Amnesty's moral blindness

Incredibly, the report's summary makes no mention of the Kassam attacks directed at Israeli civilians.

kassams awesome 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
kassams awesome 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Amnesty International certainly knows how to infuriate governments. The release of its annual report is an occasion for headlines in many countries regarding the criticism it metes out, including of the US and European countries. Israel, of course, is a favorite target. Anyone reading these news reports, which usually include some official calling the report "unfair," is bound to react that this is par for the course, and assume that once again Amnesty is doing its job as a fearless and unbiased advocate for human rights. We can only hope that in other regions this is the case, as there is no shortage of abuse of such fundamental rights in the world. Unfortunately, Amnesty's take on the Arab-Israeli conflict is not just "unfair" in this or that detail, but so wildly distorts the situation that it actually harms the worthy cause it purports to advance. As Amnesty explains, its objective is to uphold international humanitarian law. This law is most severely tested in conflict situations, where its essence is to distinguish between combatants, who may be fought, and non-combatants, who must be protected. This is entirely appropriate, but Amnesty's particular approach creates significant moral problems. The first structural concern is that Amnesty openly refuses to distinguish between aggressors and defenders. As the report explains with respect to the 2006 war in Lebanon, it did not condemn Hizbullah for attacking Israel on July 12, nor did it condemn Israel for defending itself. Despite this, the report argues that Israel responded disproportionately, which is an indirect admission that Israel does have a right to defend itself. This essentially aggression-neutral approach makes no logical or moral sense, even in terms of humanitarian law, which is also designed to condemn and prevent aggression. Surely the best way to prevent harm to non-combatants is to prevent war in the first place. To this end, Israel unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005. Since Hizbullah and Hamas were ostensibly fighting to expel Israel from these areas, the attacks from these areas should have immediately and permanently ceased. If they had, then all subsequent civilian casualties on both sides would have been prevented. It is a gross omission for Amnesty to fail to place the overall moral onus on the aggressors for causing such tremendous suffering on both sides. While Amnesty's stubborn refusal to put the conflict into any intelligible context may be its first failing, its reporting of the conflict itself adds another entire level of distortion. This distortion is so extreme, even when viewed using a humanitarian law yardstick, as to suggest that Amnesty allows its anti-Israel bias to overcome its most fundamental principles. For example, there can be no greater abuse of humanitarian law than firing from a civilian area against a civilian area. Both Hizbullah and Hamas do this - not as an exception to the rule, but as their principal modus operandi. Both groups deliberately attempt to maximize civilian casualties on both sides. According to basic humanitarian law standards, therefore, Amnesty should be jumping out of its skin in condemnation of Hizbullah and Hamas. Yet, in its Mideast section summary for 2006, the report states, "Frequent Israeli air and artillery attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 650 Palestinians, mostly in the Gaza Strip and mostly in the second half of the year" - without mentioning why Israel might be taking military action in Gaza in the first place. The report provides no sources for its Palestinian casualty figure, and only in a separate section is the reader advised that half of the victims were "unarmed" - implying that the other half were terrorists. Since Amnesty has no independent ability to collect such data, we do not know if it came from Hamas itself, or if Amnesty went to any effort to determine the veracity of its figures. But the even more egregious problem is that the summary, incredibly, makes no mention of the hundreds of Kassam attacks directed at Israeli civilians that precipitated the need for Israeli action. Similarly, the summary of the Lebanon war treats Israel and Hizbullah as complete moral twins: "Both Israeli forces and Hizbullah combatants showed a wanton disregard for civilians and committed gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes." Hizbullah built its entire terrorist infrastructure around the use of the Lebanese people as human shields, and with the purpose of targeting Israeli civilians. Israel, unfortunately, was unable to avoid killing civilians while fighting Hizbullah. To equate the two sides in this case is not just "unfair," but a display of staggering moral blindness.