The founder of Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized the organization for "helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state."
In a New York Times opinion piece, Robert L. Bernstein, who was Human Rights Watch chairman from 1978 to 1998 and is now its founding chairman emeritus, wrote that with increasing frequency, the watchdog casts aside the important distinction between open and closed societies.
"Nowhere is this more evident than in its work in the Middle East," Bernstein said. "The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. 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."
He said Israel was 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 probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world.
On the other hand, he said, most Arab and Iranian regimes remained "brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent."
Bernstein said Human Rights Watch's Middle East division could greatly benefit citizens of those countries, but they were instead being ignored as "report after report on Israel" was compiled.
An Israeli official responded to Bernstein's piece by saying it was "interesting that criticism of HRW is now coming from its founders, a sign that maybe they [HRW] have lost their moral compass."
Gerald Steinberg, the head of Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which has cast a very critical spotlight on HRW's work on Israel and the Middle East for the past five years, said that to have the founder of the organization say publicly he joined its critics "is an important recognition that HRW does need a fundamental change of leadership."
Steinberg said that Bernstein's article was "a vote of no confidence" in the current head of the organization, Kenneth Roth, and its Middle East Division.
"This is his organization," Steinberg said of Bernstein. "He conceived of it, he founded it. When you have someone who has built an organization saying that this is not what we built it for, that has a strong moral impact."
According to Steinberg, a number of board members have held a couple of meetings to consider the organization's leadership in light of the fund-raising efforts in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and the suspension with pay last month of its senior military analyst Marc Garlasco, an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia.
In the op-ed, Bernstein insisted the group had "lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hizbullah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields."
He stressed that those terrorist groups were backed by Iran, which has called for the annihilation of Israel and Jews, saying such incitement to genocide was a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
In a statement, HRW on Tuesday said it was "saddened" to read the op-ed but that "we fundamentally disagree with Mr. Bernstein's views."
The organization stressed its belief that "closed" and "open" societies both deserve scrutiny and denied it devoted more time and energy to Israel than to other countries.
"The work on Israel is a tiny fraction of Human Rights Watch's work as a whole," the statement said.
"Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hizbullah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields," Bernstein wrote. "They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch's criticism."
Published days after the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the Goldstone Commission report that accused Israel of committing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during last winter's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the opinion piece notably points out that there was a difference between wrongs committed accidentally and in self-defense and those carried out intentionally.
"In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes," Bernstein went on to say. "Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers."
HRW further denied it lacked access to Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, saying that researches entered the Strip via Sinai and conducted extensive interviews.
HRW said Bernstein brought his concerns to the board of directors in April, but the board unanimously rejected his view that HRW should report only on closed societies. "Human Rights Watch stands fully behind the work we have done on Israel and around the world," the group said on Tuesday.
But in his essay, Bernstein said: "Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world. If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished."
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.