5 years after Qana bombing HRW accused of fudging reports

NGO Monitor report: The lack of reliable sources of information is prominent; HRW calls accusations of bias "silly."

Human Rights Watch reports on the 2006 Second Lebanon War demonstrate a widespread pattern of methodological failures, distortion of evidence, improper application of legal standard and bias, NGO Monitor claims in a new report it issued this week.
The report, written by NGO Monitor head Prof. Gerald Steinberg and Prof. Avi Bell, carefully analyzes dozens of reports that were issued by both organizations, during and following the war.
It was provided to The Jerusalem Post ahead of the fifth anniversary of the controversial July 30 Israel Air Force bombing in the southern Lebanese village of Qana.
“They have no consistent methodology, and it seems that they make it up as they go along,” Steinberg said this week. “In many cases, they say they have researchers on the ground, but don’t give information about who they are and how they go about doing their research.”
The Qana incident was one of the more famous bombings during the war and was perceived as a turning point for Israel – which lost the support of the Arab world and other European countries to continue its fight against Hezbollah.
Following the bombing, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert succumbed to American pressure and declared a unilateral 48-hour suspension of aerial activity in southern Lebanon.
In the days following the incident, HRW published nine reports, press releases and op-eds which were widely circulated and reported in the media. A few hours after the event, the NGO issued a press release with the claim that the “Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone, relating to the strike on Qana, killing at least 54 civilians – more than half of them children.”
The statement also claimed that HRW researchers were in Lebanon since the beginning of the war and had documented dozens of cases when Israel indiscriminately attacked civilians – implying that the Qana allegations were based on independent and qualified sources.
The NGO Monitor report, though, brings later statements from Lucy Mair, an HRW employee based in Jerusalem, who said that the information was based on interviews with “survivors” and family members in Qana.
In early August, when HRW tried explaining the discrepancy between its initial claim of at least 54 killed and new reports that 26 people died, it said that while the Lebanese Red Cross reported to have removed 28 bodies from the rubble, survivors from the bombing spoke about 63 people living in the building.
“This variability in factual claims suggests that the NGOs’ reports were closer to unverified claims than researched conclusions,” the NGO Monitor report claims.
“And, indeed, in all of the incidents, the lack of reliable sources of information is prominent.”
Another incident analyzed by NGO Monitor took place on July 19 when the IAF carried out a number of bombings in the town of Srifa, in southern Lebanon.
HRW included the case in a number of reports and op-eds published in late July and early August, and employed different casualty figures; first reporting 42 dead civilians, than 26, then 42 again, and then 26. It also claimed that all of the dead were civilians and that Israel had committed a war crime.
In September, 2007, a year after the war ended, HRW issued a report called “Why They Died” in which it claimed that the final death tally was 22, and that five civilians and 17 Hezbollah fighters were killed.
Steinberg said that NGO Monitor hoped its report would relay the need for NGOs to conduct a more thorough fact-checking process and to admit in initial reports that they do not have accurate and reliable information to draw conclusions and make anti-Israel accusations.
“Organizations that deal with human rights and conflict should admit that they don’t have all the information and they should be far more circumstantial with their claims,” he said. “Their reports should warn that their information comes, for example, from Hezbollah members and that they don’t really have researchers on the ground.”
“We have a hard time taking NGO Monitor seriously when it has never found Israel to have committed a single human rights violation, and its reports are so often unreliable and factually inaccurate,” said HRW in response. “In this case, unlike Human Rights Watch, NGO Monitor was not in southern Lebanon during the war and did not meet with any of the scores of eyewitnesses in southern Lebanon whom HRW interviewed, cross-examined, and corroborated in preparing our report.”
“NGO Monitor's claim that Human Rights Watch was biased against Israel is silly since at the same time as the report it complains about, HRW produced a parallel report refuting Hezbollah's claim that it had aimed at only military targets in northern Israel and showing that it was, in fact, firing indiscriminately in civilian areas. In response, Hezbollah sought the prosecution of one HRW researcher, threatened another, and forced the closing of HRW's planned Beirut press conference-steps that backfired by greatly increasing press attention to the report,” said a spokesperson for the group.