On Sept. 7, CAMERA posted an article questioning the number of reported civilian casualties in Lebanon. Much of the media had uncritically accepted Lebanese casualty claims while discounting Israeli estimates that suggested a substantial number of the total dead were Hezbollah fighters (and consequently, that the number of civilian casualties was much lower than widely claimed.)
The article also mentioned Human Rights Watch, suggesting that the group’s reports and Op-Eds misleadingly implied Hezbollah did not use the Lebanese towns of Srifa and Marwaheen—in which a number of civilians died—as staging areas for attacking Israel. In fact, residents have asserted they were used by Hezbollah as human shields.
Human Rights Watch letter, Sept. 13, 2006:
Your reference to Human Rights Watch in Steven Stotsky’s Sept. 7 article on your homepage, “Questioning the Number of Civilian Casualties in Lebanon” (http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=2&x_article=1195), is filled with inaccuracies which we trust you will correct:
• You suggest that HRW mistakenly reported that civilians were killed in Hula, yet we never mentioned Hula in our report.
• You say that HRW ignored the Hezbollah military presence in Marwaheen. In fact, we reported that military presence as the reason civilians were fleeing Marwaheen. Our complaint with respect to Israeli conduct is that Israeli bombers killed 21 civilian residents of Marwaheen after they had fled the village.
• You repeat without attribution criticisms of our reporting on Srifa made by Avi Bell in the Jerusalem Post based on a deceptive reading of various newspaper articles, yet you ignore the letter that we published in response demonstrating the groundlessness of his deceptive presentation. See http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1154526022655&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull.
• In Qana, you claim that Red Cross and hospital officials gave the revised and reduced death toll of 28. In fact, it was Human Rights Watch that issued the revised toll and convinced the authorities to accept our number. See http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/08/02/lebano13899.htm. In fact, the death toll today seems more accurately to be 27. At a later funeral, 4 of 29 graves were draped with the Hezbollah flag. But two of those, whose names we have, were fighters killed elsewhere. As for the other two, the flags without the “martyr” posters that usually accompany the burial of fighters suggest that they were from families that were members of Hezbollah but not fighters — a not uncommon practice. Obviously, it is illegal to attack someone for their political views rather than their military activity.
Thanks for your attention, and for your time. Please advise us of how you remedy the above.
Human Rights Watch
CAMERA response, Sept. 19, 2006:
Dear Mr. Griffey,
We have carefully reviewed your objections. Please find our response below, preceded by your original comments (in boldface).
• You wrote: “You suggest that HRW mistakenly reported that civilians were killed in Hula, yet we never mentioned Hula in our report.”
Our piece, “Questioning the Number of Civilian Casualties in Lebanon,” does not make any claims regarding HRW and Hula. HRW is cited in connection with the incidents in Srifa and Marwaheen, but not Hula. Thus no correction is necessary on this point.
We have, however, added the word “Lebanese” to the relevant passage—”Wide publicity was given to the Lebanese claim that 40 civilians…”—to make it even more clear we are not referring to HRW at that point.
• You wrote: “You say that HRW ignored the Hezbollah military presence in Marwaheen. In fact, we reported that military presence as the reason civilians were fleeing Marwaheen. Our complaint with respect to Israeli conduct is that Israeli bombers killed 21 civilian residents of Marwaheen after they had fled the village.”
Our discussion of Marwaheen refers specifically to an Aug. 18 column in the Jerusalem Post by HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth. In that column, Mr. Roth does in fact completely ignore Hezbollah’s military presence in Marwaheen, including the presence documented by the New York Times. (Remember that, according to New York Times reporter Hassan Fattah, “residents [of Marwaheen] said Hezbollah was using them as human shields.”) But while failing to mention Hezbollah’s use of Marwaheen as a base to attack Israel, Mr. Roth claims that “In none of those cases [investigated by HRW] was Hizbullah anywhere around at the time of the attack,” including in what Mr. Roth describes as an Israeli bombing “in … Marwaheen.”
As a result of Mr. Roth’s omission and his description of Hezbollah not being “anywhere around” at certain times, and in the context of HRW’s allegations that Israel committed war crimes, his column in the Jerusalem Post gives the demonstrably false impression that Marwaheen was a purely civilian area, and that the IDF had no reason at all to act there. This is the point we raise in our report; and we stand by this point.
To make perfectly clear that our reference is to Mr. Roth’s Aug. 18 column, we have added the phrase “in his Jerusalem Post column” to the relevant passage: “… which Kenneth Roth clearly implied in his Jerusalem Post column was not being used by Hezbollah …”
• You wrote: “You repeat without attribution criticisms of our reporting on Srifa made by Avi Bell in the Jerusalem Post based on a deceptive reading of various newspaper articles, yet you ignore the letter that we published in response demonstrating the groundlessness of his deceptive presentation.”
It is presumptuous to assume that all criticism of your reports emanate from the same source. Our information did not come from Mr. B ell’s articles.
Regardless, while Ms. Whitson’s letter attempts to raise questions about Avi Bell’s assertions, it certainly does not disprove them. (Mr. Bell originally stated that “it beggars belief to imagine that none of the dead were Hizbullah fighters as HRW wrote. … HRW’s ‘investigation’ was nothing more than window dressing for predetermined anti-Israel conclusions and the HRW investigation was either professionally incompetent or a complete fabrication.” He responds to Ms. Whitson’s letter here: http://www.opiniojuris.org/posts/1156807655.shtml)
Likewise, her letter fails to dispel the questions we raise about the HRW’s comments about Srifa. We note that “apparently HRW investigators did not speak with the same people as Hassan Fattah, a correspondent for the New York Times,” who found large numbers of fighters killed in Srifa. Our general point is that, as with Roth’s discussion of Marwaheen, HRW’s report ignores the context of Hezbollah fighters using Srifa to attack Israel.
