Thursday, November 1, 2007

Gerald Steinberg, Kenneth Roth, and Israel's Wrongs in Lebanon

I'm honored to note that Gerald Steinberg, Executive Director of NGO Monitor, has responded to my post of two days ago in which I linked to his critique of Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch. Here's Steinberg's response, promoted from comments to the front page:

In your blog posting, you acknowledged NGO Monitor’s critique of Human Rights Watch and its head, Kenneth Roth, but then you noted that the information and analysis that we provided would not change your opinions. I admit that I cannot understand how, after seeing the specific examples of HRW’s unverifiable, and in many cases, clearly false claims, and its obsessive condemnations of Israeli responses to Hezbollah, you still believe" that it would have been better had the IDF tried to learn from [HRWws] report on the war in Lebanon last year” and that Roth is “unfortunately, right, and the IDF people are wrong." I wonder what evidence it would take to convince you that HRW, and Roth in particular, have a strong ideological agenda and that their research capabilities, particular when dealing with Israel, are practically non-existent? HRW’s condemnations against Israel are almost entirely based on reports of so-called “eyewitnesses” based in Southern Lebanon, and the latest report on last year’s Lebanon war regarding the number of civilian casualties in Lebanon is full of huge holes. Perhaps if you read some of NGO Monitor’s detailed analyses on HRW since 2001, you would recognize that HRW’s “halo effect” hides some nasty ideological agendas and biases.

In contrast, I note the posting from Lydia McGrew on your blog: "Anybody (just to take one of Steinberg's examples) who says that he could find no evidence of Hezbollah using human shields is not a reliable source on this subject in my book." This is indeed the key
point. HRW published condemnations of Israel without any verifiable evidence. If NGOs were to use a reliable and consistent methodology, more governments, including the Government of Israel, would take them seriously. As it stands, it is the powerful NGOs that need to be examined. HRW’s annual budget is close to $50 million – money that could be much better spent. For example, as NGO Monitor has shown, for the past two years has spent only a small fraction of its resources on the abuses in Burma .

This is an important issue, both for Israel and for the effort to restore the credibility and impact of universality of human rights norms, and to end the exploitation of the language to promote the ideological and personal agendas of NGO officials.

But you see, I'm not really arguing with Steinberg, nor embracing Kenneth Roth. What my original statement was, and obstinately remains, is that since Israel was too careless with the lives of some Lebanese citizens in last summer's war, we need to be figuring out what we did wrong so as to learn from it for the next time (yes, there most assuredly will be a next time that Israel will be at war). I wish we weren't in such a situation, for all sorts of reasons, first and foremost because of the innocent lives lost, but we are. Israel wasn't trying to hit Lebanese civilians, as Hezbollah was aiming indiscriminately at Israeli civilians; I even have no reason to think that Israel was callously disregarding Lebanese citizens in its attempt to hit Hezbollah; but there can be no doubt that Israel was being less careful then necessary, and that as a result innocent Lebanese died. If Kenneth Roth - even he - has anything to tell about the events that we can learn from then we should be listening. Not because he's such a reliable witness. He probably isn't. But that's not the issue.

For a fuller description of my take on Israel's 2nd Lebanon war, see Michael Totten's interview with me, here.


Lydia McGrew said...

Here's a pretty typical couple of paragraphs from the interview with Totten:

"Okay. So tens of thousands of people live there. We killed…500 of them? That means that most of them weren’t there. Right? Now, clearly it’s easier to do this in Nablus than in the dahiyeh, and I think from the perspective of the Israelis that a certain amount of collateral damage was inevitable. But…what for? Killing Lebanese civilians in order not to achieve anything…there’s no justification for that that any of us can see.

So we stumbled into this thing without thinking, we set very high goals, we had international backing at one point to an unprecedented degree, and then within days we were killing hundreds of civilians which…we don’t like. The army was saying “it will take us ten days and we’ll kill off Hezbollah.” So had we killed off Hezbollah and had 600 dead Lebanese civilians, nobody would have been happy about it, but maybe you say, okay, maybe there’s no choice. Hezbollah hides itself among civilians, etc, etc, etc. I don’t know. The question would have been raised after the war, not during the war, and it would have been raised in any case, but maybe we would have said there was no choice."

That seemed to be the theme: That if Israel was going to do it, they should have done it right. Not so much that they used the wrong rules of engagement. You touched on that early in the debate but then seemed to concede Totten's "devil's advocate" point that you can't use all the same rules of engagement when you are waging war in a foreign country as when you are carrying out operations in territories you control. This seems like common sense.

But if they'd done it right and launched a bigger invasion, there probably would have been more civilian collateral damage still.

It seems to me that the questions really are factual ones regarding the morality of specific IDF actions, and that for that purpose HRW is pretty much a useless source. Certainly it doesn't sound to me cut and dried that the IDF was irresponsible and so forth, overly careless with civilian lives. Even that one apartment building where they were taking the children's bodies out of the basement--there were some real questions about that. You may say I shouldn't read LGF, though my own recommendation would be to take the Daily Kos off the blogroll and put LGF on instead. :-) In any event, it was pretty clear that at least some of the photos were staged (the "green helmet guy" thing). That doesn't mean that the IDF didn't hit the building or that they were definitely not reckless. It does mean that there are questions about what happened there and that fakery of some sort was going on in the vicinity. There were several important fauxtography scandals throughout the summer.

Yaacov said...

I added LGF, and didn't remove Kos. I don't read either of them regularly, and both of them are good for a laugh - tho very different kinds of laughs.