On 7 July 2014, Israel unleashed Operation Protective Edge against Gaza. When it launched a ground invasion on 18 July 2014, Israel had already killed 230 Gazan Palestinians, of whom 75 percent (171) were civilians and 20 percent (48) children, wounded more than 1,700, and destroyed or rendered uninhabitable hundreds of homes leaving more than 10,000 Gazans without shelter. On the other side, according to daily updates Palestinian projectiles had killed one Israeli civilian, wounded 18, and damaged three Israeli homes. It’s hard to conceive of a more disproportionate balance sheet in an alleged “war.”
Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its legal reckoning, didn’t so much even out as reverse the balance sheet. It never explicitly accused Israel of committing war crimes, whereas its first press release already accused Hamas of committing war crimes. If in fact HRW accurately interpreted the laws of war, the only rational conclusion would be that these laws are morally bankrupt and deserving of contempt: they would not be distilling but instead grossly distorting the moral realities of war, as they exonerate the major perpetrators of war crimes. But did HRW accurately interpret the laws of war, or did this influential human rights organization give Israel a green light to commit war crimes on a yet more massive scale during the ground invasion? Let’s look at the record.
In its first press release on 9 July 2014, “Indiscriminate Palestinian Rocket Attacks; Israeli Airstrikes on Homes Appear to be Collective Punishment,” HRW stated that “Israeli attacks targeting homes may amount to prohibited collective punishment.” In its second press release on 16 July, “Unlawful Israeli Airstrikes Kill Civilians; Bombings of Civilian Structures Suggest Illegal Policy,” HRW stated that “Israeli air attacks in Gaza…have been targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war. Israel should end unlawful attacks that do not target military objectives and may be intended as collective punishment or broadly to destroy civilian property.” It then proceeded to legally define the meaning of war crimes, but artfully avoided accusing Israel of committing them.
In these statements HRW doubly distanced itself from alleging Israeli war crimes: first, it qualified the weight of the incriminating evidence–“appear,” “may,” “apparent,” “may be”; second, it recoiled from explicitly charging Israel with war crimes and instead settled for lesser or vaguer charges–“collective punishment,” “violation of the laws of war,” “unlawful attacks.” The cautiousness perplexes in light of the evidence assembled by HRW itself.