Taking — and Winning! — the Bernstein Challenge

by Kevin Jon Heller

As part of his latest attack on Human Rights Watch, David Bernstein insists — again — that HRW “absolutely refuses to apologize or retract” when it is “wrong about Israel.”  He also claims that, “[t]hough challenged,” I have “yet to come up with another, legitimate example of HRW officially responded to legitimate criticisms from pro-Israel sources the way it responded to (somewhat dubious) criticism from extremist anti-Israel critics.”  Bernstein obviously can’t be bothered to examine HRW’s website himself, because it took me all of five minutes to find the following:

This report corrects two major and several minor inaccuracies from Human Rights Watch’s earlier report issued during the 2006 war (Fatal Strikes):

Further Human Rights Watch investigations into a deadly strike at Srifa established that an Israeli attack there killed 17 combatants and five civilians on July 19, not the 26 civilians claimed in Fatal Strikes.

In a second case, involving an Israeli air strike on the village of `Aitaroun that killed nine members of the `Awada family, further Human Rights Watch research established that Hezbollah had fired rockets from near the home a few hours before the deadly air strike, although there is no doubt that all of those killed in the air strike were civilians unconnected to Hezbollah.

Human Rights Watch regrets these two major inaccuracies in its Fatal Strikes report.  We have corrected several smaller errors relating to dates of strikes, ages and names of victims, and the previously unreported presence of an empty Hezbollah civilian office in a building targeted by an Israeli air strike in Bint Jbeil that killed two civilians. Wherever we have corrected errors from previous reports, the text or footnotes of this report clearly identify the information corrected.

To avoid any such mistakes in this report, we reexamined all of the cases included in Fatal Strikes and conducted additional interviews, site inspections, and visits to graveyards to establish whether victims were civilians or combatants. In addition, we investigated a further 71 cases in similar detail.

Note that these corrections are on HRW’s website, thus satisfying Bernstein’s (arbitrary) requirement. And look, there is even an apology!

I await Bernstein’s explanation of how HRW’s corrections and apology are not actually corrections and not actually an apology.  Even Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor — which exists, by its own admission, solely “to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas” — grudgingly acknowledged the correction.

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/08/01/taking-and-winning-the-bernstein-challenge/

15 Responses

  1. UPDATE: Kevin has now found an example! Over a year after the Second Lebanon War ended, when no one was paying attention any longer, HRW issued a new report in which it corrected what it calls two major errors in its initial major report, “Fatal Strikes,” written in August 2006.
    I checked up on one of the errors/corrections: HRW writes that “further Human Rights Watch investigations into a deadly strike at Srifa established that an Israeli attack there killed 17 combatants and five civilians on July 19, not the 26 civilians claimed in Fatal Strikes.”
    One odd thing about this is that various critics, including me, pointed out at the time that HRW’s initial report on Srifa contradicted both published reports and common sense. Ms. Whitson nevertheless vociferously defended HRW’s conclusion at the time, and indeed snidely attacked one of HRW’s critics, Prof. Avi Bell. (Has she apologized to Prof. Bell? Don’t hold your breath.) Whitson, indeed, seemed willing to stake HRW’s credibility on the Srifa report. Prof. Bell replied that HRW was either incompetent or engaging in fabrication. He was right!
    Even stranger, and contrary to its practice when it “clarified” criticism of Hamas, HRW has failed to otherwise update its website to reflect its correction. Thus, HRW’s website still has the Fatal Strikes report up, and it still claims that Israel killed twenty-six civilians:

    Killing of an Estimated Twenty-six Civilians in Srifa, July 19
    Following the July 13 attack on Srifa village that killed four members of a Brazilian-Lebanese family (see above), Israeli warplanes and Apache helicopters continued to bomb the village and the surrounding fields, putting the villagers into a state of panic. A villager who had fled from Srifa explained how the heavy Israeli bombardment effectively trapped people inside the village, and how the village Sheikh had ordered the terrified civilians to seek refuge in the wealthier “Moscow” neighborhood of the village, where the multiple-story homes had concrete basements that offered greater protection:

