article analyzes Amnesty's entire public record and
stance during the current intifada (Sep. 2000 thru
Sep. 2002). It is an analysis of a meager record of
83 press releases and six reports . It reveals the
following shortcomings and questions about its stance.
Trivializing Israeli violence
immediate conclusion is that AI's public record greatly
diminishes Israeli violence against Palestinians.
The reports only refer to a small fraction of the
massive scale of oppression and dispossession perpetrated
by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Occupation
is a series of measures meant to make life unbearable
for millions, a reality barely mentioned in AI's reports
. For example, there are tens of thousands of Palestinians
severely wounded or maimed by the IOF, yet the scale
of this catastrophe or its deliberate nature aren't
part of its reports . AI refers to "closures"
of most Palestinian cities, but its reports don't
convey the scale of these policies--hundreds of thousands
under curfew, the siege of cities, and the increase
in acute and chronic malnutrition amongst Palestinian
children . There is only one press release describing
the prison-like conditions of the Gaza strip--hundreds
of thousands of Palestinians corralled in the most
densely populated area in the world.
The July 23, 2002 F16 bombing of Gaza where a one-ton
bomb killed 17 people elicited a bland statement .
The extent of its admonishment was: "This attack
was disproportionate and is utterly unacceptable,"
and one is left wondering what AI would consider a
proportionate response. The remainder of the statement
calls on the Palestinians to stop their resistance
and calls on the international community to "
step up its efforts to assist the Palestinian Authority
in improving the effectiveness of its criminal justice
system and its compliance with international human
rights standards." Perhaps AI can explain the
relevance of this statement when commenting on the
even in the darkest days of Apartheid South Africa
did the air force bomb the townships, thus it is surprising
to find that this was the first AI press release about
an aerial bombardment, although there were 42 preceding
ones with varying numbers of casualties.
AI recently issued a press release condemning the
'deportation' of the family members of alleged suicide
bombers to Gaza, and it went so far as to call this
a war crime. On the face of it, this seems clear,
but the press release reveals some serious flaws.
The seriousness of the crime is reduced because it
doesn't refer to the house demolitions accompanying
the expulsion legal proceedings. There was no legal
appeal procedure to prevent the house demolitions,
and in one instance, the explosion of one home wrecked
ten adjacent houses. Furthermore, there is scant reference
to the arbitrary nature of the punishment and collective
aspects of the expulsions. Finally, it passes the
proceedings of as merely a legal maneuver that has
been abused. The result is that the extent and seriousness
of the Israeli crimes have been reduced .
On October 7, 2002, after Israeli tanks had pulled
out of Khan Yunis, Israeli helicopters bombed the
crowded streets; they also fired a missile at a hospital.
The initial casualty toll amounted to at least 14
Palestinians dead and 80 wounded. Given that Sharon
termed this operation a "great success,"
one would have expected some response, but AI will
not issue a statement. AI's main problem is omission--failing
to mention the great majority of the events on the
On October 21, 2002, a suicide bomb in Hadera killed
14 Israelis, most of them military, and wounded about
50, again, most of them military. AI issued a press
release the next day condemning the attack. Note the
difference in the response between this incident,
and the Khan Yunis bombing.
Why is there violence at all?
AI's reports doesn't reveal why there is a conflict
in the area in the first place. The portrayal of violence
is stripped of its context, and historical references
are minimal. The fact that Palestinians have endured
occupation, expulsion, and dispossession for many
decades, the explanation of why the conflict persists,
is nowhere highlighted in its reports. This posture
eliminates the possibility of taking sides, and AI
doesn't automatically side with the oppressed victims;
instead, it assumes a warped sense of balance. It
qualitatively equates the violence perpetrated by
the IOF with Palestinian resistance. In attempting
to be impartial, AI is oblivious to the history of
ethnic cleansing that is the root cause. Israeli violence
is qualitatively different than Palestinian violence;
it is different than that found in other conflicts
because it aims to expel the native population.
refers often to the 'cycle of violence'. As John Pilger
has said: "It suggests, at best, two equal sides,
never that the Palestinians are resisting violent
oppression with violence." The 'cycle of violence'
portrays the conflict as something we can't explain,
and let alone, do much about. Furthermore, the pernicious
element of this term is that AI doesn't accept Palestinian
justifications for violence, and the Israelis are
always portrayed as responding.
The human rights mantra--apolitical fence sitting
exclusive focus on human rights may be acceptable
when dealing with a single individual languishing
in jail for no apparent reason; in this case, its
"apolitical" stance also may be suitable.
