Does the Evidence Actually Contradict Human Rights Watch?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Professor Bell may stand by his critique of Human Rights Watch, but that doesn’t make it any more accurate. Quite simply, he has offered almost no evidence that contradicts Ms. Whitson’s claim that although Hezbollah fighters might have been in Sreifa during Israel’s attack on August 13, there were no Hezbollah fighters there on July 13 and July 19, during the two attacks Human Rights Watch investigated.

First, consider Professor Bell’s contention that, “[c]ontrary to Mr. Whitson’s insinuations, no media reports indicate that there were dozens of new Lebanese dead in Srifa on August 13. The estimated 43 dead referred to in the New York Times story from Srifa clearly referred to casualties over the course of the weeks of fighting.” (emphasis mine)

Actually, no. Here are the relevant paragraphs from the August 16 article:

Just days ago, Israeli warplanes pounded the town again as Hezbollah fighters moved into the area to face off with Israeli troops who landed in the hills nearby. Fierce fighting and bombing continued even into early Monday morning, until the United Nations cease-fire took hold at 8 a.m., residents said.

Muhammad Jaber looked on quietly as a crowd of men gathered around an excavator reaching deep into the rubble of what was once a three-story building here in Sreifa on Tuesday, wondering what he might have done differently to induce his son to leave.

“I told him to come with me, but he wouldn’t,” Mr. Jaber said, speaking of his 27-year-old son Bilal. He said he had a hunch why his son wouldn’t leave, but he refused to elaborate.

“He said he wanted to stay with his friends,” Mr. Jaber said. “I called him after we left, but he said he just wouldn’t leave.”

Within minutes, several men dove into an opening in the rubble and pulled out an army boot, then a walkie-talkie, a bulletproof vest and a machine gun. They belonged to one of Bilal’s friends. The jovial workmen went silent as Hezbollah security men told photographers to stop taking pictures, and Mr. Jaber’s hunch was confirmed: his son was one of the militia fighters.

Mr. Kamaleldin, the Sreifa official, estimated that up to two-thirds of the town’s homes and buildings were demolished, leaving more than 43 people buried in the rubble. A majority of them were fighters belonging to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party, residents said.

The article is clear: Israel attacked Sreifa on August 13, killing a number of Hezbollah fighters that had recently moved in the area. August 13 — more than one month after the initial attack Human Rights Watch investigated, and more than three weeks after the second attack.

And what of Professor Bell’s other “evidence”? To begin with, notice the dates of the articles he cites: the Times, August 2; the Washington Post, August 2; the AP, August 22; Bloomberg, August 17; the Telegraph, August 21; the Guardian, August 7; AFP, August 2. The earliest article was published two weeks after the second attack Human Rights Watch investigated.

More importantly, with the exception of an ambiguous statement by a Hezbollah barber in the Telegraph, the articles neither claim nor imply that Hezbollah fighters were in Sreifa during the attacks on July 13 and July 19:

  • The Times: two Hezbollah fighters say they are “holed up” in Sreifa. No suggestion they were there on July 13 or July 19.
  • Washington Post: A Hezbollah fighter is holed up in Sreifa. No mention he was there on July 13 or July 19.
  • The Guardian: the Unifil officer says that his forces were shelled by Hezbollah fighters on August 4.
  • AP: Here’s what the Hezbollah fighter wrote in his diary about the first attack HRW investigated: “On the first day of the war on July 12. They are shooting at the school. There is no one inside. The school is under construction but they think the school is a military center for Hezbollah. It isn’t.” And the second attack: “It was 3 in the morning. The planes came. There were so many overhead. There were maybe 30 planes and they were firing rockets and missiles. They thought they were hitting the centers for Hezbollah but they killed 25 people, they were civilians.”
  • Bloomberg: Discusses a Hezbollah-owned apartment building and grocery store in Sreifa bombed on August 14. No mention of a Hezbollah presence in the town on July 13 or July 19.
  • The Telegraph: The only article that provides support for Professor Bell’s claim. Quotes a Hezbollah fighter/barber who suggests that there were Hezbollah fighters in Sreifa throughout the war. Does not discuss July 13 or July 19 specifically.
  • AFP: A Hezbollah commander walks around Sreifa, one of three towns he is responsible for. No suggestion he was there on July 13 or July 19.

On the basis of these news articles, Professor Bell concludes that Human Rights Watch’s investigation into the July 13 and July 19 attacks “was either incompetent or a fabrication.” Those articles, however, provide next to no support for his claim.

Professor Bell also argues, of course, that Human Rights Watch is motivated by “an anti-Israel bias.” I’d simply point out that, by my count, Human Rights Watch has publicly criticized Hezbollah’s actions 13 times since the beginning of the war, including criticizing the Human Rights Committee for singling out Israel for blame and demanding that Syria convince Hezbollah to stop launching indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians. By contrast, I have yet to see Professor Bell criticize anything that Israel has done during the war, at least on this blog.

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