Human Rights Watch strikes again
Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, takes issue with my critique of Human Rights Watch’s anti-Israel bias. As I noted earlier, I critiqued HRW’s accusation that Israel had committed war crimes by bombing the Lebanese village of Srifa, where, according to HRW, there was “no evidence that there had been Hizbullah military activity around the areas targeted by the IDF during or just prior to the attack: no spent ammunition, abandoned weapons or military equipment, trenches, or dead or wounded fighters.” Yet, I observed that according to a New York Times story on August 16, most of the estimated 43 dead in Srifa were fighters from Hezbollah and the allied Amal militia. I concluded that HRW’s investigation was either incompetent or a fabrication.
I reproduce Ms. Whitson’s comments in full below.
Ms. Whitson would have us believe that for several weeks, media outlets, UNIFIL, Lebanese villagers and Hezbollah fighters themselves all mistakenly believed that Hezbollah was operating in Srifa while only Israel and Human Rights Watch knew this was a lie. During this time, Israel deliberately targeted Lebanese civilians. Then, at the very end of combat – on August 13, the day before the cease-fire entered into force – Hezbollah fighters rushed back into Srifa, just in time for Israel to decide to change strategies, stop targeting civilians and start targeting Hezbollah fighters. In a flash, Israel successfully killed two dozen in one strike, while dozens of civilian bodies simultaneously disappeared from the village.
This rather strains credulity.
Per Ms. Whitson: As Avi Bell writes, “facts are very difficult to get hold of” in a war like the one in Lebanon. Yet, unlike Mr. Bell, that’s exactly what Human Rights Watch got, in its extensive on-site examination in Lebanon of over two dozen attacks involving Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians with no evidence of Hezbollah activity at or near the attack. Had Bell actually focused on facts, and not polemics, he might have been slower to conclude that our coverage of the attack on Srifa on July 19 was inaccurate, ‘proving’ our supposed bias. We documented two attacks on Srifa: a July 13 attack that killed four Brazilian-Lebanese civilians and a July 19 attack that destroyed at least 13 houses and killed at least 19 people whom residents said were civilians, including eight members of one family. Subsequent to release of our report, there was a third attack on Srifa, around August 13, which, according to news reports, included Hezbollah fighters who had come to Srifa at that time. Each of the three attacks was on a different neighborhood of Srifa. Bell simply assumes that all deaths in Srifa reported after the mid-August bombings were due to the July 19 attack. Statements by Lebanese officials on the scene, as reported in the very New York Times article Bell relies on, strongly suggest this was not the case. Readers should judge for themselves, of course, and we invite them to read the report in question, as well as our coverage of Hezbollah’s conduct, and our coverage of over 70 countries around the world, at our website, www.hrw.org. As for Mr. Bell, if he spent half as much time considering Israel’s wartime conduct as he does condemning Israel’s critics, he might actually be of some help.
As all professors who have graded seminar papers know, the mere fact that a report has many pages, and that the author congratulates herself/himself on the extensive research involved, hardly provides a guarantee of the quality of the work.
In addition to the sources I cited, numerous other organizations and media outlets reported the presence of Hezbollah combatants in Srifa. Just to cite a few examples, this Times story reports: “Two veteran [Hezbollah] guerrillas, Haj Rabieh and Abu Muhammed, holed up in the ruins of Srifa, just south of the Litani river yesterday, demonstrated how they use cheap walkie-talkies to stay in touch and baffle any Israeli eavesdroppers..” On August 2, the Washington Post reported: “Hajj Abu Mohammed, a bearded, 44-year-old militiaman in the small village of Srifa … was one of the few people left [in Srifa]…. ‘We’re in a defensive position,’ he said.” General Alain Pellegrini, commander of UNIFIL (the U.N. force in south Lebanon) stated during the August 5-6 weekend that “in Srifa, Hizbullah … fired rockets from 200 yards from our men.” According to this AP story, a Srifa villager who admitted to being a Hezbollah fighter wrote in his diary on August 9, “They hit all the houses that had belonged to the martyrs of Hezbollah.” See also this Bloomberg story, quoting “Abdel Ilah Haidar, 24, an electrician by trade and a Hezbollah guerrilla by vocation” as saying “[d]uring the war, Srifa was full of Hezbollah fighters.” Or this Telegraph story reporting: “[D]uring five weeks of war against Israel, the barber of Srifa – a village in southern Lebanon – was anything but ordinary, serving as a fighter with Hizbollah as well as a barber. It was an exhausting time, he said yesterday … every few hours, as the fighters were taking a break, he would put down his rifle and grenade launcher to trim the beards of his fellow guerrillas.” Or this AFP story from August 2: “Among the Hezbollah fighters prowling what remains of the heavily bombed south Lebanese village of Srifa are a pair of former middle school history teachers who have given up their grade books for two-way radios and Kalashnikov rifles…. Haj Rabia Abu Hussein — known to his soldiers simply as ’103,’ said ‘I know my mission. I must make my rockets hit Israel.’ … They shift seamlessly from civilian garb to soldiers’ wear, they said. ‘It’s not reasonable to walk around in military uniforms and carry rifles when, for example, the Red Cross comes into town,’ Mr. Hussein said.”
Contrary 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.
I stand by my critique. The jury is still out on the question of incompetence or fabrication.