    After the first bombing, villagers started fleeing to neighboring villages for safety.Israel saw this from their drones, and they sent Apache helicopters to circle the village to prevent us from leaving.They started shelling the area around the village from airplanes.There were also Apache helicopters circling over the village. Two Apaches would come and leave, and then another two Apaches would come. The Sheikh of the village told the villagers to hide in their shelters.The people followed the advice of the Sheikh, and so they sought shelter in the big houses with basements used to dry tobacco [in the “Moscow” neighborhood.][52]
    Around 3:30 a.m. on July 19, at least three Israeli airplanes struck at least thirteen homes in the “Moscow” neighborhood, firing multiple munitions and collapsing the homes on their basements packed with sheltering civilians.”At 3:30 a.m. the attacks started,” said Qassim Mustafa Nazal, a resident.”We suddenly heard bombs, one hit, then two hits at the same time, overall between 12 to 16 rockets hit the Moscow neighborhood.”[53]
    As of this writing, the number of victims remains unknown because rescue workers have been unable to reach the village to recover the bodies, which remain buried under the rubble, and Israeli warplanes and helicopter strikes have prevented the local villagers from recovering all of the bodies themselves.A local resident coordinating the recovery effort estimated to Human Rights Watch that approximately twenty-six bodies remained under the rubble as of July 31,[54] but other residents estimated that as many as forty-two are missing after the attack.[55]Two Human Rights Watch researchers visited Srifa briefly on July 31, as local residents recovered the heavily decomposed body of one female victim.The researchers saw no signs of Hezbollah military activity in the village, such as weapons, military equipment, or trenches.The researchers did count at least thirteen homes that had completely collapsed, and relatives of the victims claimed that bodies remained trapped under many of the homes and that they had received no assistance to recover the bodies.

    So, I’ll acknowledge that HRW did, in fact, issued corrections regarding Israel–long after the relevant controversy faded from public consciousness, after vociferously defending its original report while attacking its critics (who turned out to be correct) in harsh, obnoxious terms, and without correcting the original charges on its website (the latter of which, along with the fact that it’s not on HRW’s “corrections” page, explains why, contrary to Kevin’s snarkiness, I was unaware of the correction). Forgive me if this fails to meaningfully change my opinion of HRW.

  2. Meanwhile, Kevin, I’m waiting for you to explain why Garlasco said one thing to the Jerusalem Post, and HRW ignored him and wrote something else on its webpage ten days later. (And you might want to acknowledge that you initially chose an example that turned out to directly contradict your argument.)

  3. And one more thing: Whitson herself seems to have denied that HRW has ever been wrong about Israel:

    “Senior [Israeli] government officials said that as a result of the new approach to the NGOs, their reports will be examined carefully, because they are based on faulty methodology that relies uncritically on Arab and Palestinian sources, testimony and witnesses, while dismissing Israeli evidence.”
    “This is a blanket accusation that groans, ‘Your witnesses are Palestinians, therefore they must all be lying,'” Whitson said, saying the methodology HRW uses here is the same methodology it uses all over the world. “Please, if there is something we got wrong, if one of the incidents or attacks we described is wrong, I would love to hear it. Because the Gerald Steinbergs of this world, and I guess now the Sharanskys of this world, love to give blanket denials, love to give blanket dismissals. But let’s get down to the facts and let me know, did we get the fact wrong on any of these cases.”

    I trust you will be sending Ms. Whitson an email reminding her how HRW and Ms. Whitson personally, relying on Lebanese eyewitnesses, was embarassingly and pugnaciously wrong about Srifa.

  4. David says the original uncorrected Fatal Strikes report is still up on HRW’s web page. I looked, and there it was. I’ve copied it below, directly from HRW’s web page at http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11265/section/5. I don’t see anything there correcting what HRW has admitted is false. I have skimmed the other sections of the report without finding any such correction.

    The existence of a correction somewhere else on HRW’s web site, in particular at http://www.hrw.org/en/node/10734/section/5, seems insufficient.

    Is this not worth criticizing, Kevin? I don’t know whether David’s broader points are well-taken, and I would assume good faith in the postings on this blog (which has one of my colleagues as a co-proprietor). But doesn’t HRW have an obligation to take down the false report or at least flag the correction in the report, rather than requiring the reader to search for a correction elsewhere?

