In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, however, the communities of the investigator and the victim are in often violent conflict. To say the least, the normal investigator-victim dialogue is disrupted. Even so, according to a report by the Israeli government, by the time of my trip during the First Intifada, the IDF had brought fifty courts martial against ninety Israeli soldiers for causing death or injuries to Palestinians. Of the ninety soldiers, only nine had been acquitted.
Reports on the First Intifada by Amnesty International acknowledged neither the challenges faced by the prosecutors or their prosecutorial record.
Since the First Intifada, the nature of the conflict – and the nature of war itself – has changed in ways that make human rights reporting even more challenging. As evidence of Israel’s alleged intent to kill civilians, the Goldstone Report focused on the deaths from an Israeli bomb of some twenty-nine members of the al-Simouni family in their home. In fact, as the IDF investigation found, the home was shelled because of an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image, which finding was cited by Goldstone in his op-ed as a reason for his change of view.
What Goldstone did not satisfactorily explain was how the fact of the bombing alone originally proved to him that the Israel military intended to kill this family. Accidents in the use of precision-guided bombs or missiles were not exactly unheard of by then. In Afghanistan in December 2001, a U.S. Special Forces air controller called in a two thousand-pound bomb strike on his own outpost that killed three American and five Afghan soldiers and wounded twenty others. The controller, who survived, was not suicidal, a deranged maniac, or a Taliban sympathizer. All he had done was change the battery on a Global Positioning System device he was using to target a Taliban outpost north of Kandahar – without realizing that changing the battery had caused the device to reset to the coordinates for its own location.
Even aided by in-house experts on armed conflicts, human rights professionals are generally not suited either by temperament or training to carefully discriminate between tragedies and war crimes in the fog of the Israeli-Palestinian clashes. Human rights staffers sympathize, if not strongly identify, with whomever they perceive to be the underdog – and in this case, to them, it is indisputably the Palestinians. And because it is a highly emotional conflict, their identification is highly emotional, which does not lead to the careful, nuanced judgments this conflict demands.
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Late one night during my Israeli trip, a Palestinian contact took us to an East Jerusalem hospital where a Palestinian was on a respirator, surrounded by grieving family members. He had been hit in the face by some kind of projectile, which left a gaping hole from just below his closed eyes to his chin. The hospital director grabbed my arm and took me through the other hospital wards to view young Palestinian men badly injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers, all the time emotionally shouting, “CBS! CBS! CBS!” – as though I could produce a news camera crew on the spot.
Even though we had no idea how the Palestinian had been so grievously wounded (he later died), or by whom, my mission colleague emotionally insisted that “we had to do something,” as though it was self-evident that Israel was responsible. That incident came to mind when I read in the Birnbaum article that the director of HRW’s Middle East Division, Sarah Leah Whitson, had a poster in her office of the movie Paradise Now, which humanizes (and arguably dignifies) Palestinian suicide bombers, as well as photographs of bereaved Gazans.
Too often, human rights reports on Israel reflect a blindly emotional rush to a less-than-careful judgment. In the third week of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, HRW published a report that described an Israeli air strike on the village of Srifa that allegedly killed “as many as 42 civilians.” A year later, in a more complete, apparently less-hasty report, HRW admitted that the strike, in fact, had killed 17 combatants and five civilians.
“Eyewitnesses were not always forthcoming about the identity of those that died, and in the case of Srifa, misled our researchers,” explained the newer report (which, according to Birnbaum’s analysis, also contained dozens of other discrepancies).