December 11, 2023
In Gaza Substack
[Finkelstein comments: On November 26, 2023, Human Rights Watch released its
“Findings on October 17 al-Ahli Hospital Explosion.” The findings effectively exonerated Israel of culpability for the massive death toll at the hospital. On November 29, I sent this (slightly amended) list of queries to Omar Shakir, Director of Israel and Palestine Affairs at HRW. On that same day, Mr Shakir replied that “we’ll aim to get back to you by next week.” On December 6, however, I was informed by Mr Shakir that HRW would not be answering my queries. In a subsequent email to Mr Shakir, I offered to correct any errors he found in my text. He didn’t respond.]
29 November 2023
Dear Mr Omar Shakir,
Per “Findings on October 17 al-Ahli Hospital Explosion,” I should emphasize at the outset that, for all I know, everything you wrote is correct. However, I wonder if you might answer a few questions:
(1) In response to your letter to Gaza’s Ministry of Interior (November 10, 2023), Hamas’ Political and Foreign Relations Department stated (November 25) that it “does not object, in any way, to you conducting an independent investigation in this regard, through a visit by an investigation team sent by your organization to Gaza Strip. Hamas is ready to provide all necessary assistance to conduct the investigation.” Further, you state that your “remote analysis assessed the explosion and the damage on site,” and that you were “unable to visit the scene, preventing conclusive identification of the munition.” You also state that Hamas “should release the evidence of munition remnants and other information they have regarding the al-Ahli hospital explosion to allow for a full investigation.” You also state that “Documenting damage caused by misfired rockets is difficult because the authorities in Gaza have impeded investigations of such incidents.” (emphases added) Is there a reason why you published your report before undertaking the critical on-the-spot investigation that was welcomed by Hamas? Indeed, Hamas has stated that “Yes, 100%” it would allow HRW to examine the evidence it collected at the blast sight. Is there a reason why you devote 24 lines to Hamas’ alleged concealment of critical evidence, yet you devote only three lines just barely alluding to Hamas’ express, explicit willingness to fully cooperate with an independent HRW investigation? Is there a reason why you omitted mention that Israel made demonstrably false claims about its video evidence and almost certainly fabricated wiretap evidence in this incident? Is there a reason why you omitted that, whereas Hamas agreed to fully cooperate with an independent international investigation and to make available all the evidence at its disposal, the U.S.—which rushed to second Israel’s contention that Hamas was responsible for the explosion—stated that it “did not believe that [an investigation] is appropriate at this time”? In assessing claims and counter-claims, is it not relevant that one side welcomed and the other side opposed an independent international investigation?
(2) You report “the decades-long failure of both Israeli and Palestinian authorities to credibly and impartially investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law.” Is there a reason why you omit the salient fact that, whereas Israel has never cooperated with an independent international investigation after its “operations” in Gaza, Hamas has repeatedly cooperated with international human rights investigations after Israeli “operations” in Gaza—with Amnesty International, with the Goldstone Mission and other U.N. missions? Thus, one such international investigatory body observed that “the primary obstacle to the Commission’s mandate was lack of cooperation from the Government of Israel.” It might further be noted that Hamas continued to cooperate with international investigations even as they repeatedly found it culpable of major transgressions of the laws of war.
(3) You state that you consulted “experts.” How many experts did you consult, and could you provide a list of their names? Did all of your weapons experts concur that it was “highly unlikely” that an Israeli munition was responsible? Did all of your experts concur that “the sound preceding the explosion …. [was] consistent with the impact of a rocket” and was “not consistent” with any Israeli munition? If this wasn’t a consensus opinion, how many of your munitions experts concurred with your conclusion and how many didn’t? Is there a reason why you didn’t provide an explanation for discounting the available expert testimony that contradicted your findings?
(4) You yourself have recently stated that “We have been monitoring human rights abuses in the Gaza Strip for three decades, including several rounds of hostilities. We’ve generally found the data that comes out of the ministry of health to be reliable.” Why then do you believe the Ministry of Health drastically inflated the figure in this particular incident? Is there a reason why you didn’t simply request from the Ministry of Health the list of names of the casualties, which it has supplied on previous occasions? You also state that the images you viewed of the victims “display between 65 and 75 body bags, rolled-up carpets and bodies,” and that you “could not independently verify whether all of these victims were from the al-Ahli explosion.” Is the reader supposed to infer that the total number of victims in the explosion was fewer than 100—which is most certainly the impression you leave and how you are now being cited? You also state that “Research citing data released by the Israeli military has suggested that between 10 to 20 percent of rockets launched from Gaza have failed.” Is there a reason why a reader should credit without corroborative evidence this statement more than numberless other demonstrably false statements issuing forth from Israel?