    Mark Scarberry

    Killing of an Estimated Twenty-six Civilians in Srifa, July 19
    Following the July 13 attack on Srifa village that killed four members of a Brazilian-Lebanese family (see above), Israeli warplanes and Apache helicopters continued to bomb the village and the surrounding fields, putting the villagers into a state of panic.A villager who had fled from Srifa explained how the heavy Israeli bombardment effectively trapped people inside the village, and how the village Sheikh had ordered the terrified civilians to seek refuge in the wealthier “Moscow” neighborhood of the village, where the multiple-story homes had concrete basements that offered greater protection:
    After the first bombing, villagers started fleeing to neighboring villages for safety.Israel saw this from their drones, and they sent Apache helicopters to circle the village to prevent us from leaving.They started shelling the area around the village from airplanes.There were also Apache helicopters circling over the village. Two Apaches would come and leave, and then another two Apaches would come. The Sheikh of the village told the villagers to hide in their shelters.The people followed the advice of the Sheikh, and so they sought shelter in the big houses with basements used to dry tobacco [in the “Moscow” neighborhood.][52]
    Around 3:30 a.m. on July 19, at least three Israeli airplanes struck at least thirteen homes in the “Moscow” neighborhood, firing multiple munitions and collapsing the homes on their basements packed with sheltering civilians.”At 3:30 a.m. the attacks started,” said Qassim Mustafa Nazal, a resident.”We suddenly heard bombs, one hit, then two hits at the same time, overall between 12 to 16 rockets hit the Moscow neighborhood.”[53]
    As of this writing, the number of victims remains unknown because rescue workers have been unable to reach the village to recover the bodies, which remain buried under the rubble, and Israeli warplanes and helicopter strikes have prevented the local villagers from recovering all of the bodies themselves.A local resident coordinating the recovery effort estimated to Human Rights Watch that approximately twenty-six bodies remained under the rubble as of July 31,[54] but other residents estimated that as many as forty-two are missing after the attack.[55]Two Human Rights Watch researchers visited Srifa briefly on July 31, as local residents recovered the heavily decomposed body of one female victim.The researchers saw no signs of Hezbollah military activity in the village, such as weapons, military equipment, or trenches.The researchers did count at least thirteen homes that had completely collapsed, and relatives of the victims claimed that bodies remained trapped under many of the homes and that they had received no assistance to recover the bodies.
    From surviving relatives, Human Rights Watch has been able to obtain the names of sixteen persons believed to have been killed in the attack (but whose bodies are still not recovered).Among them are eight members of a single household:Kamil Diab Jaber, a 53-year-old owner of a construction business and a bakery; Mahmoud Jaber, 33; Ali Kamil Jaber, 30; Ahmed Kamil Jaber, 27; Menehil Najdi, 80; Ali Nazal, 28; Ali Za’rour, 30; and Bilal Hamoudi, 31.[56]Also believed killed were three people in the house next to the Jaber family: Abbas Abbas Dakrub, 21; Abbas Dakrub (cousin of Abbas), 18; and Wasim Ghalib Najdi.[57]At least five civilians are believed to have died in a third home belonging to Mohammed Qasim Najdi: Ahmed Najdi, 35, who had just returned to Lebanon from Russia; Hassan Qoreim, 22; Ali Najdi, 30; Mohammed Ali Najdi, 35; and Ali Hassan Sabra, 17.[58]
    According to a villager who was in the village at the time of the attack:

    There was no Hezbollah in the neighborhood.This neighborhood is known to be partial to the Communist Party, not Hezbollah.There are no Hezbollah people living there.Hezbollah does not have a need to be in this neighborhood, because we are 40 kilometers away from Israel, and the neighborhood looks out over the sea, it is not a strategic place.[59]

    Two additional villagers told Human Rights Watch in separate interviews that Hezbollah had not been present in the neighborhood around the time of the attack.”Except for one person, who didn’t even belong to Hezbollah, no one in that neighborhood knew how to handle weapons,” said Hussain Nazal.”He added, “If they hit some houses that belong to Hezbollah we would understand, but this is not the [Hezbollah] neighborhood.”[60]
    Human Rights Watch asked the office of the IDF spokesperson for information about the attack, which was widely reported in the press.The spokesperson responded that, after consulting with the Israeli Air Force, “on that day at that place we don’t have a report of any air strike.”[61]

    [52] Human Rights Watch interview with Mustafa Mohammed Aid, Beirut, July 24, 2006.

    [53] Human Rights Watch interview with Qassim Mustafa Nazal, Srifa, July 31, 2006.

    [54] Human Rights Watch interview with Hussain Nazal, Srifa, July 31, 2006.

    [55] Human Rights Watch interview with Mustafa Mohammed Aid, Beirut, July 24, 2006.

    [56] Ibid.

    [57] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed Khalil Faqi and Human Rights Watch interview with Mahmud Khalil Faqi, Beirut, July 22, 2006.

    [58] Human Rights Watch interview with Isam Kaour, Beirut, July 24, 2006.

    [59] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, name withheld, July 29, 2006.

    [60] Human Rights Watch interview with Hussain Nazal, Srifa, July 31, 2006.

    [61] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with IDF spokesperson Ron Roman, July 23, 2006.

  5. Mark,

    With respect, I don’t really see the problem.  HRW issued the revised report, posted it on its website, and identified in the revised report exactly what corrections had been made.  Why isn’t that enough?  We both know that Bernstein would have accused HRW of hiding its errors if it had removed the original report.

    That said, it might have been better if HRW mentioned in the original report that it had issued corrections.  But I imagine that there aren’t that many people who would only find the original report; other than those who click through to the report from an external website — or people like Bernstein, who can’t be bothered to check their claims before posting them — I can’t imagine how that would happen.

  6. Notice, also, how Bernstein once again moves the goalposts.  First he criticizes HRW for never correcting errors concerning Israel on its website.  Then, when he is proven wrong, he tries to excuse his failure to find HRW’s corrections on its website by noting that they were not posted on its corrections page.

