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Has Amnesty International Lost Its Way? (Part 3)

Norman G. Finkelstein photo
Norman G. FinkelsteinNew York, USA
Has Amnesty International Lost Its Way? (Part 3)
A forensic analysis of Amnesty's reports on Operation Protective Edge

EVIDENTIARY BIAS

Amnesty’s citation of official Israeli sources produces skewed results that validate Israeli propaganda at Hamas’s expense. In some instances more credible contrary evidence is simply ignored. In its hyperbolic inventory of Hamas’s arsenal, Amnesty quotes the Israeli allegation that it intercepted a vessel carrying Iranian rockets “bound for Gaza.” It omits the widely reported finding of a UN expert panel that the weapons were bound not for Gaza but Sudan.[1]  Amnesty also repeats the official Israeli claim that the ground invasion was launched to “destroy the tunnel system…, particularly those with shafts discovered near residential areas located in Israel,” and that Israeli troops repeatedly preempted Hamas infiltrators from targeting civilian communities. It ignores compelling evidence, including statements by a senior Israeli army source and an Israeli military analyst, that Hamas fighters exiting the tunnels targeted Israeli soldiers, not civilians. [2] According to 2014 Gaza Conflict, the tunnels exited “in or close to residential communities,”[3]  yet every instance of Hamas infiltration climaxed, not in a headlong assault on civilians but, instead, an armed engagement with Israeli combatants.[4]

Amnesty’s use of official Israeli sources becomes particularly problematic when the net effect is to magnify Hamas’s and diminish Israel’s criminal culpability. This distortion partly results from another of Amnesty’s strategic “balancing” acts. Israel barred Amnesty (and other human rights organizations) from entering Gaza after OPE. Amnesty “consequently had to carry out research in the Gaza Strip remotely, supported by two fieldworkers based in Gaza.” As a practical matter, this Israeli-imposed constraint prevented Amnesty in multiple instances from checking the veracity of official Israeli exculpations. How did Amnesty resolve this forensic challenge? It typically reports the allegation of an Israeli war crime, then the Israeli denial, and then “neutrally” proceeds to call for a proper on-the-ground investigation—which, as Amnesty knows full well, Israel will never permit. The reader is thus left in perfect and permanent limbo as to where truth lies. When assessing allegations that Hamas violated international law during OPE, Amnesty treats incriminating prior conduct by Hamas as corroborative evidence.[5] Shouldn’t Amnesty have also contextualized Israeli denials of culpability with the caveat that in the past these denials consistently proved on inspection to be flagrant lies? Indeed, the UN Board of Inquiry investigation of Israeli attacks on UN facilities during OPE repeatedly put the lie to Israel’s pleas of innocence. Amnesty’s neutrality ends up incentivizing Israeli noncooperation: if granting human rights organizations entry into Gaza will enable them to document Israeli crimes,[6] isn’t it prudent state policy to bar these organizations altogether and settle for an agnostic verdict from them? Finally, one aspect of Amnesty’s posture of balance deserves special notice. It cites in abundance the junk claims of Israeli hasbara, but not once does it report the pertinent findings of Gaza’s respected human rights organizations, such as the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.[7]  The methodology section of Unlawful and Deadly states: “Amnesty International studied relevant documentation produced by UN Agencies, the Israeli military and Israeli governmental bodies, Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, Palestinian armed groups, and media reports, amongst other sources, and consulted with relevant experts and practitioners before writing the report. Amnesty International would like to thank the Israeli NGOs and other Israeli bodies that provided assistance to its researchers.”[8]  Whereas the report amply represents the claims of Israeli military and governmental bodies, one searches in vain for a single reference to Palestinian NGOs.

Amnesty’s biased use of evidence in Unlawful and Deadly subtly shifts to Hamas a portion of culpability for Israel’s most egregious crimes during OPE:

HospitalsSeventeen hospitals and 56 primary healthcare centers were either destroyed or damaged during OPE.[9]  Unlawful and Deadly points to Hamas’s alleged misuse of three of these facilities.

