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The two principal "human rights" organizations are in a race to the bottom to see which group can demonize Israel with the most absurd legal arguments and most blatant factual mis-statements. Until last week, Human Rights Watch enjoyed a prodigious lead, having "found" - contrary to what every newspaper in the world had reported and what everyone saw with their own eyes on television - "no cases in which Hizbullah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack."
Those of us familiar with Amnesty International's nefarious anti-Israel agenda and notoriously "suggestible" investigative methodology wondered how it could possibly match such a breathtaking lie.
But we didn't have to wait long for AI to announce that Israel was guilty of a slew of war crimes for "widespread attacks against public civilian infrastructure, including power plants, bridges, main roads, seaports, and Beirut's international airport."
There are two problems with the Amnesty report and conclusion. First, Amnesty is wrong about the law. Israel committed no war crimes by attacking parts of the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon.
In fact, through restraint, Israel was able to minimize the number of civilian casualties in Lebanon, despite Hizbullah's best efforts to embed itself in population centers and to use civilians as human shields. The total number of innocent Muslim civilians killed by Israeli weapons during a month of ferocious defensive warfare was a fraction of the number of innocent Muslims killed by other Muslims during that same period in Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, and other areas of Muslim-on-Muslim civil strife. Yet the deaths caused by Muslims received a fraction of the attention devoted to alleged Israeli "crimes."
This lack of concern for Muslims by other Muslims - and the lack of focus by so-called human rights organizations on these deaths - is bigotry, pure and simple.
AMNESTY'S EVIDENCE that Israel's attacks on infrastructure constitute war crimes comes from its own idiosyncratic interpretation of the already-vague word "disproportionate." Unfortunately for Amnesty, no other country in any sort of armed conflict has ever adopted such a narrow definition of the term. Indeed, among the very first military objectives of most modern wars is precisely what Israel did: to disable portions of the opponent's electrical grid and communication network, to destroy bridges and roads, and to do whatever else is necessary to interfere with those parts of the civilian infrastructure that supports the military capability of the enemy.
That's how the American and Britain militaries fought World War II. (In fact, Israel shows far more restraint than Britain did during World War II. Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed the Royal Air Force to bomb the center of towns with the express purpose of killing as many civilians as possible.) Had the Allies been required to fight World War II under the rules of engagement selectively applied to Amnesty International to Israel, our "greatest generation" might have lost that war.
The strategy of destroying some infrastructure was particular imperative against Hizbullah. Israel first had to ensure that its kidnapped soldiers would not be smuggled out of the country (as other soldiers had been and were never returned), then it had to prevent Hizbullah from being re-armed, especially given that Hizbullah damaged a ship using advanced radar technology provided by the Lebanese army and rockets provided by Iran.
Hizbullah was being armed by Syria and Iran - as those countries themselves admitted - and the president, government, and population of Lebanon overwhelmingly supported the militia's indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli civilian population centers. The Lebanese army actively supported Hizbullah's military actions. Israel was, in a very real sense, at war with Lebanon itself, and not simply with a renegade faction of militants.
HERE'S HOW law professor David Bernstein answered Amnesty's charge:
The idea that a country at war can't attack the enemy's resupply routes (at least until it has direct evidence that there is a particular military shipment arriving) has nothing to do with human rights or war crimes, and a lot to do with a pacifist attitude that seeks to make war, regardless of the justification for it or the restraint in prosecuting it [at least if it's a Western country doing it], an international "crime."
In other words, if attacking the civilian infrastructure is a war crime, then modern warfare is entirely impermissible, and terrorists have a free hand in attacking democracies and hiding from retaliation among civilians. Terrorists become de facto immune from any consequences for their atrocities.
