HRW v. Dershowitz

September 4, 2006

In News

Editor’s note: See also Human Rights Watch: ISRAELI GOVERNMENT WAR CRIMINAL

By SARAH LEAH WHITSON, Middle East Director, Human Rights Watch, New York

Armchair sleuths

Sir, – Avi Bell’s and Alan Dershowitz’s attacks on Human Rights Watch (“Whose war crimes in Lebanon?,” Daily Paper, and “What is ‘Human Rights Watch’ watching?” Upfront, August 25) illustrate why human rights investigations shouldn’t be conducted from an armchair. Rather than interviewing eyewitnesses and inspecting bomb sites, Bell and Dershowitz peruse their newspapers, but even then their reading is selective and distorted.

Dershowitz cites numerous articles to knock down a straw man. Human Rights Watch never denied, in the words of our report, that sometimes Hizbullah “store[s] weapons in or near civilian homes and [its] fighters placed rocket launchers within populated areas.” Indeed, we called these Hizbullah abuses “serious violations of the laws of war because they violate the duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties.” Our point was that there was no evidence of such Hizbullah presence for some two dozen cases, representing a third of Lebanese civilian deaths at the time, that Human Rights Watch field investigators examined in depth.

Bell focuses on one of those cases: a July 19 attack on the village of Srifa that destroyed at least 13 houses and killed at least 19 people whom residents said were civilians, including eight members of one family. He claims most of the victims were Hizbullah fighters, based on a highly selective reading of his newspapers.

For example, he quotes an August 16 article from The New York Times saying that “a majority” of the Srifa victims were fighters. But Bell omits the rest of the Times account, which explained that “[j]ust days” before August 16, “Israeli warplanes pounded the town again as Hizbullah fighters moved into the area to face off with Israeli troops who landed in the hills nearby.” By neglecting to mention that, long after Human Rights Watch’s August 3 report, Hizbullah fighters entered Srifa and the town was bombed again, Bell deceptively leaves readers with the impression that the fighter deaths were due to the July 19 attack. The Independent article Bell cites also was written after the August attack.

As for an AP dispatch from July 19, it said that Hizbullah fired rockets “from the area,” not the village, and that “it was residents who were hit in retaliation,” not fighters. Under international humanitarian law the presence of fighters in the general vicinity does not justify an attack on a particular residential building or neighborhood.

Ironically, IDF officials have responded far more constructively to Human Rights Watch’s findings than have Dershowitz and Bell. Their armchair obfuscations undermine the serious introspection that Israel should now be undertaking to reduce civilian casualties in future wars.