(5) You pertinently state that Israel has repeatedly attacked Gazan medical facilities, personnel, and transport. You then go on to state that “Palestinian armed groups have unlawfully launched thousands of rockets at Israeli communities, causing death, injuries and damage.” Is there a reason why you state this wholly irrelevant fact except to effect a false symmetry? You also state that Palestinian armed groups have “extensively used” inherently indiscriminate weapons that violate the laws of war and constitute a war crime. Is there a reason why you didn’t also state—what is as (ir)relevant—that Israel extensively uses 1-2,000 pound bombs in civilian neighborhoods, which is also an indiscriminate attack and a war crime?
(6) Your section titled “Events Surrounding the Explosion” analyzes the video evidence. You conclude that the “barrage of rockets fired by an unidentified Palestinian armed group flew, or not, over the hospital … [T]heir … flight path through the night sky cannot be established with precision.” You then proceed to analyze the video evidence (and eyewitness testimony) of the “intense attack by the Israeli military when the hospital explosion occurred,” and conclude that you “found no evidence that points to them [Israeli jets] being responsible for launching the munition that hit the hospital grounds.” Is there a reason why you didn’t as categorically conclude that you found no video evidence that Palestinian rockets caused the attack?
(7) Your section titled “Damage Analysis” analyzes the physical evidence on the ground. You state that the “limited blast damage around the crater is inconsistent with … munitions fired by weapons systems that the Israeli military has acknowledged using in Gaza in this round of conflict.” (emphasis added) Did you investigate whether it is inconsistent with any known weapon in Israel’s arsenal, or that has been used by Israel in the past, or that is in the possession of other arsenals such as the U.S. army?
(8) You state that “the extensive fire damage to cars in the hospital parking lot is inconsistent with the detonation of a high-explosive warhead alone.” Is there a reason why you don’t also explicitly state that, by your own reckoning, the “extensive fire damage…” is inconsistent with the propellant from a rocket alone?
(9) The linchpin of your speculations is “a gas cylinder, such as those used for cooking, in[side] one of the vehicles” that was visible in a “video of the parking lot, filmed the day after the explosion” (my emphasis), that was allegedly ignited by the alleged propellent from the alleged rocket. If this cylinder caught in a video the day after the explosion did indeed cause the devastation, why do you believe Hamas just left it lying around and didn’t instead immediately confiscate it, in general to examine/secure it and in particular as—according to you—it directly incriminates Palestinian militant groups? Do you know for a fact that this gas cylinder contained fuel on the day of the explosion, or that it had telltale burn marks/stains? Or, is it your theory that a gas cylinder similar to the one captured in the video the day after the incident caused the explosion—in which case, you haven’t even ascertained if such a gas cylinder was at the scene of the explosion on the day of the explosion. Is there a reason why your theory is more plausible—on the face of the evidence that you’ve adduced in your preliminary analysis—than the explosion having resulted from a satanic tooth fairy? Which brings us back to the original question: Why did you publish your preliminary findings replete with flimsy, wholly speculative evidence when Hamas invited you to carry out an on-the-spot investigation and “Yes 100%” offered to let you examine its evidence from the crime scene? Why this rush to judgement?
(10) The bulk of your preliminary report is based on highly technical knowledge possessed only by weapons experts and video-analysis experts. Is there a reason why you were assigned authorship of this preliminary report even as, so far as I am aware, you aren’t a weapons expert or expert in missile video analysis? Is there any reason to suppose that you had much more to do with the report than compiling data and conclusions supplied by others—to which you merely appended your Arab name?
It is not hard to figure why Human Rights Watch issued such a shoddy, tendentious, disingenuous report. HRW has historically massaged its findings to placate Jewish mega donors and the overlapping elite political establishment. Its modus operandi has been to effect—via factual and legal prestidigitation—a false equivalence between the massive horrors inflicted by Israel in each of its hi-tech “operations” with the comparatively trivial transgressions committed by the Palestinian resistance. (See my books: Knowing Too Much, pp. 123-54; Gaza, pp. 114-15) If October 7, 2023 marked a qualitative leap in the breaches of the resistance, it also marked a qualitative leap by Israel as it openly, blatantly, and flagrantly waged a genocidal war against the people of Gaza. Consider now the matter at hand. On November 10, 2023, HRW issued a report titled “Unlawful Israeli Hospital Strikes Worsen Health Crisis.” The report stated that HRW hadn’t “seen any information that would justify” Israel’s “broad-based attack on Gaza’s healthcare system”; it speculated that the real purpose behind Israel’s evacuation orders—they were “impossible to carry out” and thus constituted “a death sentence for the sick and wounded” (WHO)—was “not to protect civilians, but to terrify them into leaving”; and it pointedly observed that the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute prohibits as a war crime “[i]ntentionally directing attacks against … medical units and transport.” It was predictable that HRW would come under ferocious attack from the usual suspects for this “pro-Hamas” report. So it was just as predictable that HRW would quickly issue another report to “balance” it. Voilà the report on al-Ahli hospital. What’s most salient about the al-Ahli hospital report is the extraordinary lengths HRW went not to examine evidence that might contradict its predetermined conclusions designed to “balance” the November 10 report. HRW refused to conduct an on-the-spot inspection and refused to examine the evidence from the blast site before issuing its report. Indeed, whereas HRW interviewed “hospital officials in Gaza” before issuing its November 10 report, it refused to interview hospital officials at al-Ahli hospital and to consider eyewitness medical evidence presented by qualified personnel that contradicted its finding (see Appendix). It remains an open question who was responsible for the al-Ahli explosion. What’s certain, however, is that HRW did not make a good-faith effort to ferret out the truth; on the contrary, it made a good-faith effort to suppress it.
