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Monday, September 07, 2009

HRW's pattern of bias in its "Precisely Wrong" report

No one denies that civilians were tragically killed in Gaza. The major question that human rights organizations like HRW and Amnesty International have to deal with is whether the civilian casualties could have been reasonably avoided, or if they appear to have been deliberate.

Clearly, they have no insight into the thinking of the IDF commanders, so it is literally impossible to prove that the IDF killed civilians deliberately. Instead, these groups will attempt to find evidence - physical, or via interviews - that seem to prove that the attacks were deliberate. While this can never be considered conclusive, it is a reasonable approach to take all the existing data and look to see if the evidence fits better into a narrative of deliberation or a narrative of accidental or collateral killings.

Looking into the details of HRW's reports that condemn Israel, one can see a disturbing but consistent pattern that HRW seems to have shown a definite bias towards evidence that condemns the IDF while downplaying or ignoring evidence that could exonerate the Israeli army. From all indications, HRW is stacking the deck to make the IDF look as guilty as possible.

Here are some examples from the HRW report on alleged drone attacks on civilians in Gaza, entitled Precisely Wrong.

Gaza Technical College, Gaza City

HRW writes:

Around 1:30 p.m. on December 27, 2008, the first day of the IDF offensive, an IDF drone launched a missile at a group of young men and women standing across the street from the UNRWA-sponsored Gaza Technical College in downtown Gaza City [GPS 31.51162/034.44336] killing 12. Nine of the dead were college students, two of them young women; all were waiting for a UN bus to take them to their homes in Rafah and Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip. The three other civilians killed were bystanders. The missile struck 25 meters from UNRWA's Gaza headquarters, in the Rimal neighborhood of central Gaza City, which is frequented by UN staff and international aid workers.

According to nine witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, including three international UN staff, no Palestinian fighters were active on the street or in the immediate area just prior to or at the time of the attack. Fighters from Hamas and the other Palestinian factions were rarely seen in the Rimal neighborhood where the attack took place, witnesses as well as Palestinian journalists and human rights activists based in Gaza said. This was one of the first airstrikes of Operation Cast Lead, and the street was crowded at the time of the attack as civilians went about their normal business.

Human Rights Watch altogether interviewed nine witnesses to the attack, three of them in a group and the rest individually. All gave corroborative details of the attack, which lent credibility to their claims. No fighters from Hamas or other Palestinian armed groups were in the area of the Gaza Technical College at the time of the attack, they all said. An UNRWA security guard who witnessed the attack told Human Rights Watch, "There wasn't anybody else around-no police, army, or Hamas."

What HRW is not mentioning is that one of the victims, Adham Hamdi al-'Adani, was identified in Hamas forums as a member of the al-Qassam Martyrs Central Region Deir el-Balah Martyrs Battalion.

HRW is purposefully misleading in another detail. While it is true that this was "one of the first airstrikes of Operation Cast Lead," it occurred a good 1.5 hours after the first Gaza City airstrike, according to PCHR. It seems unlikely that civilians were going about their "normal business" when the city was already under attack.

PCHR describes the targets in Gaza City this way:
At approximately 11:25 on Saturday, IOF warplanes bombarded Arafat police compound in the center of Gaza City, where the ceremony of graduation of trained officers was being conducted; the headquarters of the past Preventive Security Service and offices of Wa'ed Society for Prisoners in Tal al-Hawa neighborhood in the south of Gaza City; al-Mashtal site [detention center - EoZ] in the Beach camp in the west of the city; al-'Abbas police station; a bust garage belonging to Hamas near Gaza Harbor; and the headquarters of the Security and Protection Service and the presidential compound in the west of the city. They also bombarded a police station in al-Daraj neighborhood in the east of Gaza City, a site of the 'Izziddin al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas in al-Shoja'iya neighborhood and another one in al-Zaytoun neighborhood in the east of the city; a house belonging to the Humaid family in al-Tuffah neighborhood in the east of the city.
It is possible that the PCHR's list is not exhaustive, but it appears that every target mentioned besides the Humaid house was a legitimate target. Which of these listed corresponds to Al-Sena'a street in the neighborhood where the attack detailed above occurs? Could it be that HRW missed one of the al-Qassam sites that was obliterated, and that the eyewitnesses were covering it up? (If it was the Humaid house, it seems strange that HRW wouldn't mention the IDF bombing of a house in this case.)

