The
result is that after a while most violations get ignored. Why
issue another report on house demolitions or "targeted assassinations",
even though they are occurring all the time? And, how to record
the individual violations of tens of thousands of Palestinians'
rights every day at checkpoints? One report on the checkpoints
once every few years has to suffice instead.
In Israel's case, there is an added reluctance
on the part of organisations like HRW to tackle the extent and
nature of Israel's trampling of Palestinian rights. Constant press
releases denouncing Israel would provoke accusations, as they
do already, that Israel is being singled out -- and with it, the
implication that anti-Semitism lies behind the special treatment.
So HRW chooses instead to equivocate.
It ignores most Israeli violations and highlights every Palestinian
infraction, however minor. This way it makes a pact with the devil:
it achieves the balance that protects it from criticism but only
by sacrificing the principles of equity and justice.
In its press release, for example, HRW
treats the recent appeal to Palestinians to exercise their right
to protect their neighbours, and to act in soldarity with nonviolent
resistance to occupation, as no different from the dozens of known
violations committed by the Israeli army of abducting Palestinian
civilians as human shields to protect its troops.
Women vounteering to surround a mosque
become the equivalent of the notorious incident in January 2003
when 21-year-old Samer Sharif was handcuffed to the hood of an
army Jeep and driven towards stone-throwing youngsters in Nablus
as Israeli soldiers fired their guns from behind his head.
According to HRW's approach to international
law, the two incidents are comparable.
Context: The actions of Palestinians occur
in a context in which all of their rights are already under the
control of their occupier, Israel, and can be violated at its
whim. This means that it is problematic, from a human rights perspective,
to place the weight of culpability on the Palestinians without
laying far greater weight at the same time on the situation to
which the Palestinians are reacting.
Here is an example. HRW and other human
rights organisations have taken the Palestinians to task for the
extrajudicial killings of those suspected of collaborating with
the Israeli security forces.
Although it is blindingly obvious that
the lynching of an alleged collaborator is a violation of that
person's fundamental right to life, HRW's position of simply blaming
the Palestinians for this practice raises two critical problems.
First, it fudges the issue of accountability.
In the case of a "targeted assassination",
Israel's version of extrajudicial killing, we have an address
to hold accountable: the apparatus of a state in the forms of
the Israeli army which carried out the murder and the Israeli
politicians who approved it. (These officials are also responsible
for the bystanders who are invariably killed along with the target.)
But unless it can be shown that the lynchings
are planned and coordinated at a high level, a human rights organisation
cannot apply the same standards by which it judges a state to
a crowd of Palestinians, people gripped by anger and the thirst
for revenge. The two are not equivalent and cannot be held to
account in the same way. Palestinians carrying out a lynching
are commiting a crime punishable under ordinary domestic law;
while the Israeli army carrying out a "targeted assassination"
is commiting state terrorism, which must be tried in the court
of world opinion.
Second, HRW's position ignores the context
in which the lynching takes place.
The Palestinian resistance to occupation
has failed to realise its goals mainly because of Israel's extensive
network of collaborators, individuals who have usually been terrorised
by threats to themselves or their family and/or by torture into
"co-operating" with Israel's occupation forces.
The great majority of planned attacks
are foiled because one member of the team is collaborating with
Israel. He or she not only sabotages the attack but often also
gives Israel the information it needs to kill the leaders of the
resistance (as well as bystanders). Collaborators, though common
in the West Bank and Gaza, are much despised -- and for good reason.
They make the goal of national liberation impossible.
Palestinians have been struggling to find
ways to make collaboration less appealing. When the Israeli army
is threatening to jail your son, or refusing a permit for your
wife to receive the hospital treatment she needs, you may agree
to do terrible things. Armed groups and many ordinary Palestinians
countenance the lynchings because they are seen as a counterweight
to Israel's own powerful techniques of intimidation -- a deterrence,
even if a largely unsuccessful one.
In issuing a report on the extra-judicial
killing of Palestinian collaborators, therefore, groups like HRW
have a duty to highlight first and with much greater emphasis
the responsibility of Israel and its decades-long occupation for
the lynchings, as the context in which Palestinians are forced
to mimic the barbarity of those oppressing them to stand any chance
of defeating them.
The press release denouncing the Palestinians
for choosing collectively and peacefully to resist house demolitions,
while not concentrating on the violations committed by Israel
in destroying the houses and using military forms of intimidation
and punishment against civilians, is a travesty for this very
Common sense: And finally human rights
organisations must never abandon common sense, the connecting
thread of our humanity, when making judgments about where their
In the past few months Gaza has sunk into
a humanitarian disaster engineered by Israel and the international
community. What has been HRW's response? It is worth examining
its most recent reports, those on the front page of the Mideast
section of its website last week, when the latest press release
was issued. Four stories relate to Israel and Palestine.
Three criticise Palestinian militants
and the wider society in various ways: for encouraging the use
of "human shields", for firing home-made rockets into
Israel, and for failing to protect women from domestic violence.
One report mildly rebukes Israel, urging the government to ensure
that the army properly investigates the reasons for the shelling
that killed 19 Palestinian inhabitants of Beit Hanoun.
This shameful imbalance, both in the number
of reports being issued against each party and in terms of the
failure to hold accountable the side committing the far greater
abuses of human rights, has become the HRW's standard procedure
But in its latest release, on human shields,
HRW plumbs new depths, stripping Palestinians of the right to
organise nonviolent forms of resistance and seek new ways of showing
solidarity in the face of illegal occupation. In short, HRW treats
the people of Gaza as mere rats in a laboratory -- the Israeli
army's view of them -- to be experimented on at will.
HRW's priorities in Israel-Palestine prove
it has lost its moral bearings.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist
based in Nazareth, Israel. His book, Blood and Religion: The Unmasking
of the Jewish and Democratic State, is published by Pluto Press.
Human Rights watch