The exploitation of international legal rhetoric has become a major weapon in the political war to delegitmize Israeli antiterror operations.
By ANNE HERZBERG
Since the beginning of the war with Hamas, human rights organizations have accused Israel of "genocide," "willful killings," "targeting civilians" and "grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions." Taken at face value, these statements appear to describe flagrant violations of international law and horrific abuses of human rights. Yet, upon closer inspection, these condemnations must be seen as part of a wider campaign to promote the Palestinian cause.
The exploitation of international legal rhetoric has become a major weapon in the political war to delegitmize Israeli antiterror operations. Under this strategy, crystallized at the NGO Forum of the UN's 2001 Durban Conference, the terminology of international humanitarian and human rights law is selectively applied to Israeli deeds, branding them as "illegal," "violations of law," "crimes against humanity" or "war crimes." Armchair critics lacking expertise or knowledge of the facts invoke the Geneva Conventions to judge particular military actions as "disproportionate" or "indiscriminate." Those engaged in this tactic hope that the legal language grants a credibility or seriousness to the charges that in turn will create international pressure and frustrate Israel's military effort. Hamas, Hizbullah and the PLO reap great rewards from this strategy without which their propaganda operations would be much less effective.
THE PROMOTERS of this tactic are the self proclaimed "human rights" NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Gisha, B'Tselem, and others (many of whom are funded by the EU, European governments and the New Israel Fund). During and in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, for example, HRW issued nearly 600 pages of reporting claiming to document Israel's legal violations, and Amnesty a priori judged Israeli attacks as indiscriminate war crimes that targeted Lebanese civilians. Both organizations downplayed the role of Hizbullah, going so far as to deny the use of human shields by the organization. For the past year, these groups have laid the foundation for legally-based accusations against Israel's Gaza policy such as incessantly parroting a pre-disengagement 2005 PLO "legal opinion" that Israel "continues to occupy" Gaza. These groups have turned a blind eye to Hamas' flouting of the prohibition against the use of human shields by stockpiling its weapons in schools, mosques, hospitals and cultural centers.
Now that Operation Cast Lead is under way, these charges have reached obsessive levels. As of January 11, NGOs have issued more than 175 statements condemning Israel's "legal" infractions in Gaza. (In contrast, these same NGOs have issued zero statements about the massacre of 189 Congolese villagers by Ugandan rebel forces from December 25-27.)
Amnesty International, for instance, accuses Israel of "unlawfully" killing "scores of unarmed civilians, as well as police personnel who were not directly participating in the hostilities." Amnesty has no basis to relabel Hamas operatives as "civilian" police officers and presents no evidence to support its claim that these men were not "directly participating in the hostilities." In fact, a Hamas-linked Web site claims that these men were members of Hamas' Izzadin Kassam Brigade. By cloaking its unfounded claim in Geneva Convention terminology, Amnesty transforms Israel's lawful attack on a legitimate military target into a war crime.
Oxfam, Gisha, and B'Tselem insinuate or claim outright that Israel has engaged in "disproportionate force," highlighting emotive "testimonies" and anecdotes from Gazans in their reports. These NGOs, however, are not trained military experts nor are they privy to Israeli targeting decisions. Moreover, as the esteemed philosopher and "just war" theorist Michael Walzer has noted, the concept of proportionality must be evaluated with caution and cannot be applied "speculatively." In his view, those leveling the charge of "disproportionate" do so only when it is "simply violence they don't like, or it is violence committed by people they don't like." Therefore, "Israel's Gaza war was called 'disproportionate' on day one, before anyone knew very much about how many people had been killed or who they were."
For its part, HRW levels the charge of "collective punishment" for the supposed failure to allow sick Gazans to receive treatment in Israel and for allegedly restricting the flow of food into Gaza. HRW not only misrepresents the law here, but also the facts. Under international law, "collective punishment" refers to "criminal penalties," not economic sanctions. Israel has offered to treat injured Gazans,and has done so, yet in many cases, the PA refused to apply for permits for their release into Israel. And Israel's willingness to ship more food into Gaza was rebuffed last week by the UN World Food Program because its warehouses were completely full and there was no immediate need of additional supplies.
HRW further claims that Israel engaged in "impermissible" attacks by targeting the "Hamas-run political authority." This is a false dichotomy as there is no evidence that the "political authority" is in any way separate from Hamas the terrorist organization. Under international law, anyone involved in planning, participating in or financing terror attacks on civilians is a legitimate military target.
As these examples and the myriad of other NGO statements make clear, dressing up reports and publications as treatises on international law do not exempt them from scrutiny. Those wishing to really understand the conflict would be wise to look beyond these NGO cants.
The writer is the legal adviser of NGO Monitor and the author of NGO 'Lawfare': Exploitation of Courts in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
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