    This is willful blindness, pure and simple.  To find the corrected report, all I had to do was go to HRW’s website and type in “Israel and correction.”  The revised report shows up on the first page of results.  Replacing “correction” with “correct,” “corrected,” or “regret” yields similar results.

  7. “or people like Bernstein, who can’t be bothered to check their claims before posting them”

    Now THAT’S an ironic comment coming from someone who STILL hasn’t retracted his claims about an Israeli attack on a UN school (that never happened), nor his more recent claim that HRW apologized for its accusations re a Gaza beach incident when HRW reiterated the accusation on in an official release ten days after the alleged apology.

    My updated post acknowledges that I was wrong to say that HRW NEVER retracts its accusations re Israel, though I am in good company with Sarah Leah Whitson in that regard. 

    Contrary to what you wrote, you actually failed the “challenge” I actually provided–showing an example where “HRW officially responded to legitimate criticisms from pro-Israel sources the way it responded to (somewhat dubious) criticism from extremist anti-Israel critics“–which included ensuring that its original story only appears on its website with a  correction preceding it, publishing the correction very quickly, and treating its critics with respect.

  8. Kevin writes ” go to HRW’s website and type in “Israel and correction.”  The revised report shows up on the first page of results.”

    Undoubtedly, but if you just type in “Israel”, you would have to spend the rest of the day before you’d arrive at any “correction”.  That doesn’t seem quite balanced.  By the way, I support HRW — even with such blemishes (but blemished they are).

  9. Kevin – your grudging admission HRW got at least one major condemnation of Israel wrong in the 2006 Lebanon war is progress. It’s hard when the halo starts to tarnish. But as others have noted, HRW acknowledged this long after the attention had shifted — they were not penalized. And there were many more such false claims in HRW reports on Lebanon, as documented by Prof. Bell, and in NGO Monitor. More importanly, SLW’s MENA division seems to have learned nothing from this, except that they can get away with major press campaigns targeting Israel, followed by minor corrections when caught. They followed this course in the Gaza war, and more recently in their “white phosphorous” and “drone” publications. Both condemn based on speculation, hand waving, with lots of pseudo-technical and irrelevant verbiage that provides no evidence.  I am sure that you will be among the first to read NGO Monitor‘s detailed analysis on the HRW drone science-fiction report later this week.

  10. Judith,

    I really find it difficult to fault HRW on this one.  Of course searching for “Israel” won’t lead to the revised report — HRW has been covering the Middle East for years.  If one is looking to see whether HRW ever retracted a claim about Israel, wouldn’t one run a more detailed search?

    As an aside, HRW does have an easy-to-find corrections page, one that includes numerous links to its corrections over the past couple of years.  Bernstein is right that the Israel revision isn’t on the page — but after all, the revised report was more than three years ago.

    As a further aside, cool blog!

  11. Keeping an erroneous report up on a website without linking from it to the corrections is somewhat like continuing to publish a book with errors in it — without noting the errors in the book — and also publishing another book that contains corrections. This is not a case in which a legal claim could be made for libel, but if I understand the law of libel correctly, continuing to publish a libelous accusation is a continuing act of libel even if the writer/publisher issues separate corrections not noted in the book that is continuing to be published. Blood libel claims are particularly pernicious when made concerning Israel, considering the continuing very old antisemitic propaganda that accuses Jews of killing Gentiles for various reasons.

    Someone who does not know or suspect already that HRW has corrected its false story may well find only the original story, because he or she will have no reason to search for the term “correction.” That’s the difference between the effect of continued posting of a false story and the attempt to win a bet based on whether a retraction had been issued. Of course if you are trying to win the bet you will search for correction or retraction. But if you are just trying to learn about what happened in the war, you are not likely to do so.

    Mark Scarberry

  12. Except if you Google Sifra “Human Rights Watch”, you get the first, false report on the first page (no. 10), and not the later report.  I don’t know where the later report shows up, but it’s not in the top 30.

  13. Fair enough.  As I said, I agree that HRW should note in the original report that they issued a revised one.

  14. Why don’t we simply send HRW an email, note this discussion and the fact the retraction doesn’t seem linked to their original document, and see what the response is?

    There’s a possibility it was simply an oversight.  There’s also the possibility it was intentional.  HRW should, through their actions, be able to tell us which it was.

  15. HRW would have no idea who I am, but they might pay attention to Kevin or to others. I’m not sure what HRW’s taking action to correct the problem now would show about whether the original failure to link was an oversight, but I’m willing to presume good faith. I’m also more interested in getting the retraction linked to the original story (so that readers will not be misled) than in having a continuing reason for criticizing HRW.

    Mark Scarberry

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