Robert Bernstein: Human Shield for Criticism of Israel

By Max Kantar

Earlier this week the New York Times published an op-ed article, Rights Watchdog, ‘Lost in the Mideast’ written by Robert L. Bernstein, the founding chairman emeritus of Human Rights Watch.

The editorial amounts to one regurgitation of Israeli propaganda after another in an effort to delegitimize mainstream criticism of Israeli policies in the international human rights community. The timing of Bernstein’s article is instructive; its publication in the New York Times comes on the heels of the release of the Goldstone Report as the intellectual apologists for Israeli crimes in the U.S. go into ultra-hysteria mode to save the already eroding image of their favorite client state. Bernstein decries HRW for its supposed anti-Israel bias and unleashes a tirade of familiar accusations routinely invoked by ‘supporters of Israel’ to deflect criticism of the Jewish state. To make the case that HRW–and presumably the international human rights community in general—has ‘lost critical perspective’ on Israel-Palestine, Bernstein cites six major points:

1)  There is no "moral equivalency" between the "democratic and non-democratic worlds"

2)  HRW spends more time criticizing Israel than it spends criticizing individual neighboring states

3) Hamas and Hezbollah use civilians as human shields and do not fight fairly

4) The government of Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah and seeks to destroy the state of Israel and exterminate all Jews

5) Weapons are making their way into Gaza and Lebanon and might be used to strike Israel

6) Israel only commits wrongs in self-defense while Hamas and Hezbollah do so intentionally

These claims are all demonstrably false. What is interesting is that someone in Bernstein’s position surely must be aware of this. In his analysis Bernstein wisely chooses not to inform his readers of the general political context surrounding Israel-Palestine–a point to which I will return. For the moment, let’s have a look at Bernstein’s primary talking points.

Moral Equivalency and the Democratic and Non-democratic Worlds

Bernstein begins by explaining that HRW in its birth originally "sought to draw a line between the democratic and non-democratic worlds in an effort to create clarity in human rights" in order "to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters." More to the point, "we wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers," Bernstein declared, "from playing a moral equivalence game with the West."

Bernstein’s suggestion that there is no comparison between alleged human rights violations inside democratic states as opposed to abuses in authoritarian and undemocratic states seems to be, at face value, reasonable. However, the HRW reports of Israeli human rights violations are almost always (the exceptions being the wars in southern Lebanon) documentations of Israeli practices and policies in the occupied Palestinian territories where Palestinians most certainly do not live under the rule of a democratic state, but rather under the rule of a ruthless, foreign military occupation. Palestinians in the occupied territories (henceforth OPT) are systematically denied freedom of movement, assembly, and speech; they are routinely subjected to violence–often times lethal–at the hands of the IDF and paramilitary Jewish settlers, both of which act with virtual impunity and are totally unaccountable to the Palestinians. Jewish settlers living illegally in the occupied Palestinian territories enjoy all the rights and privileges that one would attribute to "the democratic world" while Palestinians in the same territorial entity essentially live under martial law, in what amounts plainly to an extremely violent military/police state. Palestinians have absolutely no rights and no say in the (Israeli) government and military that effectively rules over them. Bernstein’s inference that documented Israeli human rights abuses take place in "the democratic world" is perhaps his most absurd and irresponsible assertion. By any standard of law and government the OPT is a part of–to use Bernstein’s terminology–"the undemocratic world." Of course, the existence of systematic violations of human rights (like those attributed to Israel) proves that those being subjected to the abuses are not part of anything that could be even remotely called a "democracy."

Furthermore, it should be understood that empty and elite rhetorical concoctions like "moral equivalency" are simply terms of propaganda used to justify applying to official enemies standards one refuses to apply to favored states. Suggesting that favored states (Israel or the West in general) have an inherent moral superiority compared to disfavored states/parties is totally meaningless. It has been illustrated time and time again that the internal democratic character of a state does not necessarily inhibit it from committing gruesome atrocities outside of its official national boundaries. What difference does it make to the victims of state violence if the perpetrator has democratic institutions and provisions in its own national territory? The real issue at hand is Israel’s human rights record, which leads us to the next point.

Why Does HRW Write More about Israel Than Other States in the Region?

To illustrate HRW’s failures, Bernstein points to the fact that although "the region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records," (which it surely is) it is Israel who receives the most condemnations from HRW. The basis for Bernstein’s objection to this fact (assuming that Israel does receive the most condemnations) is that Israel is a democracy–rationale that falls flat on its head when juxtaposed with the reality in the occupied Palestinian territories, as illustrated above.

That being said, perhaps Israel receives more attention from HRW than its neighbors because it does indeed have the worst human rights record in the region. For over forty years it has been a belligerent occupier, constantly threatening its neighbors and attacking them at will. Israel’s savage repression of the primarily nonviolent first intifada in the OPT almost makes the recent crushing of the Iranian popular uprising look like a tea party. When one thinks of the thousands of home demolitions, the draconian siege, the multiple invasions of Lebanon, the constant atrocities and arbitrary killings, the "separation" wall, and the 300 children murdered in cold blood last winter, it is not difficult to conclude that Israel likely holds the regional title for "worst human rights record."

Moreover, why should Western human rights activists not focus on exposing Israeli practices in the OPT? I imagine that supporters of white supremacy in Apartheid South Africa decried what they saw as the overemphasis on South African human rights abuses as well. Like South Africa was, Israel is largely dependent on Western military, economic and diplomatic support which therefore warrants a corresponding degree of critical attention in light of the massive abuses. It is also widely recognized that Israel is imposing an apartheid regime on the Palestinians in the OPT, as alluded to above. Both Israel’s leading human rights group and its leading newspaper (Ha’aretz) have acknowledged this much, as have Former President Jimmy Carter and countless South African anti-apartheid activists, including John Dugard and Desmond Tutu. Apartheid is considered to be a "crime against humanity" and warrants an international solidarity effort to overthrow it. Instead of complaining about the fact that rights groups are exposing Israeli crimes, Bernstein and his ideological cohorts should use their influence to help put an end to the abuses.