a) Al-Wafa. Israel repeatedly attacked and then reduced to rubble al-Wafa hospital, the sole rehabilitation facility in Gaza. This wasn’t the first time Israel targeted the hospital. During Cast Lead, al-Wafa sustained direct hits from eight tank shells, two missiles and thousands of bullets, even as Israel, in blatant contradiction, declared that it did not target “terrorists” launching attacks “in the vicinity of a hospital.”[10]   This time around, Amnesty cites the Israeli allegation that al-Wafa was a “command center.” It could have noted that “command centers” was Israel’s default alibi for targeting civilian objects during OPE,[11]  and that in other contexts Amnesty itself treated this pretext as baseless.[12]  Displaying an aerial photograph, Israel alleged that Hamas fired a rocket from al-Wafa’s immediate vicinity. Amnesty found, however, that “The image tweeted by the Israeli military does not match satellite images of the al-Wafa hospital and appears to depict a different location.” This finding would seem to dispose of Israel’s alibi, except that, ever-so-evenhanded, Amnesty concludes that it “has not been able to verify Israeli assertions that the hospital was used to launch rockets” and the Israeli claim should be “independently investigated.” In other words, even if the only evidence on which Israel based its claim was demonstrably false, it still remains an open question whether or not the claim is true. As it happens, Israel itself eventually dropped the rocket allegation.[13]  Amnesty further notes that “according to media reports” an “anti-tank missile was fired from al-Wafa.” The “media reports” cited by Amnesty turn out to be little more than an official Israeli press handout dutifully reprinted by the Jerusalem Post.[14]   It is equally instructive what Amnesty elects not to cite. If it adduces Israeli hasbara as credible evidence, shouldn’t it also have cited al-Wafa’s director, who told Haaretz that Israeli claims were “false and misleading,” or the representative of the World Health Organization in Gaza, who acknowledged the probable presence of a “rocket launching site in the vicinity” of al-Wafa, but contended that “it was more than 200 meters away from the hospital”?[15]  “Israeli forces contest having directly and intentionally targeted [al-Wafa] hospital, claiming that they sought to neutralize rocket fire originating in the vicinity of the hospital,” an International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) delegation observed after entering Gaza and sifting through the evidence. “However, various elements indicate that the hospital was in fact the target of a direct and intentional attack on the part of Israeli armed forces.”[16]  But, quelling doubts that might linger of Israel’s innocence, Amnesty reports, “An internal investigation by the Israeli military into its attacks on al-Wafa…found that the attacks had been carried out in accordance with international law.” Shouldn’t it also have mentioned that all major human rights organizations, Amnesty included, have dismissed the results of Israeli internal investigations as worthless?[17]

b) Al-Shifa. On the basis of “credible” evidence that Hamas fired a rocket from behind al-Shifa hospital, Amnesty called for an independent investigation. It then proceeded to call for an investigation of “other reports and claims that Hamas leaders and security forces used facilities within the hospital for military purposes and interrogations during the hostilities.” Israel leveled allegations similar to these during Cast Lead, but the evidence it adduced in support of them was razor thin.[18]  This time around, Amnesty cites many sources of varying quality.[19]  What it emphatically does not do, however, is cite sources that dispute the allegation. It ignored the compelling and nuanced testimony of two respected foreign surgeons who volunteered in al-Shifa during OPE: while “able to roam freely at the hospital,” they observed no indication that it was a “command center for Hamas.”[20]  At this writer’s request, one of the world’s leading academic specialists on Gaza, Sara Roy of Harvard University, consulted a clutch of her own Gaza-based sources, whose personal and professional integrity she attested to. The consensus among them is that, although rockets had been fired in the vicinity of al-Shifa (but not from hospital grounds), it was highly improbable that Hamas made military use of the hospital building.[21]  How did it come to pass that Amnesty found no place for such contrary opinions by impeccable sources? Amnesty also reports the supposedly incriminating tidbit that “a Palestinian journalist…was interrogated by officers from Hamas’ Internal Security in an abandoned section of the hospital.” During OPE, al-Shifa was filled to the brim with as many as 13,000 homeless people. Because it enabled access to satellite news gathering (SNG) equipment, the hospital also served as a hub for the media, political spokespeople, UN officials, human rights organizations and other NGOs. One can’t help but wonder why, amidst a murderous foreign invasion, it should be deemed intrinsically sinister, indeed, warranting a human rights investigation, if the besieged party questions—not physically abuses or intimidates; just questions—someone in a facility packed with a vast throng of people, some among them presumably spies, saboteurs and provocateurs who hoped, prayed, and actively endeavored for Hamas’s defeat.[22]   Is Hamas not even allowed to carry out ordinary security functions? In its report, “Strangling Necks”: Abductions, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict, Amnesty flatly states, “Hamas forces used the abandoned areas of al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, including the outpatients’ clinic area, to detain, interrogate, torture and otherwise ill-treat suspects.” The evidence Amnesty adduces for the most sensational of these asseverations—i.e., Hamas systematically tortured suspects at al-Shifa—underwhelms.[23]  It also perplexes how this torture chamber had escaped the notice of swarms of journalists, UN officials and NGOs ensconced at al-Shifa until Amnesty’s solitary fieldworker in Gaza came along to scoop all of them. Indeed, even 2014 Gaza Conflict, which is replete with the most egregious propaganda and lies, doesn’t go beyond alleging that Hamas used al-Shifa for “security service interrogations.”[24]  One cannot help but recall Amnesty’s peddling of Kuwait’s sensational “baby incubator” propaganda during the buildup to the First Gulf War in 1991.[25]  But wherever the truth lies, it is in any event not germane to the question at hand, unless Amnesty wants to assert that Israel targeted Gazan hospitals as a humanitarian gesture to protect alleged collaborators.

