Has Amnesty International Lost Its Way? (Part 1)
The Problem with Amnesty-
How Amnesty International’s attempt at a ‘balanced’ approach at the conflict turns into an apologetic for
Israel’s aggression against Gaza.
Amnesty International is among the premier human rights organizations in the world. Its pronouncements
shape public opinion, while councils of state feel obliged if not to heed them at any rate to respond. A
movement for justice aspiring to reach a broad public and inflect state policy can ill afford to ignore
Amnesty if and when it goes astray. It is the contention of this monograph that Amnesty has indeed lost
its way, and it is the intention of this monograph to document this proposition, in the hope that Amnesty
will perform—or its grassroots membership will compel it to perform—a midcourse correction.
In recent years, Amnesty International has issued meticulously documented, legally unflinching human
rights reports on the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, Operation “Cast Lead”: 22 days of death and
destruction,1 a searing indictment of Israel’s 2008-9 assault on Gaza. But this has not always been the case.
For many decades, this venerable human rights organization effectively gave Israel a free pass on its
pervasive torture practices in the occupied Palestinian territories.2 Judging by the reports it issued after
Israel’s summer 2014 assault on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, Amnesty is regressing to its earlier
apologetics. For those who have come to rely on and cite Amnesty as a source of accurate human rights
reportage, this development is troubling and deeply frustrating. The primary purpose of this monograph
is not to account for Amnesty’s apparent backpedaling, although some speculations on this score will be
ventured in the conclusion, but to thoroughly document it, focusing in particular on Amnesty’s
comprehensive indictment of Hamas,3 Unlawful and Deadly: Rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups
during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict.4
Table 1 presents the raw data from which a human rights assessment of Operation Protective Edge
(hereafter: OPE) necessarily begins.5
TABLE 1 Civilian Losses in Operation Protective Edge
Israel 73 (1) 6** (8) 67 (92) 55,000,0006 1***
Gaza* 2,200 (550) 1,560 (70)7 640 (30) 4,000,000,0008 18,000****
* Gaza figures are rounded out. Throughout this monograph, larger numbers are similarly
rounded out to the nearest ten, hundred or thousand.
** One civilian was a Thai guest worker.
*** 11 others suffered some damage.
**** 38,000 others suffered some damage.
(% of total
(% of total
Direct damage to
2 Norman G. Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish romance with Israel is coming to an end (New York: 2012), p. 97.
3 Hamas is here used to denote all armed groups in Gaza.
5 For background to OPE, see Norman G. Finkelstein, Method and Madness: The hidden story of Israel’s assaults on Gaza (New York: 2014).
6 Most of the Israeli data in this monograph draws from State of Israel, The 2014 Gaza Conflict, 7 July-26 August 2014 (May 2015). It
reports that total compensation for direct damages to Israeli civilians will reach $40 million, while the state will spend an additional
$15 million to repair public infrastructure that was damaged (paras. 112, 223).
7 The casualty figures and breakdowns for Gaza are based on UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA),
Fragmented Lives (March 2015). The major Gaza-based human rights organizations (Al Mezan, Palestinian Center for Human Rights)
put the number of civilians killed at 1,600-1,700. Israel’s 2014 Gaza Conflict alleged that, of the 1,700 Gazan deaths it has thus far
tabulated from a total of 2,125, 940 (44 percent) were Hamas “militants,” 760 (36 percent) were civilians, and 420 (20 percent) were
“yet to be categorized.” It also states that “in all but a few rare instances, women, children under the age of 16, and the elderly were
automatically categorized as ‘uninvolved’” in its calculations. Setting aside all the other absurdities in Israel’s bookkeeping, according
to OCHA, the number of Gazan women and children killed—that is, not including any adult males—already totaled 850. (The one
slight discrepancy is that OCHA reckoned a child as under 17 years of age.) The Israeli report faults OCHA for basing its
combatant/civilian breakdown on “daily fatality lists issued by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health,” which, it continues,
“do not identify whether the deceased was a militant.” It’s hard to figure how OCHA could have relied on the Ministry’s breakdown
if the Ministry didn’t give a breakdown. See 2014 Gaza Conflict, p. 56n165; Annex—Palestinian Fatality Figures in the 2014 Gaza
Conflict, paras. 9, 13, 26-27.
8 State of Palestine, The National Early Recovery and Reconstruction Plan for Gaza (October 2014), p. 9.
“On both sides,” Amnesty observes in Unlawful and Deadly, “civilians once again bore the brunt of the third
full-scale war in less than six years.” Although arguably true,9 this statement obscures the yawning gap
separating the magnitude of suffering inflicted on Gazan as compared to Israeli civilians.10 It is hard to
come up with a more palpable instance of a quantitative difference turning into a qualitative one than the
single Israeli child versus the 550 Gazan children killed, and it doesn’t diminish the sanctity of every life to
take note that, if the death of one Israeli child is terrible, then, on the same calculus, the child deaths in
Gaza are 550 times as terrible. An international Medical Fact-Finding Mission, recruited by the Israeli
branch of Physicians for Human Rights and comprised of eminent medical practitioners, concluded its
report on OPE with this caveat: “While not wishing to devalue in any way the traumatic effects of the war
on Israeli civilians, these pale in comparison with the consequences of the massive destruction wreaked on
Gaza.”11 Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who in the past has disgraced his office with
apologetics on Israel’s behalf,12 carefully distinguished between Israel’s lethal attacks on UN facilities
during OPE, which “I deplore,” and Hamas’s misuse of UN facilities, about which “I am dismayed.”13
One searches in vain for a comparable acknowledgment or nuance by Amnesty.