By giving the impression that Srifa is a purely civilian “target,” HRW distorts readers’ understanding of the Israeli attacks on the town. In other words, there is an important distinction to be made between civilians inadvertently killed in a town used extensively by Hezbollah and civilians being “deliberately” attacked in towns not related to the fighting. Based on news reports from Srifa, Israel’s attacks there clearly belong in the former category; yet HRW wrongly suggests they belong in the latter category.
It is not only Mr. Fattah’s report that implicates Srifa as a base for Hezbollah attacks. In a Sept. 9 Associated Press story, for example, reporter Alfred de Montesquiou quotes a Srifa resident who admits to being a Hezbollah member, and says that: “My motorbike is ready and my gun is ready.” The reporter adds: “residents say they’re proud that Hezbollah rocket fire from the area attracted such an Israeli punishment.” Also belying HRW’s depiction of Srifa as a purely civilian target is an Aug. 22 AP report by Kathy Gannon. That report relays comments from the diary of a Hezbollah fighter who was in Srifa throughout the fighting—including on the days discussed in HRW’s report.
• You wrote: “In Qana, you claim that Red Cross and hospital officials gave the revised and reduced death toll of 28. In fact, it was Human Rights Watch that issued the revised toll and convinced the authorities to accept our number. In fact, the death toll today seems more accurately to be 27. At a later funeral, 4 of 29 graves were draped with the Hezbollah flag. But two of those, whose names we have, were fighters killed elsewhere. As for the other two, the flags without the ‘martyr’ posters that usually accompany the burial of fighters suggest that they were from families that were members of Hezbollah but not fighters — a not uncommon practice. Obviously, it is illegal to attack someone for their political views rather than their military activity.”
Our information on the Red Cross and the hospital providing the revised figure is based upon HRW’s own report. These are the exact words from your report on August 3: “It now appears that at least 22 people escaped the basement, and 28 are confirmed dead, according to records from the Lebanese Red Cross and the government hospital in Tyre” (emphasis added). If it was HRW’s initiative that brought the revised figures to light, then the organization is to be commended for that, but this detail has no bearing on the passage in our analysis.
The central issue here is that much of the media describes all 29 people who were buried at the funeral as civilians killed at Qana. Clearly they were not all civilians. Furthermore, we cite at least one source that indicates that there were three fighters, not two that you suggest. We also have attached a photograph that shows that three of the graves draped with Hezbollah flags had posters on them, not two as you claim. And whether it was 2, 3 or 4 Hezbollah fighters, the question remains: why were they buried with the victims of the Qana bombing and why was this information not considered worthy of discussion by HRW?
The above should answer the four concerns you raised about our Sept. 7 piece. On a separate note, we have some new concerns about HRW’s report that were not addressed in our Sept. 7 piece:
• Although the HRW report “Fatal Strikes” focuses on a number of specific locales, the summary to that report makes a sweeping statement casting doubt on Israel’s assertion that Hezbollah uses human shields:
The Israeli government claims that it targets only Hezbollah, and that fighters from the group are using civilians as human shields, thereby placing them at risk. Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack.
This general description, which gives the impression that Israel is lying when it accuses Hezbollah of using human shields, fails to take into account a number of documented cases in which the group does engage in such a practice.
One such case is even cited in the body of your report, which states:
Christian villagers fleeing the village of ‘Ain Ebel have also complained about Hezbollah tactics that placed them at risk, telling the New York Times that “Hezbollah came to [our village] to shoot its rockets.… They are shooting from between our houses.”
Another account, by AP correspondent Todd Pittman, describes far more extensive Hezbollah activities than HRW indicates. His interviews with residents recount how in Marwaheen
Hezbollah fighters in civilian clothes entered the village and set up launchers to fire rockets south into Israel. The guerrillas moved the launchers around, putting one on top of a house that was subsequently destroyed.
Mr. Pittman further noted:
A teenage girl who was in Marwaheen for the first three days of the war said she saw a Hezbollah fighter set up a rocket launcher with a timer on a nearby hillside, then run to the other side of the village near her home, taking refuge between civilian houses.Streaks of red crossed the sky as the launcher fired a volley into Israel, and minutes later Israel returned fire and huge explosions tore through the launch site, she said.”We begged them to leave,” the girl said, declining to be quoted by name because she feared retribution from Hezbollah. “We told them, ‘Get out! We have children here. We don’t want anybody to get hurt.’ But they ignored us.”
In light of these examples, how is it that “Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields”? Why does HRW avoid addressing clear examples of Hezbollah using human shields, for example putting a rocket launcher “on top of a house”?
• The Human Rights Watch report describes sixteen victims of t he Israeli air strike on Srifa on July 19. All are men, and fourteen of them (88 percent) are between the ages of 17 and 35, an age range that fits the profile of most fighting men. HRW claims to give Israel the “benefit of the doubt” where evidence is uncertain, yet it seems eager to accept without question the assurances of a Srifa resident that these men were not combatants, despite the strikingly unrepresentative composition of this group of alleged civilian victims. It is of course true that not all groups of fighting-aged men are combatants; but did HRW question why no women and children were among the victims in these households? Did HRW consider or find it worth mentioning that a large gathering of fighting-aged men in the midst of a war might appear to Israel as a military target?
Thank you for your time and attention. We look forward to your reply.