NGO Reports on Gaza War Belie Israeli Claims

by , September 12, 2009

This week, two respected human rights organizations — one Palestinian, one Israeli — each came out with very full reports into the extent of the damage caused by the assault Israel waged against Gaza last winter.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), which is based in Gaza, 1,419 Palestinians were killed during the fighting, of whom 252 were combatants and the rest noncombatants, including members of the civilian police. Three hundred and eighteen of those killed were, it said, children.

The Israeli group B’Tselem ("In the Image") tallied 1,387 Gazans killed by the Israelis, including 320 minors. It assessed that 330 of those killed had taken part in the hostilities. B’Tselem also noted that three Israeli civilians and nine soldiers were killed during the fighting.

The Israeli government earlier claimed that 1,166 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, of whom only 89 were minors under the age of 16, while 60 percent were "members of Hamas and other armed groups."

PCHR and B’Tselem published their latest reports in the lead-up to next week’s widely awaited presentation to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council of the final report on Gaza war casualties prepared by the investigative commission headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone.

PCHR and B’Tselem based their tallies on painstaking field research. (There are some small discrepancies between them. But most can be explained by differences in the definitions used.)

The Israeli government, by contrast, has not revealed the methodology by which — without having any access at all to surviving family members or local officials on the ground — it felt able to compile its much lower tally.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the publication of Goldstone’s report, the Israeli government has launched a very tough offensive against all the Israeli and international rights organizations that have been documenting the damage in Gaza.

At the international level, that includes both the Goldstone Commission itself and international citizen groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Judge Goldstone is a practiced investigator of war crimes and other atrocities. He first made his name in the late 1980s by heading a judicial investigation that South Africa’s apartheid government was obliged to establish, to look into allegations of abuses by the South African Defense Force.

He resisted significant pressures to produce a whitewash on that occasion; and the subsequent publication of his findings revealed a lot about the dark underside of the security forces’ behavior that was not previously known.

In 1993, he became the first prosecutor at the war crimes court the U.N. established for the former Yugoslavia, establishing its entire international investigative operation.

On his latest mission, the Israeli government refused to allow Goldstone to travel to Gaza from Israel. But he and members of his team traveled there via Egypt. They held hearings in Gaza and in Geneva on alleged violations of international humanitarian law during the war committed by both Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian organizations in Gaza.

The publication of their findings next week will be an important event, and is being eagerly awaited by human rights activists and by officials at the many rights organizations that have also worked on this case.

These organizations have all come under particularly sharp attack from the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its supporters since last July, when Netanyahu openly accused them of pursuing an anti-Israel agenda.

Netanyahu’s attack gave great encouragement to a hitherto small Israeli body, itself a non-governmental organization, or NGO, which is called "NGO Monitor."

Members of the Netanyahu government and NGO Monitor have launched blistering attacks against Israeli groups like "Breaking the Silence," which did breakthrough work in publicizing accusations made by Israeli soldiers who served in Gaza regarding the laws-of-war violations they saw while there.

NGO Monitor and prominent rightwing Israeli politicians have proposed banning the provision by foreign governments of funding to groups like Breaking the Silence.

At the international level, one of NGO Monitor’s main targets has been HRW. HRW has long been the most influential rights group inside the United States and gained even more influence inside the administration after Barack Obama became president.

On Tuesday, NGO Monitor published an extensively documented, 99-page attack on both the neutrality of HRW’s leadership and staff members and the quality of its work. (Full disclosure: this writer is a member of HRW’s Middle East advisory committee and was also targeted in passing in this report.)

On Wednesday, NGO monitor published a shorter, but equally hard-hitting, attack against the Goldstone Commission.

Meantime, HRW’s standing was dented when, apparently independently from NGO Monitor’s effort, some pro-Israeli bloggers in the U.S. revealed on Tuesday that Marc Garlasco, a key HRW staff member responsible for much of its work on Gaza, had an intense out-of-hours involvement in the hobby of collecting Nazi-era military memorabilia.

HRW’s leaders have tried to keep their attention focused on the broader campaign to reveal the true extent of the laws-of-war violations committed by both sides in Gaza and to try to hold the perpetrators accountable for their acts.

Other organizations worldwide are meanwhile placing more of their focus on the violations of the Geneva Conventions that Israel continues to perpetrate with respect to Gaza — in particular, its continued refusal to allow the passage into the Strip of any goods except those needed for minimal physical survival.

Israel is still, eight months after last winter’s fighting ended, blocking the shipment into Gaza even of basic construction materials, needed to repair the extensive damage the Israeli forces caused to homes, schools, and infrastructure throughout the Strip.

When, or soon after, the U.N. General Assembly convenes in New York later this month, Pres. Obama is expected to launch another round of peace diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians. But meanwhile, the people of Gaza still suffer.

Judge Goldstone’s revelations about the violations of last winter will not end their suffering. But it may help many people understand their fate better, and thus build the constituency for the speedy securing of a final peace agreement.

(Inter Press Service)

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