In keeping with its pretense of evenhandedness, Amnesty conveys the impression that Israel and Hamas
were equally guilty of breaching the laws of war. It issued a pair of postwar reports documenting Israel’s
crimes and a pair of reports documenting Hamas’s crimes (four altogether), while, amazingly, it devoted, all
told, many more pages to indicting Hamas (107) than Israel (78).14 In Operation “Cast Lead,” Israel bore the
brunt of Amnesty’s indictment (60 versus 13 pages), making this earlier report’s relative space allocations
more, if still far from fully, commensurate with the death and destruction inflicted by each side.15 The
introduction to each of its postwar reports on OPE methodically balances the distribution of guilt. As if
that weren’t problematic enough, Unlawful and Deadly details the death of the single Israeli child killed by a
Hamas attack across more than two pages. Were it truly committed to effecting—as against
affecting—balance, shouldn’t Amnesty have devoted 1,100 pages to the children in Gaza who were killed?
Amnesty even suggests that Hamas was the more manifestly culpable party to the conflict. Thus, Unlawful
and Deadly’s conclusion unequivocally deplores Hamas’s “flagrant disregard for international humanitarian
law,” whereas one of Amnesty’s reciprocal reports, Families under the Rubble: Israeli attacks on inhabited homes,
cautiously concludes that the destruction wrought—18,000 Gazan homes were destroyed or rendered
uninhabitable, leaving 110,000 people homeless—“raise[s] difficult questions for the Israeli government
which they have so far failed to answer.”16 It is, of course, conceivable that Hamas committed as many war
crimes as Israel, if not more, during OPE, but, prima facie, that would be a most anomalous conclusion.
In both absolute and relative terms, the scales of guilt appear to tilt heavily to the Israeli side: Hamas killed
73 Israelis of whom only 8 percent were civilians, whereas Israel killed 2,200 Gazans of whom fully 70
percent were civilians; the damage inflicted on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure ($4 billion) exceeded by a
factor of 70 the damage inflicted on Israel’s infrastructure ($55 million), while the ratio of civilian dwellings
destroyed by Israel versus Hamas stood at 18,000:1. The intriguing question is, how does Amnesty
manage to turn this wildly imbalanced balance sheet into a “balanced” indictment of both parties to the
9 On the other hand, only eight percent of total Israeli fatalities were civilians.
10 In the last report it released, “Strangling Necks”: Abductions, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014
Gaza/Israel conflict (2015), Amnesty does briefly mention that, “The extent of the casualties and destruction in Gaza wrought by Israeli
forces far exceeded those caused by Palestinian attacks on Israel, reflecting Israel’s far greater firepower, among other factors.”
11 Jutta Bachmann et al., Gaza 2014: Findings of an independent medical fact-finding mission (2015), p. 101. (Hereafter: Medical Fact-Finding
12 Finkelstein, Method, pp. 101-20.
13 Ban Ki-moon’s remarks are appended to the summary of the final report of a UN Board of Inquiry he commissioned to investigate
“certain incidents that occurred in the Gaza Strip between 8 July 2014 and 26 August 2014.” (Hereafter: UN Board of Inquiry)
14 In addition to Unlawful and Deadly and “Strangling Necks,” Amnesty issued Families under the Rubble: Israeli attacks on inhabited homes
(2014), and “Nothing Is Immune”: Israel’s destruction of landmark buildings in Gaza (2014). It bears noting that these four reports were
released during the critical window of opportunity between the end of OPE and the issuance of the UN Human Rights Council
report on OPE in June 2015. Whatever Amnesty releases after the UN report will have little or no political impact. As it happens,
the UN Report did make extensive use of Amnesty’s quartet of publications, a topic to which this writer will return in a future
15 A precise juxtaposition casts an even darker shadow on Amnesty’s space allocations: in absolute numbers, the scale of civilian death
and destruction inflicted by Israel during Protective Edge was much more massive than during Cast Lead, whereas in the case of
Hamas it was roughly the same.
16 On the other hand, “Strangling Necks” does categorically state, “Israeli military forces committed war crimes and other grave
violations of international law during Operation Protective Edge.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also been much quicker to
condemn Hamas than Israel. “It’s obviously easier to denounce as a war crime, say, Hamas’s efforts to shoot rockets into civilian
areas,” HRW executive director Kenneth Roth commented during OPE. “That’s, you know, blatantly obvious. It doesn’t take a huge
investigation to figure that one out. Israel, it does take more of an investigation” (http://m.democracynow.org/stories/9979).