Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rights Watchdog's Middle East conundrum

The founder of Human Rights Watch, Robert Bernstein, sounds off in today's New York Times about his dismay at how his organization has been tightening the screws on Israel and losing perspective.
Some points are well-taken. Yes - the cold war mindset has altered in the past few decades.

Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.

At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform...Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.

Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.

What's off-putting is this quote: "Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

Um, except for one little detail. There was no exit from Gaza allowed for any non-combatants, who all were effectively fenced into this dense battlefield. What's more, Israeli violations were rife - ie bombing of hospitals, mosques and refuge shelters. The British colonel is making his statement as a response to the Goldstone report, and has no personal experience of 'Operation Cast Lead' or its aftermath. He draws parallels to insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq who are fighting occupation forces. Kemp concluded that "mistakes are not war crimes." But these actions in Gaza were part of a strategy, not unavoidable blunders.
And the fact that American dollars fund much of Israel's domination in the area bothers many critics, who expect a high standard from a Middle Eastern country which was supposed to be exceptional from the get-go.
"Thou shalt not kill," Hashem wrte on the tablets. Well, Israel should not kill the possibility of an independent investigation into last January's cruel winter war.

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