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(photo credit: Courtesy)
He has worked across the world, from Kosovo to Sri Lanka, and has been to Gaza too many times to keep track, but Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher for Emergencies Fred Abrahams still finds his work in Gaza challenging - and takes comfort in the fact that neither side of any conflict trusts him.
"In all of these conflicts we are constantly accused - by both sides - of being one-sided," Abrahams told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend.
"When we criticize the Tamil Tigers, then they say we're Singhalese nationalists, and when we criticize the Sri Lankan government they say we're Tamil Tiger terrorist sympathizers. There's a long list of people who think we're anti-Israel or that we're somehow restricting Israel's right to defend itself. At the same time we're constantly criticized by Hizbullah and Hamas whenever we mention anything about rocket fire or their internal activities," he said.
Abrahams, speaking by telephone from a Gaza restaurant, dismissed allegations that his organization focuses disproportionally on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that its research is slanted.
"My first work was the civil war in the Balkans, and then I did work in Iraq, in Sri Lanka. All of these conflicts are politically motivated, and emotionally charged. A lot of the Israelis that criticize us include respected professionals. But no one has yet stepped forward and said we've got the facts wrong. They might criticize our methods, but all of our critics use polemics, not facts. If you want to criticize us for the reporting, the details, please do it. If there are any factual corrections, please let us know," he said.
Abrahams is currently working on the ground in Gaza to try to unravel the allegations made by Palestinians against Israel - and, he says, by Israel against Gaza's Hamas rulers - of violations of international humanitarian law during Operation Cast Lead. He arrived in Gaza on January 21 after running into difficulties entering the area.
During the operation, HRW was denied entry along with all foreign journalists, but he claims that "after the cease-fire, we were told that we were specifically not approved."
Eventually Abrahams made his way into Gaza through the Egyptian border at Rafah, but, he argued, the delay came at a price.
"It was detrimental to our research," he complained, explaining that "in complex combat situations, you need researchers on the ground as soon as possible."
Instead, he said, HRW observers spent the operation watching from hillocks east of the Gaza Strip, identifying munitions through identifying characteristics of their explosions.
Once entering, Abrahams said, he and his small team had their work cut out for them.
"There is tragedy here on every corner. People really have taken it on the chin. On a personal level this is really exhausting because almost everyone has a story," he said.
But it is not just Palestinian claims of Israeli war crimes that Abrahams is probing. "One of the things we take seriously is Israel's claim that Hamas was responsible for so many civilian deaths, that they were using them as human shields," he said.
"We have found numerous times where the IDF just outright lied," he added. "In the Lebanon war they said they didn't use cluster bombs. And here they repeatedly said that they were not using white phosphorous. But nevertheless we're going to look into their allegation and investigate them - did Hamas use human shields?"
Abraham is careful to temper his remarks.
"There's one more thing that I think is a common misperception among our Israeli critics. We hear that we are denying Israel's right to defend itself. We do not deny any state's right to defend itself against aggression. The question is how is Israel defending itself, not if. You have to do it with respect for international humanitarian law," he said.
"In Kosovo, the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] against Serbia, there were summary executions. We don't have that in this conflict. We don't have that type of violation, but we have so many others that are so powerful, starting with the closure of the borders of Gaza. It has so much impact on regular people and that is what makes it legally collective punishment."
From his vantage point, Abrahams argued, Israel's policy in Gaza is anything but successful.
"If Israel wants to squeeze the military wing of Hamas, that's one thing, but that's not what is happening. I am walking all over from Beit Lahiya to Rafah and Hamas is all around. I see their police, their construction crews. I see them and they're organized. I don't understand how a military campaign can dislodge such a network.
"When you're under fierce attack - and this was [one] - people might be angry at Hamas for putting them into this position, [but] people are going to rally against the aggressor. And people are afraid, too. It's not just that this strengthened Hamas, but some of the darkest elements. The military over the political wing, the hardliners over the moderates, and to be concrete, we are documenting cases of Fatah supporters who are shot in the legs and even executed, tortured."
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