BERLIN – A joint statement on Gilad Schalit from 12 human rights NGOs, which appeared on the website of the New York-based Human Rights Watch last week, has sparked criticism from US and Israeli groups for omitting a demand for the soldier’s release from Hamas captivity.

Schalit was abducted by the terrorist organization in 2006.

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The groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, issued a statement on the fifth anniversary of Schalit’s captivity headlined “Hamas: Human Beings are not Bargaining Chips,” in which they called on the Islamist group to “immediately end the cruel and inhuman treatment of Gilad Schalit. Until he is released, they must enable him to communicate with his family and should grant him access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.” He has not had such access since his capture outside the Gaza Strip.

The other signatories to the statement were Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights; Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement; International Federation for Human Rights; Palestinian Center for Human Rights Gaza; Physicians for Human Rights – Israel; Public Committee Against Torture in Israel; Rabbis for Human Rights; The Association for Civil Rights in Israel: and Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights.

“We have not called for his release,” Minky Worden, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, confirmed to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

“We have repeatedly deplored the treatment of Sgt. Schalit as being in violation of IHL [International humanitarian law] and have called on Hamas authorities in Gaza to immediately end his cruel and inhuman treatment.”

Susanna Flood, spokeswoman for the London-based Amnesty International organization, wrote to the Post, “We have not been able to call directly for Gilad Schalit’s release because he was a soldier on active duty when he was captured by Palestinian armed groups in June 2006. Amnesty International bases its position on international humanitarian law, and thus our position is that we do not call for the release of captured combatants, but rather for them to be treated humanely and accorded their rights as prisoners of war under the Third Geneva Convention.”

She continued, “Although neither the Hamas de facto administration nor the armed groups holding Gilad Schalit are parties to this convention, Amnesty International has been campaigning publicly and privately for them to ensure that Gilad Schalit is accorded these rights and treated as a POW (rather than a hostage). This means he should be allowed to communicate with his family, held in humane and dignified conditions, and given immediate access to the ICRC, as we reiterated last week.”

Noah Pollak, executive director of the Washington-based Emergency Committee for Israel, wrote to the Post saying “a dozen self-described human rights groups released a joint statement legitimizing Hamas’s imprisonment of Gilad Schalit.

“Astonishingly, PCHR [the Palestinian Center for Human Rights] claims that Schalit was captured inside Gaza, and therefore is a prisoner of war. This is a lie meant to justify his imprisonment.

“So let’s not mince words: B’Tselem, HRW and Amnesty, in signing the joint statement, give credence to that lie, and they demonstrate their willingness to ignore international law when it suits their political goals. This is shameful – and it shows once again that the human rights community may be more accurately called an anti-Israel community,” Pollak said.

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of the Jerusalem-based human rights watchdog organization NGO Monitor, told the Post on Tuesday that Schalit’s imprisonment “is a human rights tragedy that should galvanize the hundreds of NGOs that claim to protect those rights for all people, regardless of religion, ethnicity, race or gender. Instead, these political advocacy NGOs devote resources to promote the Goldstone Report and other elements of the delegitimization campaign against Israel. Their intense lobbying efforts in this area vastly overshadow any efforts made on behalf of Schalit.”

Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman from  B’Tselem, told the Post that ”the organization's consistent position for the past five years has been that Gilad Schalit must be immediately and unconditionally released.”

She noted that on B'Tselem's website, “The organizations take a variety of positions on the issue. Some call for the immediate release of Schalit, while others support a prisoner swap. Some of the organizations have not made any statements until today. It is therefore particularly significant that the organizations have united around a joint message.“

Yet on the website of HRW, the statement about diverse positions concerning Schalit's release does not appear.

Michaeli added, “This is not the first time that self-appointed Israeli government apologists have attempted to smear B’Tselem through cynically manipulating the unbearable suffering of Gilad Schalit and his family and it will probably not be the last. Nonetheless, B’Tselem is steadfast in its position and has communicated it to the Schalit family.”

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