Amnesty Report Adds to Calls for Arms Embargo of Israel and Hamas

Harsh Criticism of Gaza Operation Is Disputed by Foreign Ministry

By Nathan Jeffay

Published February 25, 2009, issue of March 06, 2009.
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In a report lambasting Israel’s conduct during its recent military offensive in Gaza, Amnesty International, one of the world’s most widely recognized human rights groups, has called on the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the Jewish state.

The report demands an “an immediate, comprehensive arms embargo on all parties to the conflict” — meaning, to be sure, Palestinian militias including Hamas, along with Israel. But the weight of such a move would fall most heavily on Israel, given that the rockets fired by Hamas are self-made or smuggled.

Both Israel and Hamas have strongly criticized the report.

The call for an embargo — also adopted by Amnesty after Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon — reflects a more activist approach by international nongovernmental organizations criticizing Israel. Before the 2006 war, many harshly criticized Israel, but none went on to demand that the U.N. take such an action.

Israel’s supporters see little chance of the Security Council taking such a step — in no small part because the United States, Israel’s primary arms supplier, would veto any such effort. But supporters are concerned that Amnesty’s call adds a prestigious new voice to the campaign to limit military aid to Israel. This could have an unpredictable long-term impact amid a tide of negative public opinion facing the state, they say.

“Amnesty International is doing nothing short of denying Israel the right to self-defense, an internationally accepted right of every sovereign nation,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League.

In its report, Amnesty declares in itself “deeply concerned that weaponry, munitions and other military equipment” supplied to Israel have been used to carry out direct attacks on civilians and on targets that enable civilian life, such as water supplies. It termed many of the attacks “disproportionate or indiscriminate.”

The organization is “also concerned that Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have been firing indiscriminate rockets, supplied or constructed of materials supplied from outside Gaza, at civilian population centers in southern Israel.”

The Amnesty report does not spare the Palestinian groups, saying the rockets launched at Israel contravene international law. But more than 30 pages of the 38-page report are taken up with the alleged “misuse of conventional arms by Israeli forces” and discussion and data on Israel’s arms supplies.

The report detailed dozens of weapons used by Israel in Gaza, and claimed that on many occasions these weapons were used inappropriately.

One of the claims is that weapons experts in Gaza found white-phosphorus artillery shells marked M825 A1 — identifying them as American-made munitions — which Amnesty says should not have been used in densely populated areas. White phosphorus, though not illegal, is highly controversial because of its deep and continuing burning effect on skin tissue. During the conflict, Gaza doctors reported encountering numerous civilians whose burns from the substance worsened despite treatment, and often proved fatal.

America’s own use of the substance in Iraq — denied until November 2005 — generated much criticism. When claims surfaced in early January that Israel had used white phosphorus in civilian areas of Gaza, Israel denied doing so. It then acknowledged doing so “according to international law.”

Other weapons that Israel is accused of using inappropriately are flechette shells, which release thousands of metal darts; Dense Inert Metal Explosives, and a previously unknown missile that disperses into tiny cube-sized shrapnel pieces and is, according to Amnesty, “designed to cause maximum injury.”

Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry greeted the Amnesty report dismissively, saying that “initial study… indicates that it presents a biased version of the events, and does not adhere to professional criteria and objectivity.”

This put the Israelis in rare agreement with Hamas. Echoing Israel, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called the report “unbalanced and unfair” — though he viewed the bias as leaning against Hamas.

Both sides took issue with the apparent parity Amnesty imposed between arms supplies to them and to their opponent.

“Israel is a sovereign nation that is obligated to use force to protect its citizens, while Hamas is a terror organization,” the Israeli statement said, asking rhetorically, “Can a comparison be made between the weapons used by Al-Qaeda to those used by NATO forces?”

Barhoum, meanwhile, objected because the report “make[s] equal between the real criminal and the victim.”

In an official 10-point rebuttal, Israel also criticized Amnesty’s report for ignoring or failing to mention numerous other issues, including:

  • “The basic fact that Hamas is a terror organization, recognized as such by the European Union, the United States and other countries.
  • The use by Hamas of civilians as human shields.”
  • The scale of rocket fire at Israel.
  • The fact that Israel’s armaments “comply both with international law and with its usage by Western armies.”
  • The fact that Israel does not intentionally target civilians.
  • The fact that Hamas is supported by “foreign extremists.”

Israel also faulted the report for relying on witnesses who are “interested parties and under Hamas pressure” to substantiate claims about Israel’s conduct. In addition, the report misuses the concept of proportionality when it terms Israel’s actions “disproportionate,” the rebuttal stated.

In an interview with the Forward, Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera, one of the authors of the report, termed most of the Israeli points “irrelevant.”

As per its reports on other parts of the world, Amnesty evaluates the military conduct of the contending forces in combat in terms of international law and not the forces’ political status, she stressed.

Rovera therefore rejected Israel’s assertion that the report should have noted that Hamas is a terrorist organization.

She also cast doubt on Israel’s claims that Hamas used human shields in the conflict. “We have had no [such] reports,” she said.

Rovera refuted claims that her report relied on biased witnesses, but she agreed with Israel’s claim that its armaments comply with international law. The report’s argument, she said, is that legal weapons were employed inappropriately, not that illegal weapons were used.

She said the report’s heavier focus on Israel in comparison with that on the Palestinians was necessary, as Israel’s range of weapons is wider than its enemies’ and therefore required more extensive discussion.

Israel has promised to deliver a more detailed response at some point. Meanwhile, NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based organization that draws attention to what it regards as the nongovernmental organizations’ “exploitation” of human rights values for political agendas, is fighting in Israel’s corner.

After seeing a copy of the report before its February 23 release, the group condemned it as “another example of Amnesty’s double standards and anti-Israel bias exploiting the language of international law.”

Gerald Steinberg, the group’s executive director and chair of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, charged that Amnesty has become party to the “political warfare” against Israel. The report is the “culmination of the process” of nongovernmental organizations using their influence to delegitimize Israel, he said.

According to Steinberg, the report employs a “pseudo even-handedness” to reach a “specific policy goal” of isolating Israel and arrives at its conclusions by “defining the terms of reference to suit.”

Amnesty’s insistence that an aggressor-defender discussion is not relevant to the report is “fundamentally immoral,” Steinberg argued. “They are taking a small point on which they can attack Israel while intentionally ignoring the wider picture, which is absurd and immoral. There is no symmetry, and placing Hamas and Israel in the same basket is ridiculous.”

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