How We Report On Human Rights Matters

It is not easy being the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. It is impossible for them to issue any statement that doesn’t become instantly politicized. And, like many NGOs, their reports are often put in less than ideal contexts by the media.

Much like their counterparts — such as al-Haq in the West Bank and groups like B’Tselem and Gisha in Israel — their attempt to report on human rights and, to act as a watchdog on their own government while operating in an atmosphere where the Israeli occupation causes overarching human rights violations creates a difficult balancing act.

Logo of the Palestine Center for Human Rights, located in the Gaza Strip

But PCHR still is the best NGO source for the state of human rights in Gaza. True, it has little competition (though there is some, including B’Tselem’s fieldworkers in Gaza), but its reports have generally proven reliable—so much so, that their releases are often used by the Israeli right.

Today, the New York Times reported on a recent PCHR release, which criticized “members of the Palestinian resistance” for “stor[ing] explosives or to treat such explosives in locations close to populated areas.”

It is important to note that PCHR did not identify the “members of the resistance.” The Times, while scrupulously avoiding any statement that the PCHR statement is referring to Hamas, does say that “Israel has long accused Hamas and other groups of endangering Palestinian civilians by carrying out militant activities in densely populated areas.”

A PCHR spokesman also noted that the Hamas government tried to shift blame for injuries to Gazan civilians that were clearly caused by Palestinian rockets onto Israel.

An unwitting reader of the Times article might infer that PCHR was implicitly accusing Hamas of being responsible for the weapons storage. The distinction there is an important one.

Storing weapons in civilian areas, or dangerously near civilians, carries two threats, both of which the people of Gaza have become intimately familiar with. One is that the weapons will accidentally discharge or misfire when used. The second is that Israel will target the area.

The first has been happening with some frequency, and that is the particular matter that PCHR is addressing in their release. The complication comes with the second.

Israel has not only, as the Times put it, accused Hamas of carrying out military activities in civilian areas. It has used that point to legitimize its attacks on civilian areas in Gaza. It’s a contention that deserves some examination.

As PCHR pointed out, storing weapons in civilian areas is a violation of international humanitarian law, and all the more so would launching military actions be. A civilian area used for a military purpose becomes a legitimate target, and this is the argument that Israel uses, most especially in Operation Cast Lead.

The problem with that argument is that it looks only at the convenient part of international humanitarian law. Under IHL, the use of a civilian area for a military purpose does not relieve the other side of its responsibility to avoid harming civilians in that area. It does mitigate the conditions; under the principle of proportionality, harm to civilians that can be anticipated must be proportional to the military goal (and that’s a judgment call—there is no precise formula).

By any reasonable reckoning, it would be very hard for Israel to justify any harm to civilians unless there was a really huge weapons cache in the area that was to be used in upcoming attacks on Israel, and Israel could be reasonably certain that bombing such a site makes a significant difference in defending Israeli lives.

It seems unlikely that Israel could make that case, though history has shown they don’t really try. This is, after all, the same government which is laying siege to the Strip and calculating a tolerable calorie level to stave off mass starvation so that Israel could keep Gazans hungry, but avoid a massacre.

But the point here is also distinguishing between Hamas weapons and those of other, smaller groups. Hamas obviously has far greater capacities than Islamic Jihad and, certainly, than the smaller groups in Gaza. If these are Hamas caches, which PCHR clearly avoids saying yea or nay to, there is a greater chance that Israel could make a case for a military operation against such a site, though that case would still be hard to make.

Of course, much of this has to do with perception, not with the technicalities of international law. And in that regard, the loose wording in the Times article (quite possibly unintentionally so) is of real concern.

A friend, one whose views on the Israel-Palestine conflict could well be described as diametrically opposed to my own, recently said to me that he believed that Operation Cast Lead was as moral a war as could be fought.

I generally don’t like to bother arguing with such beliefs; when they are just beliefs like this, flying completely in the face of the facts, I think the argument is useless. But it is easy for this person to see in the juxtaposition of PCHR’s press release and the statement of Israeli accusations the Times puts right next to it as a justification for Cast Lead and subsequent Israeli attacks which have done a lot of damage to civilian lives and property in Gaza.

PCHR is already in a tough position, monitoring human rights violations by its own government while also monitoring those by the besieging IDF forces and the PA. Responsible international media should go to every length they can to avoid the perception that any of PCHR’s statements can be interpreted as justifying Israeli aggression against Gaza.

Israel has every right, indeed an iron-clad responsibility, to protect its citizens, and civilians are never legitimate targets, no matter what kind of war or occupation is going on. But Israel has, unfortunately, abused that right in order to knowingly harm Palestinian civilians; that is at the very root of the Gaza blockade. We’d do well to ensure that a reliable source for what Hamas is doing wrong in Gaza is not compromised by appearing to ignore that reality.

7 thoughts on “How We Report On Human Rights Matters

  1. The distinction you illuminated is an important one, and one which I wish the Times had been a bit more careful in making. Of course, we can infer, as the Times did, that Hamas is the group to which PCHR is referring. However, when internal relationships are critical to groups such as PCHR having the access they need in order to report, it’s always important report with caution.

    As for the primary issue, I agree that Hamas’ irresponsible storage is partially to blame for unfortunate civilian deaths that occur when Israel targets rockets coming from Gaza. The operative word being “partially.”

  2. David, it’s also important to realize that PCHR was not merely being delicate when it referred to militant groups in general rather than Hamas specifically. There are many groups in Gaza, including not only Islamic Jihad, which is the biggest independent group, but also some that are Fatah-affiliated, connected to other groups, independent and even several Salafist ones (which would be connected to or akin to al-Qaeda), a matter of no small concern.

    The point PCHR is making is that it is not only Hamas’ responsibility to keep its own weapons away from civilian areas, but also, as the ruling authority on the ground in Gaza, to police the other groups. The release clearly was intended to make both points.

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