Is it possible that 'Adani (PCHR: 'Udeini) was doing something other than just innocently going to class, a full hour and a half after the initial IDF assault on Gaza City? We have no way of knowing. But one can definitively say this: if HRW had the information about 'Adani's affiliation, it didn't see fit to mention it in its report; if it didn't have that information, it can hardly be considered to have done a complete analysis. Either way, HRW is not showing that it was objective in its research and reporting.

Samur family metal shop, Jabalya

This was one of the more infamous accidents that the IDF made during the war: misidentifying dozens of cylinders being loaded into a truck as being rockets, and not as the oxygen tanks that they were. The IDF video of that airstrike was widely watched.

HRW blames the IDF for not knowing the difference:

The family showed Human Rights Watch some of the oxygen canisters that it said it had moved that day before the Israeli strike. The canisters measured 1.62 meters long-shorter than the average adult man-and 20 cm in diameter. Grad rockets are 2.87 meters long, nearly twice the length.

Jabalya is in the northern Gaza Strip, which has been the origin of many of the Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel. Whatever suspicions that raised, however, the drone's advanced imaging equipment should have enabled the drone operator to determine the nature of the objects under surveillance. The video posted online by the IDF indicates that this was the case: two of the cylindrical objects the men were loading onto the truck are visible, and both are clearly shorter than Grad rockets, which, at nearly three meters are taller than any grown man and longer than the width of the Mercedes-Benz 410 flatbed truck onto which the cylinders were being loaded crossways. The Russian-designed Grad rocket is a known weapon in the Hamas arsenal, and consequently recognizable to IDF personnel. As such, given the visual evidence, the drone operator should have considered the likelihood that these were not Grad rockets. In addition, according to the IDF video of the attack, the truck was under surveillance for more than two minutes, and possibly longer because the truck was not moving, so the operator should have had time to consult with superior officers on whether the truck could be considered a legitimate target.

HRW is discounting a number of possibilities: that the person watching the truck might have thought that the rockets weren't Grads but rather Qassam-2 rockets, which are almost identical in size to the oxygen cylinders (180 cm vs. 162 cm) or perhaps another type, that the proximity to the metal workshop where Qassams are often built indicated a likelihood of them being rockets, whether two minutes is really enough time to check when being wrong would result in dozens of rockets being launched towards Israel.

In addition, HRW breezily mentions the dimensions of the Grad rocket as if everyone could recognize their size immediately. Yet Mark Garlasco, HRW's senior military analyst, at the time said:

"This case highlights the complexity of targeting in urban areas. Even when the commander is certain of his target based on active observation, this shows they can be mistaken. . . . It is difficult to know what your target is."

Garlasco, no fan of Israel and someone who has shown his bias before, hardly finds this an open-and-shut case of Israeli blame. And isn't it interesting that HRW's "senior military analyst" didn't immediately notice that the cylinders in the video were not as large as Grad rockets? HRW clearly gives the IDF more responsibility for accurately identifying a rocket in two minutes than it gives its own resident expert in a week of watching the video.

HRW also doesn't address another salient point that the IDF mentions about the incident:
The objects were being loaded into the truck next to a recognised Hamas rocket manufacturing site, and close to Hamas‘ central base. The loading point was also near an area frequently used by Hamas to launch rockets towards Israel.
All of these facts would tend to justify Israel's decision to strike, and HRW doesn't mention them - even though the IDF report was already released at the time the HRW report was published.

Al-Habbash family house, al-Sha'f, Gaza City

Another tragic case:
On January 4, at around 3 p.m., an IDF drone launched a missile at six children playing on the roof of the al-Habbash family home in the al-Sha'f area of Gaza City [GPS 31.50928/034.47826]. The missile killed two girl cousins, ages 10 and 12, and injured three other children, two of whom lost their legs.

The father and two lightly wounded sons, interviewed separately, told Human Rights Watch that there was no fighting in the area at the time of the attack. "There were no Israelis in the area; it was the second day of ground fighting," Muhammad al-Habbash said.
Admittedly, it is difficult to understand why the IDF would not have been able to identify the children on the roof, assuming that HRW is correct in saying that they were killed by a drone. However, the claim that there was no fighting going on in the area needs to be verified independently. On that same day in that same neighborhood that the PCHR identifies as Al-Tufah, al-Qassam Brigades member Mohammed Bashir Mohammed Khader was killed (PCHR, Hamas says January 6.) Is that not relevant?