[1] Louis Charbonneau, “UN Panel: Arms ship seized by IDF came from Iran, but not bound for Gaza,” Haaretz (28 June 2014). 2014 Gaza Conflict repeats the Sudan misinformation (para. 54).

[2]Emanual Yelin, “Were Gaza Tunnels Built to Harm Israeli Civilians?,” +972 (11 August 2014), citing Alon Ben David, “Inquiry Nahal Oz: The gate of the military post was unlocked, the pillbox door was open,” Channel 10 News (July 30, 2014; http://news.nana10.co.il/Article/?ArticleID=1072726), and Tal Lev Ram, “‘It is Possible to Accomplish the Destruction of the Tunnels within 48 Hours,’” Army Radio (July 31, 2014; http://glz.co.il/1064-47425-he/Galatz.aspx). See also Amos Harel, “The Last War—and the Next,” Haaretz (1 July 2015).

[3] 2014 Gaza Conflict, paras. 91, 109, 119 (cf. paras. 56, 85, 91, 220, and p. 42n130).

[4] Ibid., paras. 96, 119.

[5]“[T]he numerous specific incidents of attacks launched in close proximity to civilian buildings reported by the Israeli authorities, together with accounts of journalists in Gaza during the conflict and the findings of Amnesty International researchers documenting previous rounds of hostilities, indicate that attacks by armed groups in Gaza launched from within residential areas were far from isolated occurrences” (Unlawful and Deadly; emphasis added).

[6]Amnesty itself points out that “governments who wish to hide their violations of human rights from the outside world have frequently banned Amnesty International from accessing the places in which they have been committed” (Amnesty International, Families under the Rubble).

[7]The Medical Fact-Finding Mission paid tribute to the “independence and credibility of local civil society groups such as Al Mezan, PCHR” (p. 100).

[8]The list of specific Israeli organizations assisting Amnesty is omitted.

[9] See esp. Al Mezan Center for Human Right et al., No More Impunity: Gaza’s health sector under attack (2015).

[10]Finkelstein, “This Time,” p. 76.

[11]2014 Gaza Conflict, paras. 54, 129, 145, 151, 153, 254, 275, 277, 278, 280.

[12]Amnesty International, “Nothing Is Immune.”

[13]2014 Gaza Conflict, para. 129. Incidentally, the report depicts Israel’s razing of al-Wafa as having “returned fire in a precise and discriminate manner” (para. 285).

[14]“Terrorists in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile at the IDF from the Al-Wafa hospital on Thursday, using the structure as an attack base despite Israel’s air strike on the structure on Wednesday following previous gunfire and missiles fired from it by Hamas. The IDF fired back, killing two terrorists, and the air force later struck the building from which the missile was fired. The air force also struck a structure near the Al-Wafa hospital used to store weapons, and as a command and control center” (Yaakov Lappin, “Terrorists Fire Anti-Tank Missile from al-Wafa Hospital in Gaza,” Jerusalem Post, 25 July 2014).

[15]Gili Cohen et al., “Israel Bombs Empty Gaza Hospital, Calling It Hamas Command Center,” Haaretz (23 July 2014); Medical Fact-Finding Mission, p. 50. In another context of Unlawful and Deadly, Amnesty does quote a “senior Hamas official” to the effect that rockets were fired “200 or 300 meters away” from schools or hospitals, and also that “there were some mistakes made and they were quickly dealt with.” The evidentiary value of a self-interested statement by a “senior Hamas official” is, of course, equal to that of an Israeli Foreign Ministry press release—zero.

[16] International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Trapped and Punished: The Gaza civilian population under Operation Protective Edge (April 2015), p. 40.

[17]See e.g., B’Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), Israeli Authorities Have Proven They Cannot Investigate Suspected Violations of International Humanitarian Law by Israel in the Gaza Strip (http://www.btselem.org/accountability/20140905_failure_to_investigate). In his cover letter to the summary of the UN Board of Inquiry report, Ban Ki-moon “welcomes the efforts of the Government of Israel in establishing criminal investigations into certain incidents which occurred during the conflict.” It’s unclear why he’s so enthusiastic about “investigations” that, based on all past experience, will be shams.

[18]Finkelstein, “This Time,” p. 76.