However, this approach is inappropriate when dealing
with a situation where abuses are perpetrated on an
unprecedented scale. Mass human rights violations
are central to the Israeli policy in Palestine, a
key point that AI ignores. Even in this case, AI utters
increasingly tiresome calls to respect human rights
on "both sides" and calls to make human
rights "central to any negotiations." This
is almost comical.
problems with AI's reports start with the mantra it
recites obsessively without regard to the people in
question. On the surface, this simple and neutral
premise seems sound enough, but it introduces serious
problems if AI is to function as an effective human
rights advocate. One cannot equate the violations
of the rights of Palestinians, the oppressed people,
with the violations against Israelis, the oppressor.
It also is hard to imagine how criticizing the violent
aspects of state power can ever be non-political.
thing is to have an "apolitical stance,"
which may be acceptable, but the other is to use this
as an excuse to neuter criticism of any regime. It
is clear that AI hasn't carefully analyzed this aspect
of its stance, and hence, in the case of Israel/Palestine,
the stated non-political stance amounts to an avoidance
of critical language or the leveling of severe accusations.
In the process, it also has lost its critical edge,
and its reports are trite recitation of some abuses.
Sharon hardly cowers over AI's reports.
government officials openly discuss the notion of
"transfer"--mass expulsion of the Palestinian
population. This discussion also takes place within
Israeli society to the extent that it is now a centrist
political position. Given the seriousness of the situation
and the political acceptability of this impending
mass crime, it would seem to dictate immediate action
to impede it and to make clear to the Israeli government
that this would unambiguously constitute a plethora
of serious crimes. However, no such call or warning
has been issued by AI. A possible explanation is that
AI specializes in retail human rights abuses, and
it is up to the UN and the international community
to mobilize against wholesale crimes. AI and other
human rights organizations appear to deal only with
abuses that have taken place, and do not work to prevent
An astonishing report.
more disturbing is a recent Amnesty report , Without
Distinction July 2002, which de-legitimizes in one
fell swoop Palestinian violence against Israelis.
AI accomplishes this in three steps. First, it projects
that Palestinians are subject to some international
statutes as other states -- which is remarkable since
Palestine isn't a state, but a people under occupation.
Israel has violated all but one of the provisions
of the Fourth Geneva Convention , as well as numerous
other international legal conventions including those
on torture. It is remarkable then that AI holds Palestinians
accountable to international laws that have lent them
no protection whatsoever. Second, it removes the legitimacy
conferred by the UN to people fighting occupation
or oppression. It therefore equates Palestinian violence
to that of the Israeli occupier. Third, it prohibits
resistance against settlers. This is an odd statement
given that a significant fraction of the settlers
are armed, violently dispossess the native population,
act with impunity, and with acquiescence and protection
of the Israeli army . It states without any qualification
that settlers are civilians, and thus should not be
targeted. Finally, it also prohibits any violence
against civilians within Israel proper. Possibly the
only legitimate violence accorded to the Palestinian
struggle is to confront one of the most powerful armies
in the world--but even this right is not clarified
in its report. Finally, it levels the clearest accusation
of various serious crimes, including war crimes, against
Palestinians themselves. This is a shameful report.
the language used in AI's reports exhibits a bias.
Since the beginning of the second intifada AI has
seldom outright condemned Israeli violence, the word
"condemn" was used primarily when referring
to Palestinian violence . Furthermore, emotive adjectives
used to describe violent acts, like "horrific"
or "shocking", were only used when describing
Palestinian violence; in the case of the Israeli acts,
the terms used were almost inert -- in this case AI
has a proclivity to use the "alleged" adjective.
The very first paragraph of a report on Palestinian
violence uses words like "deliberately killed"
--although this is not entirely clear; reports referring
to Israeli violence rarely attribute intention. It
is mostly Palestinian violence that has elicited forthright
accusations, e.g., war crimes. Despite the preponderance
of violence on the Israeli side, AI seldom has leveled
such clear accusations against Israeli actions during
the same period; Israeli actions are mostly reported
to breach certain legal provisions, to breach standards,
to be disproportionate, or elicit calls to respect
human rights, but the accusation of "war crimes"
has been made only thrice.
important word to describe the conflict is 'occupation'.
Now, leaving aside the name 'occupied territories',
there has been scant reference to the Israeli occupation
of Palestinian land. In no report was the meaning
or the implications occupation made clear. Again,
this sanitizing of language is troubling.
Adopting Israeli-centric language
uncritically uses Israeli terms to describe the conflict.
