Susan Heller Pinto
Director of Middle Eastern Affairs and International Analysis
This article originally appeared in The Times of Israel on March 2, 2014
Two renowned human rights institutions issued reports on February 27 examining Israel’s record in the West Bank. Not surprisingly, both reports zeroed-in on what to criticize about Israel Defense Forces policies toward Palestinians.
Amnesty International’s newly released: ‘Trigger-Happy’ Israel’s Use of Reckless Force in the West Bank is an unmitigated hatchet job on Israel.
The chapter on the West Bank in the U.S. Department of State’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, while critical, provides important context necessary to help understand Israel’s very real dilemmas and challenges.
Let’s be clear: Amnesty International and the State Department are two very different kinds of institutions. Each employs different methodologies in getting data and has vastly different relationships with governing authorities around the world.
Having said this, a comparison of the way the two institutions handled the complexity of human rights issues in the West Bank is instructive. Ultimately, it highlights the difference between enhancing credibility by providing context in order to actually bring improvements on the ground and taking a distinctly biased and simplistic approach that does not encourage either party to take steps to improve the situation.
Amnesty’s report examines Israel’s use of alleged “excessive force” in responding to what the group describes as peaceful, non-violent protests by Palestinian civilians. Amnesty claims 35 Palestinian civilians have been killed by the IDF since 2011, saying, without any factual support, that the protestors have posed “little or no serious risk to the Israeli soldiers.”
The picture painted by Amnesty is of Palestinians peacefully responding to Israel’s repressive occupation. Beyond mentioning Israel’s takeover of the West Bank in 1967, there is no discussion of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the report repeatedly refers to protests about what they call the “fence/wall” (what Israel refers to as the security barrier), Amnesty provides no background on what the barrier is and why Israel felt the need to build it after years of unceasing Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian buses, cafes and nightclubs. There is little credence given to reports of Palestinian acts of violence against Israeli military personnel and Israeli civilians. Indeed, despite slight mention of the use of stones, catapults, petrol bombs and even guns, the severity of these actions is deliberately downplayed:
"Both types of protests frequently begin peacefully but descend into violence when a minority of the protesters, often younger ones, start throwing stones in the direction of Israeli soldiers either at their own initiative or in response to aggressive actions by the Israeli forces. Even when catapults are used, in practice such stone-throwing poses little or no serious risk to Israeli soldiers…. On occasions, the army has claimed that protesters used petrol bombs but if such cases did occur they were departures from the norm, and even then may have posed little risk to Israeli soldiers due to the distance from which they were thrown. Reports alleging the use of firearms by protesters are rare; on two occasions in 2013 the army alleged that Israeli soldiers had come under fire from Palestinians in the context of protests but without disclosing whether any soldiers were injured as a result."
As Daniel Taub, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, said: “Amnesty’s obsessive focus on Israel, and its refusal to recognize the very real threat posed by deliberately orchestrated violent demonstrations, suggests an agenda that has more to do with politics than human rights.” And, dismissing the report, the IDF said in a statement: “Sadly, rock throwing and violent demonstrations present only part of the operational challenges posed to the IDF by Palestinian violence in Judea and Samaria. Indeed in 2013 there were 66 further terror attacks which included shootings, the planting of IEDs, blunt weapon attacks and the abduction and murder of a soldier.”
The chapter in the State Department report contains much criticism of Israel’s policies in the West Bank (the chapter also examines the record of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas). However, in contrast to Amnesty’s myopic approach, the State Department provides a more rounded view of Israel’s security challenges in the territory. Notably, it makes specific reference to attacks on Israelis:
"Palestinian terrorist groups and other unaffiliated individuals committed unlawful killings of Israeli civilians and security forces in Israel, and of Israeli civilians and security forces operating in the West Bank… There were also firebombings and other attacks on civilians in Jerusalem. In April a Palestinian man stabbed to death an Israeli settler at Tapuach Junction, south of Nablus, the first time an Israeli had been killed in the West Bank in 18 months…in September an Israeli soldier in Hebron died from a bullet wound; the identity and nationality of the perpetrator remained unknown at year’s end. There were numerous acts of violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank."
The State Department certainly lists the cases where IDF forces have killed Palestinians, but presents the IDF position not as a throw-away as Amnesty does, but in the description of the incident. For example:
"On January 23, IDF forces shot and killed Lubna al-Hanash near Hebron. An initial IDF investigation stated that a group of Palestinians ambushed an IDF patrol with Molotov cocktails and rocks and that the soldiers opened fire because they believed their lives were in danger. Palestinian witnesses reported that Hanash was walking on the campus of the local college when she came under fire. Results of a further investigation were not available by year’s end."
There is no question that human rights monitors play a crucial role in society by holding all states responsible and accountable, and hopefully improve human rights practices around the globe.
Israel, despite experiencing 65 years of terrorism and security challenges, is certainly not exempt from having its human rights record examined and questioned, nor cases of abuse highlighted. However, to understand how and why the IDF develops its basic policies and procedures in the West Bank, historical and situational context is vital.
To that end, the approach of the State Department report (which relies on reports and investigations by human rights NGOs on the ground), while highly critical of certain Israel policies and actions, notes Israel’s perspective and security dilemmas, and can be viewed by the Israeli Government as a constructive document to be considered and acted upon. Amnesty’s one-sided slam, which fails to give the Israeli position any real consideration, much less validation, has already been rejected and will likely have little practical impact.
"Israel, despite experiencing 65 years of terrorism and security challenges, is certainly not exempt from having its human rights record examined and questioned, nor cases of abuse highlighted. However, to understand how and why the IDF develops its basic policies and procedures in the West Bank, historical and situational context is vital."