[19]One foreign correspondent both Amnesty and 2014 Gaza Conflict (p. 76n234, p. 91n269, p. 214n496) leaned on for the more sensational charges against Hamas was William Booth of the Washington Post. Booth’s creative journalism had earlier caught up with him when he was suspended by the Post for plagiarism (Paul Farhi, “Washington Post to Suspend William Booth over Panama Canal Story,” Washington Post (18 January 2013)).

[20] “I have been able to roam freely at the hospital and take the pictures that I wanted and talk to whomever I wanted. I can of course not say that I have been in every corner of the hospital, but concerning what I and [Dr.] Erik Fosse have seen, then none of us have seen that it is a command center for Hamas” (Norwegian surgeon Mads Gilbert, cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Shifa_Hospital).

[21] Email correspondence, 15 and 17 April 2015, forwarded by Sara Roy from three of her contacts.

[22]Hamas alleged that the Palestinian Authority provided Israel with targeting information collected via its agents in Gaza. Elhanan Miller, “Hamas: PA gave Israel nearly a third of its Gaza targets,” Times of Israel (5 February 2015).

[23]Of the 17 cases documented in the report, the relevant ones mentioning al-Shifa are these:

“The officers took Saleh Swelim to their Jabalia detention facility, known as the al-Sisi centre, and then to the outpatients’ clinic at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, which Hamas forces were using to detain and interrogate suspects. M.S., a younger brother of Saleh Swelim, told Amnesty International that Internal Security officers also detained him that day and that he saw Saleh Swelim both at the al-Sisi facility and at al-Shifa hospital, and that Internal Security officers tortured both of them.  [A lengthy testimony by M.S. follows describing his torture, but it ends on this note:] ‘We were both made to confess by being beaten. We remained in the al-Sisi camp until the following day, then were transferred to the al-Shifa hospital. We were received respectfully there in the outpatients’ clinic. They did not beat us and treated us with respect, especially after they saw the burns on my body and the marks from the beatings. They applied ointment to my wounds and gave me medical treatment.’”

“The three men took both Ali Da’alsa and M.D. away in a black Hyundai car but after about 10 minutes, during which they assaulted him, the three let M.D. go, dropping him near al-Quds Open University. The next day, M.D. went to the part of al-Shifa hospital used by Internal Security to inquire about Ali Da’alsa. He told Amnesty International:  ‘I went to al-Shifa hospital outpatients’ clinic where the Internal Security had a room. I knocked on the door and nobody answered. I kept on knocking on the door until they [Internal Security] finally arrived. They grabbed me and hit me and insulted me and treated me harshly, and increased their beatings of me.’”

“A.H., 43, a member of Fatah, activist and former PA senior officer, told Amnesty International that members of Hamas’s Internal Security force detained him as he left a mosque in the eastern area of Gaza City on 17 August 2014 and took him to the outpatients’ clinic at al-Shifa hospital. There, he said, they tortured him for about two hours by tying his hands behind his back, blindfolding him and beating him, including with a hammer and plastic pipes, causing him to lose consciousness several times, and verbally abused him, before asking him about his links to the PA’s security forces: ‘It was not really questioning, just a torture session.’”

The second Only the third of these three testimonies doesn’twould appear to rise to the practice of torture, —at any rate, as human rights organizations define it; otherwise, every Israeli soldier who roughs up a Palestinian in the West Bank would be guilty of torture—a charge Amnesty has, wisely, never leveled. Thus, only the third testimony would appear to be evidence of torture, —but it comes from a “member of Fatah, activist and former PA senior officer,” not necessarily the most reliabletrustworthy of sources.

[24] 2014 Gaza Conflict, para. 129.

[25] John R. MacArthur, Second Front: Censorship and propaganda in the 1991 Gulf war (Berkeley: 2004).

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#Amnesty International, #Israel-Palestine Conflict, #Israel, #Palestine, #Norman Finkelstein

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J. Berg

4 years ago

P.S. "One cannot help but recall Amnesty’s peddling of Kuwait’s sensational "baby incubator" propaganda during the buildup to the First Gulf War in 1991".
Well, I should have had the patience to read to the end. There's really nothing more to say here.

J. Berg

4 years ago

Amnesty International only does what is convenient to do. Challenging Israel is very inconvenient because Israel and the Israeli lobby will fight back hard. After all, this is the same AI that chose to attack the Russian goverment over the war in Chechnya (and often rightly so) but completely ignored the horrific violence against Russian and other non-Chechen civilians committed by Chechen nationalists even prior to the beginning of the war. It was very inconvenient to mention the people who were slaughtered and whose children were gang-raped and sold into slavery by the "pro-democracy freedom fighters". The West didn't want to hear that part of the story and so AI and other such groups refused to notice it. So nothing new here. AI's job is to provide nice well-paid jobs for its employees and not to rock the boat. In all likelihood, they believe that what they wrote about Gaza is already a feat of bravery and honesty.