The Israeli army likes to refer to itself as the Israeli
Defense Forces (IDF)--so does AI; a more neutral name
like the "Israeli army" would be more appropriate.
It is curious that AI refers to some occupation forces'
actions by their operation name, e.g., "Defensive
Wall". Names of military operations are part
of the PR campaign; AI's adoption of such terms serves
Israeli propaganda. It is also disconcerting to find
that AI accepts the rationale given by the IOF for
its campaigns--invariably it is 'retaliation' or 'response'.
For example, the very first page of its extensive
report, Broken Lives, uses the Israeli 'response'
justification for its violence.
general, AI uses terms coined by the occupation forces,
e.g., "administrative detention" which conveys
the impression of a legal process; in reality it refers
to arbitrary imprisonment without charges, trial,
appeal, often without legal representation, for undefined
terms, and frequently at the notorious Ansar concentration
exception, AI uses quotation marks around the word
'collaborators.' The IOF regularly uses collaborators
to inform on other Palestinians--it is evident in
most towns, and the men who were severely beaten because
they refused attest to its pervasiveness. Do the quotation
marks refer to the alleged accusation, or to AI's
unwillingness to accept collaboration with the IOF
as a crime? The use of "alleged" instead
of the quotation marks would make its meaning clear.
contrast, AI refers to the persons killed in Israeli
extra judicial assassinations as wanted men, or as
men validly accused for violent acts. AI is taking
the Israeli statements about these men at face value--no
quotes needed around 'wanted' or 'accused'. A different
standard is applied to either justification for assassination.
uses the term 'deportation' for the expulsion of Palestinians
from the occupied territories. Deportation implies
a legal procedure that Israelis would have a right
to implement . However, given the fact that the victims
of this procedure are Palestinian natives this should
be termed an expulsion, but preferably an exile. Sending
a resident of the West Bank to Gaza should perhaps
be termed imprisonment--given that Gaza resembles
today a giant prison. The term deportation also hides
the arbitrary nature of the action, e.g., expelling
family members of an alleged attacker, and the collective
punishment of the act accompanied by demolishing their
Holley, an AI military adviser, uttered statements
diminishing the events in Jenin . Given that the statements
were made before a UN fact-finding team was instituted,
such statements were detrimental in the attempt to
establish the UN investigation -- an investigation
that ultimately never occurred. Because of that, we
may never know what happened at Jenin. Given that
no detailed investigation ever took place, his statements
were sheer speculation. His statements helped whitewash
whatever occurred on the ground. Finally, Mr. Holley
concurred with an Israeli demand to include military
experts, erstwhile seen as a ploy to mollify the investigation
team, further delay, and undermine the UN team. AI
has not sought to clarify Mr. Holley's remarks. AI
should also explain why it employs military experts;
military justifications for destruction or killings
should not play a role in human rights abuse investigations.
has called on several Israeli governments to set up
tribunals to prosecute and punish Israeli perpetrators
of crimes against Palestinians. AI is requesting a
government, led by someone who essentially is a war
criminal, to prosecute Israeli soldiers. One can only
imagine Sharon's hoots of laughter upon hearing this
recommendation. Had AI called its colleagues at B'tselem
in Jerusalem it would have found that the Israeli
soldiers act with impunity against Palestinians. The
few cases investigated for abuses were dismissed or
have been shelved forever. Should anyone be actually
convicted one can only expect suspended sentences
or minor sentences in open prisons.
has admitted in a press release that its officers
" have had meetings with Israeli officials or
members of Israeli diplomatic missions in many countries."
It would be nice to know who instigated those meetings.
If it is the Israeli side, then their interests must
be no doubt to change the language in the reports
or to engage in damage control. If AI was the instigator
of the meetings, then one would like to know what
was the result of these meetings. A singular lack
of improvement in Israeli observance of human rights
should have dictated cessation of its dealings with
such "embassy" officials long ago. Furthermore,
one can understand meetings with Israeli officials
in London, AI's headquarters, or in Israel proper,
but they occurred "in many countries"--why?
AI insists that those involved in report writing not
be connected to the area to sustain impartiality and
objectivity. In the case of Israel/Palestine AI enforces
an exclusion of Palestinian and Israeli rapporteurs.
However, it doesn't implement exclusion based on ethnic-origin.
