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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Civil war at Human Rights Watch

Benjamin Birnbaum publishes a lengthy and devastating critique of Human Rights Watch and their treatment of Israel at The New Republic. I urge you all to read the whole thing (Hat Tip: David Hazony via Twitter and Memeorandum). It's apparent from reading this report that internal arguments over Israel have been going on for a long time, and that there has been a systematic campaign to silence those who would treat the Jewish state more even-handedly. Ironically, according to Birnbaum, when Omri Ceren and the rest of our group of bloggers went after Marc Garlasco last fall, we may have gone after one of the few staffers in the Middle East and North African division of Human Rights Watch who might have been willing to give Israel a fair shake.
Steve Apkon was watching the entire episode with regret. Apkon liked Garlasco personally and respected his expertise. He thought that Garlasco—far from being a Nazi fetishist out to demonize Israel—actually had thoughtful views on the Middle East conflict. Both men lived in Pleasantville, New York, a quaint Westchester town, and they had gotten to know each other through Apkon’s film center, where one of Garlasco’s daughters had taken a class. Back in February 2009, shortly after Garlasco had returned from Gaza, the two met for coffee at the Pleasantville Starbucks (there is only one). Apkon found what Garlasco had to say striking: Garlasco told him that he had reservations about HRW’s approach to covering warfare, and specifically some of its work on Israel—including research for which he had been the point person.


In many ways, Garlasco was an odd fit at HRW. Prior to being hired in 2003, he had served as the head of “high-value targeting” at the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Iraq war. He opposed the invasion, however, and joined HRW shortly after the fall of Baghdad. His first assignment at his new job was to investigate collateral damage from the airstrikes he had helped plan. Whitson told me that Garlasco (who was one of only a handful of people at HRW with military experience) brought unique skills to the organization and enhanced its credibility. “He could look at the plumes in the sky and know exactly what weapon that was,” she says. “He could look at a canister and know what kind of a munition it was. He could look and see where the guidance system is.”

Garlasco was hardly a reflexive apologist for Israel. His time on the ground in Gaza convinced him that the IDF had a lot to answer for—using Palestinians as human shields, heavy artillery fire in densely populated areas, and rules of engagement so lax that large numbers of civilian deaths were inevitable. And he thought that both sides, Hamas and Israel, had committed war crimes during the conflict. Still, he believed that there was a fog of war that most of his colleagues failed to appreciate. “He said ... ‘If I were an Israeli, I’d be so frustrated,’” recalls one friend. “You are trying to get people who are shooting from civilian areas, and how do you deal with that? I mean, I remember him talking about that—that it’s an impossible quandary for a soldier. Sometimes, they actually turn out to be kids playing on the roof, and sometimes they’re guys with missiles.”

During the war, Garlasco had gotten a lot of attention for discussing Israel’s use of a chemical agent called white phosphorous. CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera ran segments featuring Garlasco explaining the dangers white phosphorous posed to civilians: On contact with skin, it could cause second- and third-degree burns; it could even burn down houses. Soon, news reports all around the world were repeating the story.

But Garlasco would later tell Apkon and others that he thought the white phosphorous controversy had been blown out of proportion. From his experience at the Pentagon, Garlasco knew that U.S. and British forces had used white phosphorous in Iraq and Afghanistan, and usually for the same purpose that the IDF used it in Gaza: as a smokescreen to obscure troop movements on the ground—a permissible use under international law. To be sure, Garlasco did not believe that the IDF had used white phosphorous properly in every instance. But he told multiple people that he thought HRW had placed too much emphasis on this issue—specifically telling one person that he had been pushed by HRW headquarters to focus on white phosphorous at the expense of topics he thought more deserving of attention because, he suspected, it was regarded as a headline-generating story. (HRW denies that it pushed Garlasco on the subject.) What’s more, while making legal judgments was not within Garlasco’s jurisdiction, he told Apkon that he did not think Israel’s use of white phosphorous amounted to a war crime. (In a subsequent report on white phosphorous, the first of six thus far on the Gaza war, HRW would say that evidence “indicates the commission of war crimes.”)

Beyond these disagreements, Garlasco had larger critiques of HRW. He thought that the organization had a habit of ignoring necessary context when covering war, he told Apkon; and he told multiple sources that he thought Whitson and others at MENA had far-left political views. As someone who didn’t have strong ideological commitments of his own on the Middle East, this bothered him. “When he reported on Georgia, his firm feeling was he could report whatever he wanted,” says one source close to Garlasco. “And, when he was talking to headquarters, the feeling was, let the chips fall where they may. He did not feel that way dealing with the Middle East division.” In addition, Garlasco alleged in conversations with multiple people that HRW officials in New York did not understand how fighting actually looked from the ground and that they had unrealistic expectations for how wars could be fought. To Garlasco, the reality of war was far more complicated. “He looks at that organization as one big attempt to outlaw warfare,” says the person close to Garlasco. Around the time he had coffee with Apkon last February, he was beginning to look for another job.
At one time, I was employed by the Israeli government. No, not in the foreign ministry or in diplomacy, but in the capital markets. When they hired me, I was shocked to find out that I was the only person they had ever hired in that particular agency (I hope that there have been others since) who had any private sector experience before coming there. But I often felt that no one else there understood the consequences of their actions for the private sector. So when Garlasco describes himself as the only one at HRW with military experience and laments that others there had no appreciation for how complicated war really is, I understand his critique.

That's not to say that he should not have anticipated (as he apparently did anticipate) that his hobby would arouse suspicion if it ever came to light. And that's not to say that the suspicion wasn't justified - it was. And it's not to say that I have any regrets over my small role in exposing it - I don't. Because had the entire Garlasco story not come to light, I have doubt how long it would have taken Robert Bernstein's damning op-ed to be published and whether Birnbaum's expose ever would have seen the light of day.

Read the whole thing. There's going to be lots of fallout from this one. It will leave you more suspicious of HRW than you are already.


At 8:52 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

HRW and AI have spent more time investigating and criticizing Israel than the rest of the Middle East combined. And if they're only going to focus on Israel, why not censure Barak for having the army demolish Jewish homes for no good reason whatsoever. Don't Jews have human rights, too?


At 12:21 AM, Blogger Juniper in the Desert said...

Amazing how HRW and AI criticise Israel for alledgedly using civilians as human shields, but not the originators of this, the arabs who use their own people - specifically children.

If the arabs have such contempt for their own people is it any surprise the Israeli army does?


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