Letters to the Editor

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The New York Sun

‘Getting It Straight’

It is sad testament to the severity of Israeli bombing for Lebanese civilians that the best defense Avi Bell can come up with is his blame-the-messenger diatribe against Human Rights Watch [“Getting It Straight,” Opinion, July 25, 2006]. Rather than an honest discussion, Mr. Bell distorts the organization’s views and then, knocking down the straw man, decries “bias.”

For example, Mr. Bell claims that Human Rights Watch refers to Hezbollah’s abuses “only in passing.” That’s odd given Human Rights Watch’s high-profile July 18 statement revealing some Hezbollah rockets fired into cities to have been filled with ball bearings that have little military value but are designed to injure or kill civilians. Human Rights Watch denounced Hezbollah for “at best indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas, at worst the deliberate targeting of civilians. Either way, they [are committing] serious violations of international humanitarian law and probable war crimes.” Which part of that was “only in passing”?

Mr. Bell then displays a curious ignorance about even the basic requirements of international humanitarian law — essentially, the Geneva Conventions and customary law. With great fanfare, he criticizes Human Rights Watch for not treating the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict as an interstate one involving Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, noting that different sections of the Geneva Conventions would then apply. But the Iranian, Syrian, and Lebanese governments are not currently fighting in Lebanon. And even if they were, the rules regulating bombing, rocket, and artillery attacks would be exactly the same.

Similarly, he defends Israel’s attack on the Beirut airport and other civilian infrastructure because of their “potential” use in transporting military supplies, ignoring the duty to weigh that theoretical military advantage against the enormous immediate civilian costs. He dismisses the possibility that Israel might attack food or medical supplies as “imagined,” despite Israel’s July 18 attack on a Red Crescent convoy that destroyed three trucks and four passenger vehicles, and left medicine, vegetable oil, sugar, and rice scattered on the highway.

Mr. Bell does not even discuss the most serious Israeli abuses: the attack on Srifa village (10 houses destroyed, as many as 42 civilians killed); the attack on a vehicle of villagers fleeing Marwaheen (16 civilians killed, including many children); or the destruction of some 60% of a 9-by-9 block area of southern Beirut, composed mostly of 8-10 story civilian apartment buildings. In the face of abuses that should generate outrage, Mr. Bell gives us silence.

In one of his more bizarre arguments, he cites the Hezbollah leader’s genocidal wishes to suggest that Hezbollah is in fact committing genocide against the Jews. It should be enough to join Human Rights Watch in calling Hezbollah’s attacks war crimes. But to claim that the ultimate crime of genocide is now underway is to cheapen a concept whose continued vitality could be a matter of life and death for those who are really facing it. To make that claim on behalf of a people who have experienced the real horror of genocide does their slaughtered ancestors a particular disservice.

Ironically, given Mr. Bell’s charge of bias, much of his harangue is devoted to faulting Human Rights Watch for not being partisan enough. He wants, for example, the organization to criticize Hezbollah for “violating Israeli sovereignty.” Leaving aside the regular Israeli overflights of Lebanese territory that preceded the recent conflict, Human Rights Watch, like the Red Cross, has a longstanding mandate requiring strict neutrality on such political questions. The organization never identifies the aggressor or the defender for three reasons: 1) because international humanitarian law applies the same rules to all warring parties regardless of the legitimacy of their cause; 2) because Human Rights Watch’s primary goal of pressing all warring parties to respect international humanitarian law would be compromised if the organization were to take sides in the conflict; and 3) because the question of who started any given conflict or who is most at fault almost invariably leads to lengthy historical digressions that are antithetical to the careful, objective investigations into the contemporary conduct of warring parties in which the organization specializes. But Mr. Bell doesn’t seem to want objectivity. He wants nothing short of another Israel defender.

Mr. Bell’s distortions do Israel no service. Israel could have maintained the moral high ground if it had responded to Hezbollah rocket attacks by targeting only Hezbollah military forces. Instead, whether by design or callous indifference, Israeli bombing has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and left much of the country’s infrastructure in ruins. Yet Mr. Bell’s see-no-evil defense only encourages more such slaughter. An eye for an eye — or, more accurately in this case, twenty eyes for an eye — may have been the morality of some more primitive moment. But it is not the morality of international humanitarian law which Mr. Bell pretends to apply.

Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Mr. Bell’s Response:

Sadly, Mr. Roth engages in ad hominem attacks, distorts my positions and drags in red herrings, rather than address directly my observations of Human Rights Watch’s bias.

In his letter, Mr. Roth demonstrates a lack of the very qualities of objectivity, nonpartisanship and careful investigation that he claims characterize HRW. He further misleads readers about legal standards and he makes a slew of new political anti-Israel charges even as his organization’s website acknowledges that HRW has not yet investigated the facts.

For example, Mr. Roth charges Israel with illegality in an “attack on Srifa village (10 houses destroyed, as many as 42 civilians killed).” Yet, Mr. Roth provides us with no additional detail about the target beyond this damage. I found an AP report filed by Nasser Nasser that acknowledged that “[a]fter the first [Israeli] strikes, Hezbollah fighters carrying walkie-talkies rushed for cover whenever Israeli warplanes or pilotless aircraft appeared.” How many Hezbollah fighters were there? How many arms depots? Where were the targets located? In some of the houses? Mr. Roth doesn’t deign to tell us; perhaps he doesn’t even know. Similarly, Mr. Roth charges that Israel “attack[ed] a vehicle of villagers fleeing Marwaheen (16 civilians killed, including many children).” Yet, HRW’s own press release on the subject acknowledged Israel’s claim that the target of the attacks was “an area near the city of Tyre, in southern Lebanon, used as launching grounds for missiles fired by Hezbollah terror organization at Israel” and that “further investigation” was needed. Is there new information that permits Mr. Roth to charge that Israel illegally targeted civilians? If yes, where is it? The inescapable conclusion is that Mr. Roth has simply dramatized HRW’s original statement to fit his extra-legal faith in Israeli guilt.

Notwithstanding Mr. Roth’s protestations, the laws of war clearly permit attacking targets for their predicted contribution to the military effort, even in the face of certain civilian harm. The laws of war permit Israeli attacks on military targets located in residential areas unless the collateral damage to civilians is expected to be excessive in comparison to the military advantage. Every innocent death in war is a tragedy, but not every tragedy is a war crime by the attacker. Calling me ignorant does not change this law, even when the name-caller is Mr. Roth.

By contrast, there is no legal defense for Hezbollah hiding its fighters and weaponry in residential areas, mosques and near U.N. positions — just as there is no defense for Lebanon providing Hezbollah with safe harbor, Syria and Iran for arming Hezbollah, or Hezbollah for targeting civilian areas throughout the Israeli north, destroying Israeli property without military justification, holding hostages, engaging in collective punishment, carrying out ethnically motivated murders, and holding POW’s incommunicado.

Even as Mr. Roth clutches at the lone HRW document that focuses on Hezbollah crimes, nearly all HRW documents released since the onset of fighting on July 12 — like the HRW Q&A guide I criticized — focus their very partisan criticisms on Israel. HRW’s and Mr. Roth’s near-silence on Hezbollah’s, Lebanon’s, Syria’s and Iran’s crimes and obsessive accusations about Israel even in the absence of evidence of crimes speak volumes about Mr. Roth’s and his organization’s patently political, non-legal and nonobjective agenda.

Law Professor
Bar Ilan University

See other related articles and responses on ‘Human Rights Watch’

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