THE MORE troubling aspect of Amnesty's report is their inattention to Hizbullah. If Israel is guilty of war crimes for targeting civilian infrastructure, imagine how much greater is Hizbullah's moral responsibility for targeting civilians! But Amnesty shows little interest in condemning the terrorist organization that started the conflict, indiscriminately killed both Israeli civilians (directly) and Lebanese civilians (by using them as human shields), and has announced its intention to kill Jews worldwide (already having started by blowing up the Jewish Community Center in Argentina.) Apparently Amnesty has no qualms about Hizbullah six-year war of attrition against Israel following Israel's complete withdrawal from Southern Lebanon.
As has been widely reported, even al-Jazeera expressed surprise at the imbalance in the Amnesty report:
During the four week war Hizbullah fired 3,900 rockets at Israeli towns and cities with the aim of inflicting maximum civilian casualties.
The Israeli government says that 44 Israeli civilians were killed in the bombardments and 1,400 wounded.
AI has not issued a report accusing Hizbullah of war crimes.
Amnesty does not even seem to understand the charges it is making. Take, for example, this paragraph from its report:
Israeli government spokespeople have insisted that they were targeting Hizbullah positions and support facilities, and that damage to civilian infrastructure was incidental or resulted from Hizbullah using the civilian population as a "human shield". However, the pattern and scope of the attacks, as well as the number of civilian casualties and the amount of damage sustained, makes the justification ring hollow.
But the issue of human shields and infrastructure are different. The first relates to civilian casualties; the second concerns property damage. Of course Israel intentionally targeted bridges and roads. It would have been militarily negligent not to have done so under the circumstances. But it did not target innocent civilians. It would have given them no military benefit to do so.
The allegations become even more tenuous, as when Amnesty writes, "a road that can be used for military transport is still primarily civilian in nature." By this reasoning, terrorists could commandeer any structure or road initially constructed for civilian use, and Israel could not touch those bridges or buildings because they were once, and still could be, used by civilians. This is not, and should not be, the law.
Consider another example: "While the use of civilians to shield a combatant from attack is a war crime, under international humanitarian law such use does not release the opposing party from its obligations towards the protection of the civilian population."
Well that's certainly nice sounding. But what does it mean? What would Amnesty suggest a country do in the face of daily rocket attacks launched from civilian populations? Nothing, apparently. The clear implication of Amnesty's arguments is that the only way Israel could have avoided committing "war crimes" would have been if it had taken only such military action that carried with it no risk to civilian shields - that is, to do absolutely nothing.
For Amnesty, "Israeli war crimes" are synonymous with "any military action whatsoever."
The real problem with Amnesty's paper is that its blanket condemnations do not consider the consequences of its arguments. (It doesn't have to; it would never advance these arguments against any country but Israel.)
Amnesty International's conclusions are not based on sound legal arguments. They're certainly not based on compelling moral arguments. They're simply anti-Israel arguments. Amnesty reached a predetermined conclusion - that Israel committed war crimes - and it is marshalling whatever sound-bites it could to support that conclusion.
Amnesty International is not only sacrificing its own credibility when it misstates the law and omits relevant facts in its obsession over Israel. It also harms progressive causes that AI should be championing.
Just last year, for example, Amnesty blamed Palestinian rapes and "honor killings" on - you guessed it - the Israeli occupation. When I pointed out that there was absolutely no statistical evidence to show that domestic violence increased during the occupation, and that Amnesty's report relied exclusively on the conclusory and anecdotal reports of Palestinian NGOs, Amnesty stubbornly repeated that "Israel is implicated in this violence by Palestinian men against Palestinian women."
This episode only underscored AI's predisposition to blame everything on Israel. Even when presented with an ideal opportunity to promote gender equality and feminism in the Arab world, it preferred to take wholly unrelated and absurd shots at Israel.
Amnesty International just can't seem to help itself when it comes to blaming Israel for the evils of the world, but rational observers must not credit the pre-determined conclusions of a once-reputable organization that has destroyed its own credibility by repeatedly applying a double standard to Israel.
The writer is a professor of law at Harvard. His most recent book is Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways.
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