Human Shielding

In the most familiar accusation leveled against anyone Israel attacks, Bernstein desperately parrots the claims of Israel’s state department, noting that Hamas and Hezbollah "use their own people as human shields." Unfortunately for Bernstein, the documentary record reveals that by in large, the accusations of the use of human shields on the part of Hamas and Hezbollah are false, or at best, unsubstantiated.

Taking the most recent conflict with Hezbollah in 2006, the US Army War College carried out a study on counterterrorism and guerilla warfare.Despite their heavy reliance on Israeli military contacts and interviews, the study discovered that there was no "systematic reporting of Hezbollah using civilians in the combat zone as shields" and "little or no meaningful intermingling of Hezbollah fighters and noncombatants."

An Amnesty International report on the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war also concluded that no evidence existed that would suggest the use of civilian shielding on the part of Hezbollah. However, the study did find that Hezbollah officials "encouraged or assisted people who had been unable to leave their villages in south Lebanon to do so." As for Israel, Amnesty noted that convoys of fleeing civilians were deliberately attacked by Israeli forces as they attempted to evacuate the area.

Human Rights Watch also reached similar conclusions in its own analysis and report on the 2006 war noting that "available evidence indicates that in the vast majority of cases Hezbollah fighters left populated civilian areas as soon as the fighting started and fired the majority of their rockets from pre-prepared positions in largely unpopulated valleys and fields outside villages." They went on to report that "Hezbollah fighters had not mixed with the civilian population" and that "Hezbollah stored most of its rockets in bunkers and weapon storage facilities located in uninhabited fields and valleys."

During "Operation Cast Lead" Israel constantly accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields in an attempt to explain the massive civilian causalities it was inflicting on the people of Gaza. None of the independent reports to emerge since the assault on Gaza have found any evidence to substantiate Israel’s claims. The Goldstone Report did however discover multiple cases of Israeli military forces and units using Palestinian civilians as human shields during "Operation Cast Lead" and dedicated twenty full pages to the chronicling of these abuses (pgs. 280-300). Israeli soldiers have also since came out and testified as to the IDF’s use of Palestinian civilians as human shields in Breaking the Silence.

The Devil in Tehran

Bernstein cites Hamas and Hezbollah’s relationship with the Iranian regime as yet another reason why HRW should sympathize with Israel. The Iranian regime seeks to destroy Israel and all of the world’s Jews, Bernstein says.

Bernstein should know that Iran does not seek to destroy Israel anymore than it seeks to destroy itself. If Iran were to even contemplate an attack on Israel, the entire country would be flattened within moments by the United States, as everybody knows. I’m afraid that such statements on the part of Bernstein simply play into the hysteria conjured up by the US and Israel in service of American state power.

In fact, Iran has accepted the international consensus on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Like every other Muslim state, it has endorsed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the OPT alongside Israel in its pre June 1967 borders–precisely the international consensus on the conflict’s resolution. If Iran seeks to "destroy" Israel, why would it endorse this mainstream peace plan which recognizes the right of Israel to live in peace and security in its internationally recognized borders? Let us not forget that it is Israel and the United States who have continued to threaten Iran with annihilation and obliteration. These threats are also violations of the UN Charter.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Bernstein also warns that HRW "know[s] that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again."

Israel has the fourth most powerful military in the world and a stockpile of nuclear weapons big enough to wipe Lebanon, Gaza, and Iran off of the face of the planet. Last winter Israel slaughtered 1,400 people while sustaining only 13 casualties of its own. The number of Palestinians killed by Israel in the first three minutes of "Operation Cast Lead" greatly exceeds the number of Israelis killed by Hamas in the previous six years.

Nevertheless it is Hamas and Hezbollah that we should be worried about, Bernstein tell us. While Israel starves the Gaza Strip into the Stone Age we are supposed to believe that Hamas fighters are developing serious deterrence capabilities. Putting aside the complete lunacy of Bernstein’s false alarms, readers should keep in mind that the Hezbollah organization was established to resist the brutal Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Likewise Hamas was created for the same reason–to resist Israeli military occupation of their land.

In any event, it truly surpasses belief that these absurdities could be even be contemplated in a free society, let alone appear on the pages of the country’s most prominent newspaper.

Self-Defense and Occupation

Implying that Israel acts with proportion and in self-defense and that the Palestinians are the aggressors, Bernstein declares that "there is a difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally." It takes true intellectual discipline to read these words without breaking into laughter–or tears. Israel is the military occupier and has been for over forty years. By definition, Israel is the aggressor. How can Israel claim to be defending itself while it is militarily occupying other people’s lands? By any reasonable standard, one could not call what Israel does "self-defense."

And while Gaza is still considered "occupied territory" by all relevant observers, the illegal economic blockade is considered to be "an act of war" under international law. What are the Palestinians supposed to do? Does Israel have a moral ‘right’ to impose illegal collective punishment on the Palestinians in Gaza?

While no party is entitled to attack and target civilian populations, readers should not forget the root cause of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, which is unending military occupation and colonization. Virtually the entire world–including both major Palestinian political groupings and every Arab and Muslim state–has accepted the principle of resolving the conflict peacefully via a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. It is Israel—backed by the United States–who refuses to accept these terms.

Until Robert Bernstein can come to terms with these basic facts, it is he–not Human Rights Watch–who is lost in the Mideast.

– Max Kantar is a Michigan based human rights activist and freelance writer. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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