Human Rights Watch seeks to prove Middle East 'balance'

By Simon Rocker, January 28, 2010
Critical: HRW’s 2010 World Report

Critical: HRW’s 2010 World Report

A top official from Human Rights Watch met Jewish representatives in London this week in an effort to persuade them that the organisation is not biased against Israel.

The New York-based human rights organisation — which condemned both Israel and Hamas over their conduct of last year’s Gaza war — has faced a barrage of criticism from Jewish groups over the year, with even its own founder, Robert Bernstein, recently accusing it of undue focus on Israel.

Iain Levine, its programmes director, had talks with senior figures from the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council on Monday and the London Jewish Forum on Tuesday.

Jon Benjamin, Board chief executive, said they had raised the issue of “balance and proportionality” of HRW’s coverage of Israel. They had also voiced concern that “HRW research on Israel lends itself too readily to being used by those who question Israel’s very existence and who paint Zionism and its supporters as morally corrupt”.

But welcoming the group’s criticisms of Hamas and others’ rocket attacks on Israel, Mr Benjamin said: “We hope we will see more of this kind of balance and context in future coverage of Israel.”

He added that the Board would like to find ways to work with HRW on areas beyond the Middle East that are of concern to Jews around the world.

Mr Levine was on his way back to New York following a five-day trip to Israel. His itinerary included meetings with ministers, Knesset members and Israeli groups, with reaction ranging, he said, from those who “totally reject” HRW’s findings on Israel to those who were “extremely sympathetic”.

Its recently published World Report for 2010 criticises Hamas for rocketing Israeli civilians and allegedly killing Palestinian collaborators with Israel, while saying Israel shelled densely populated areas in Gaza, using heavy artillery and white phosphorus. It also describes Israel’s blockade of Gaza, backed by Egypt on its border, as “a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.

Mr Levine said that one object of the visit had been to address the criticism that HRW was overly focused on Israel. The 612-page World Report has a 100-page section on the Middle East and North Africa, with a dozen pages on Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

He said the forthcoming IDF report responding to allegations made by Richard Goldstone’s inquiry for the United Nations was a “step forward” which he hoped would lead to an independent inquiry. No response had come from Hamas over calls for investigations on the Palestinian side.

“We have never criticised Israel for launching Cast Lead,” he said. “We don’t take a position whether to going to war is the right thing to do… What we seek is to analyse the conduct of the war.

“The Israeli government is suggesting that in asymmetrical conflict between a modern army and an insurgent group that to a large extent operates from within a civilian population, in urban areas and without wearing uniforms, that the laws of war are no longer applicable. And it was an important opportunity to talk about why we think those laws remain applicable.”

He praised Israel for its role in the Kimberley Process, the international effort to stop the export of “blood diamonds” from Africa.

Last updated: 4:40pm, January 28 2010