'Allaw family house, Al-Sha'f, Gaza City

Another seemingly tragic case:
On January 5, around noon, an IDF drone launched a missile at members of the 'Allaw family who were on the roof of their home [GPS 31.50828/034.47721], three blocks from the al-Habbash house, which was struck the day before. The missile killed a young boy and injured his brother and sister.

Human Rights Watch investigated the site of the blast and fragments from the missile. The site had the same fragmentation patterns as the other sites and the missile fragments were consistent with the other Spike attacks.
HRW may be correct, but the PCHR reported the case a bit differently at the time:
At approximately 14:15 on Monday, IOF artillery shelled a house belonging to the 'Allaw family in al-Tuffah neighborhood. As a result, 2 children from the family were wounded:

1.Mo'men Mahmoud Talal 'Allaw, 11; and

2.Mohammed Mhamoud Talal 'Allaw, 12.


Their sister, 8-year-old Iman Mahmoud Talal 'Allaw, was also wounded.

PCHR's casualty list released in March lists Mohammed as being killed on January 5th, so it is curious that the PCHR didn't count him as being killed on that weekly report. The differences in the times of the attack and that the PCHR considered it an artillery, not a drone missile, attack indicates that perhaps HRW's methods for identifying drone missiles is not as accurate as they think, or that PCHR's reporting was incorrect at the time. Either way, one or both of these human rights organizations were very mistaken about the event. And HRW should at least tangentially acknowledge that others disagreed about the circumstances, for if PCHR is correct, that calls into question nearly every case mentioned in this report as being missile strikes based on the patterns of the holes.

UNRWA Asma Elementary School, Gaza City

On the afternoon of January 5, 2009, the Sultan family from Beit Lahiya along with about 400 other people fled their homes due to fighting in the area and sought protection at the UNRWA Asma Elementary Co-educational "A" School in the center of Gaza City, which the UN had opened earlier that day as a shelter. The displaced families stayed in classrooms and used two bathrooms inside the main building. UNRWA officials registered 406 people in the school.

After dinner, around 10 p.m., three young men from the al-Sultan family wanted to use the bathroom but the facilities in the school's main building were occupied, so they left the building to use the bathrooms in the courtyard. While there, a single Israeli missile directly struck the bathroom, killing all three. The hole in the bathroom wall and surrounding fragment marks, as shown by CNN and the BBC, are fully consistent with impact from a drone-launched Spike missile.

But from the IDF's perspective, three young men appeared late at night outside a building,
a place where no civilians were known or presumed to be at night, especially since the school had been closed for nine days when the incident occurred. Earlier that day, the UNRWA apparently had opened the school as an emergency shelter, although it did not so notify the IDF prior to the strike. The IDF concluded that there was no reasonable explanation for the presence of the unit in the elementary school, other than their preparation for the terrorist activity. The IDF targeted the terrorist unit only after it cross-checked this information.
So why does HRW not blame the UN for not informing Israel of the use of this school as a shelter, thereby endangering people there? The IDF, closely coordinating with the UN, cannot help but assume that three young men going to the small building at night are terrorists.

Instead, HRW blames Israel. HRW notes, but airily dismisses, the IDF's information:
The IDF was reportedly not informed of its use as a shelter until January 6, but civilians lining up outside the school and inside the school compound would have been clearly visible by aerial surveillance.
The assumption is that the IDF is omnisciently seeing what every resident of Gaza is doing at all times, and cannot rely on the UN to relay correct information but must double, triple and quadruple check every possible explanation of why people might be acting like terrorists act when terrorists brag about hiding among civilians.

HRW, without knowing anything about the coverage and priorities of Israel's drones, facilely makes an absurd assumption that, somehow, Israel should have known that a UN facility was being used when the UN never told Israel about it. Yet anyone who has spent any time looking at footage from drones knows that they can only focus on a tiny percentage of Gaza at a time at a resolution that can identify people, and HRW betrays its own naivete when it makes a statement like that.

Yet it is consistent with the bias shown throughout the report: for every incident, HRW bends over backwards to find fault with IDF decisions and spends no effort trying to see if they have any justification - on the contrary, it uses borderline sarcasm to belittle IDF explanations.

This is not what the function of a fact-finding mission should be. This reflects the function of a partisan group, that already knows ahead of time what it is going to decide, and only admits evidence that supports its pre-existing verdict.