In the name of objectivity, there is a case to be
made to exclude Jewish and Muslim rapporteurs.
the AI university campus chapters in the US have become
suspect. That is, many of the students attend meetings
mostly to deal with questions pertaining Israel. If
so, it behooves AI to enforce ethical conduct rules
in these chapters.
is primarily effective by using moral suasion with
the governments involved in human rights abuses, and
it exerts pressure by directing letter-writing campaigns--or
its modern online equivalent. Its reports used to
shame and embarrass the odd dictator. Today's petition
drives take the human rights activist to website where
one can pick from a menu of victims. Some description
of the condition of the hapless victim is given, and
one can then press a button to register one's concern.
Liberals will feel much better, their guilty conscience
assuaged. No matter what AI does with the petition
lists, this amounts to a means to dissipate anger
and not to redirect it into productive action. Could
AI please describe the reception of the petition list
by Israeli embassy staff?
repeatedly calls for the introduction of 'unarmed'
observers. The experience of the unarmed Norwegian
observers in Hebron proves that this measure is grossly
inadequate. Settler violence and threats forced the
evacuation of the observers, and they weren't able
to provide any protection to the Palestinian population.
AI's call for human rights observers assumes that
it is helping two parties desiring a peaceful solution
to the conflict. However, given the history of human
rights violations by the Israelis, any further calls
for the introduction of unarmed observers is at best
disingenuous. Furthermore, AI's stance on this issue
ignores the repeated calls by Palestinians for armed
protection. It is essential that armed military enforcers
be brought in to protect the Palestinians, as only
this measure will likely create conditions to resume
AI is serious about motivating human rights campaigners
around the world, then a deeper understanding is needed
of why there are conflicts. At present, its reports
are seriously flawed, and of limited use to educate
human rights activists. An informed activist with
a firm grasp of the issues will be more effective
than one who is only expected to press a few buttons
on the website.
Sharon has blood on his hands -- dating back many
decades. Thousands of people have been his victims
and vast swathes of cities have been demolished by
him. The Sabra and Shatila massacre is among the bloody
chapters, one for which even an Israeli commission
to now, AI has only piggybacked on the attempts to
indict Sharon in Brussels--an action instigated by
others. And that case deals only with the Sabra &
what is happening now in the Occupied Territories,
e.g., Jenin, the repeated bombing "successes",
gross violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention,
etc., it would seem that calling unambiguously for
a war crimes tribunal would be a constructive step.
One thing is certain: Sharon, Peres, Elieser are afraid
of war crimes indictments. A credible threat thereof
would stop them from further escalation. What stops
AI from issuing a call for a war crimes tribunal now?
Israeli propaganda compliant
website of The National Interest, a pro-Israeli
rightwing foreign affairs journal, reveals in the
"Other Links Page" a list of the usual rightwing
organizations, e.g., Heritage Foundation, CATO, Milken
Institute and among them is AI . It strikes one that
AI is amongst odd company. Perhaps it is a case that
AI's reports are so sanitized and without any critical
edge that they don't offend such dubious journals.
and its propagandists may not like it when AI accuses
it of war crimes, but in general, they will be pleased
with the lame nature of Amnesty's stance and its reports.
Here is why:
It diminishes the nature and extent of Israeli crimes
against the Palestinians, partly whitewashing Israeli
It equates the nature of violence of the oppressor
and oppressed. AI refuses to hold Israel up to a
different standard. Although it accuses Israel of
war crimes, it also levels the same accusation against
AI remarkably accepts Israeli justifications for
its violence, e.g., 'response,' but accepts no justification
for Palestinian violence.
AI doesn't issue strong condemnations against Israeli
actions. There have only been three clear war crime
accusations, and all the other accusations are lame
breaches of policing standards, etc.
AI doesn't call for any measures that would curtail
Israeli actions. Calling for unarmed observers is
a woefully inadequate measure given the need to
protect the population.
approach will please the Israeli government and its
supporters. AI's current stance not only doesn't offend
pro-Israeli organizations, it doesn't call for effective
action putting it on a collision course.
rights organizations have taken on a responsibility
to stand up against the injustices perpetrated by
state power. In the case of Amnesty International,
its public record indicates that its stance is ineffective
and dubious when it comes to defending Palestinian
human rights. It is not a question of desiring more,
but demanding the very minimum.
de Rooij is an economist living in London, and is
an ex-supporter of Amnesty. He would like to thank
Donatella Rovera, AI's researcher on Israel/Palestine,
for the long discussion held with her--unfortunately,
many questions remain. He would like to thank the
20+ academics, human rights professionals, and lawyers
who reviewed this article. It is odd to put one name
as an author to a document towards which so many people
article was reproduced with the permission of the
author. It first appeared in Counterpunch
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