Shortly after HRW released its findings on the al-Alhi explosion, Dr. Gassan Abu Sittah, the extraordinary British physician who journeyed to Gaza in the midst of the Israeli assault, made this statement:
Within hours of Al-Ma’madani [Al-Ahli] massacre, a process began to promote the idea that the missile that fell on Baptist Hospital was a Palestinian missile. Unfortunately, there is still no Palestinian missile that can kill 480 people. A Palestinian missile kills if it falls directly on someone’s head. Other than that, no missile has been able to kill anyone in the past. Regarding the type of injuries, I remember that as soon as I left the operating room after the explosion, I went to the emergency room, and in front of me was the hospital courtyard, where people had taken refuge … I saw them when I arrived that morning. The courtyard was ablaze and lit [from the rays of the fires], and was full of corpses and amputated limbs … I mean the courtyard was littered with amputated limbs. When I went to the emergency room, the first wounded man I encountered was a man with an amputation in the thigh. The amputation was as if it had been caused by a guillotine, and the wound was unlike any other wound with any other weapon. This caused bleeding, and I had to use a belt to tie the wounded man’s thigh to stop the bleeding. The second wounded man had an iron fragment in his neck, which hit a blood vessel, causing bleeding. All of the injured had iron shrapnel wounds, not the type of shrapnel produced by other types of missiles. Rockets usually enter the ground and explode, and most of the fragments are gravel and dirt, and the wounds will be different. As for the wounds in this case, they were all caused by iron fragments resulting from the missile itself. There is other evidence that supports this result, for example, the number of injured people, and inspection of the explosion site. The sad surprise is that HRW published a report …. Suhaila Al-Tarazi, the hospital director, is currently in America, but they have not contacted her. Dr. Maher Ayyad, the medical director of the hospital, received a call from an Israeli officer who threatened to bomb the hospital, and after the threat, the hospital wall was bombed. The Israeli officer called him the next day and told him, I asked you to evacuate the hospital, but you did not evacuate it and you bear the responsibility … they have not questioned Dr. Maher Ayyad. They did not question any of the survivors, nor any of the doctors. They did not question the Al Jazeera crew who filmed a few minutes after the crime, nor did they attempt to obtain from them the footage they had filmed. They did not question the press teams that went and photographed the site of the explosion. The tragedy is that… The same applies to the narrative regarding Al-Shifa Hospital. The Israeli narrative is considered the starting point, and the victim must refute the Israeli narrative. The killer is not required to prove his innocence, but rather the victim is required to prove his innocence of killing himself. If we put aside the issue of the Baptist Hospital, what about Al-Shifa Hospital, what about Al-Nasr Hospital where an ambulance was bombed, what about the Indonesian Hospital that was bombed with several missiles, and what about the three doctors who were killed in Al-Awda Hospital in Jabalia. Did all of this result from Palestinian missiles? (Translation by Aiman Haddad)
In a subsequent email to me, Dr. Sittah stated:
Human Rights Watch DID NOT:
1) Speak to wounded survivors;
2) Speak to survivors, both internally displaced Gazans, in the hospital and staff (including myself);
3) Speak to surgeons at both Ahli hospital and Shifa with regards the types of injuries and characteristics of wounds;
4) Speak to and ask for footage from the Al-Jazeera crew that went to the hospital immediately after the attack while the bodies were in the courtyard;
5) Speak to and ask for footage from film crews who went the following morning at daybreak to film the missile site;
6) Speak to the CEO of the hospital who is currently in the US;
7) Speak to the Medical Director of the hospital who received a warning call from the Israeli army ordering him to evacuate the hospital two days before. When he didn’t evacuate two missiles were fired at the perimeter of the hospital followed by a second call from the same officer berating him for not evacuating;
8) Place the attack in the context of the systematic destruction of the whole health system in this war.