A recent UN report confirmed that the situation for the Palestinians is desperate and has reached crisis proportions.  The report goes so far as to state: “a UN committee monitoring human rights abuses of Palestinians [for the last 35 years] has concluded that the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank was the worst ever last year.” This situation is chronic, and indeed, mass abuses of human rights have been going on for decades. Anyone concerned with justice for the Palestinian people must wonder what position human rights organizations have taken on the issue and what they have reported. In the case of Amnesty International, it is a sorry and dubious record. This article presents an in-depth look at AI’s poor record in monitoring the plight of the Palestinians during the second intifada.
This article is a follow-up to: “AI: Say It Isn’t So” (CounterPunch, Oct. 31, 2002).
1. Insult to injury
The first sentence in AI’s Oct. 13th press release appeared promising: “[AI] condemns in the strongest terms the large-scale destruction by the Israeli army of Palestinian homes in a refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, which made homeless hundreds of people….”  It then mentions war crimes but, more specifically, says that Israeli actions “constitute war crimes.” This is better than its previous ambivalent accusations.  Some of AI’s previous reports yielded only generic references to war crimes, leaving it unclear whether the perpetrators were Israelis or Palestinians; by any measure such references to war crimes were less than useful.  Furthermore, in its latest press release AI used the phrase “strongly condemned” when referring to Israeli actions -- this reproach had been thus far usually reserved for Palestinian violence. So far, so good.
However, the remainder of the press release raises many questions. Here is the final sentence: “[AI] condemns the deliberate killings of Israeli civilians by Palestinian armed groups as a crime against humanity.” The reaction of Francis Boyle, a professor of Law, puts this into perspective: “What a joke and a fraud. So those living under the boot of Israel’s genocidal regime are the bigger criminals under international law. Every expert knows that crimes against humanity are far more serious than war crimes, and the precursor to genocide.” Furthermore, it is very odd that AI deemed fit to add this last sentence to a press release dealing with crimes against Palestinians. And finally, while during the second intifada the Palestinians have been smeared with “crimes against humanity” several times now, AI has not leveled a clear accusation of this crime against Israel -- although it would be rather apropos.  AI has stated that some Israeli actions “may also constitute crimes against humanity,” but this is somewhat ambivalent compared to the accusation leveled against Palestinians.
Perhaps an analogy will clarify the objection. If a man rapes a woman at knifepoint, it would be odd to suggest that the woman should be imprisoned for resisting the rapist. However, at present, Amnesty’s stance favors “punishing the rape victim.”
2. Circumscribing the crimes
A careful reading of any AI statement referring to possible Israeli war crimes reveals another curious bias: the severity of the crimes referred to is restricted and only a fraction of Israeli actions are mentioned. For example, the reference to war crimes in its October 13th press release only pertains to the demolition of houses and property.  Thus, the broad array of systematic violations of Palestinian human rights is not part of the war crimes allegation.
A September 3, 2002 press release stated: “unlawful forcible transfer of protected persons constitutes a war crime.”  The fact that the homes of the families of the people involved already had been demolished in an act of collective punishment without appeal was not part of AI’s condemnation. Although AI highlights one breach of humanitarian law and names it a war crime, it is curious that it doesn’t encompass a broad array of serious Israeli actions. The circumscription of these crimes lessens the gravity of the accusation.
To continue with our rape analogy: if a man were to rape a woman at knifepoint, it would certainly be odd to condemn the rapist only for not wearing a condom. AI’s accusations of war crimes are the equivalent of “the rapist was not wearing a condom.”
3. Willful neglect
A recurrent problem with AI’s stance on Palestinian human rights is the simple lack of adequate reporting -- the long list of massive abuses of Palestinian human rights is mostly neglected. On September 8, 2003, AI released a report on the effects of closures on the Occupied Territories.  This report was issued 308 days after its previous report, and in the meantime, 594 Palestinians had been killed.  The Israeli policy of closures was already apparent years ago and, to be generous, one can only say that this report was late. Furthermore, this report dealt with an issue that isn’t the most serious threat to Palestinian human rights today. That is, while the closure policy is indeed a deliberate ploy to make the lives of Palestinians miserable, it has been superseded by far more injurious Israeli policies. Most important at present is the construction of the land-grab wall that penetrates deep into the West Bank. This is causing far more misery and hardship than the closures -- indeed, the tens of thousands of Palestinians isolated in the enclaves west of the wall are subjected to a form of closure, which is intensified by the knowledge that it is intended to force them to abandon their homes, land and livelihoods. Further, the occupation policies are causing severe malnutrition in a significant portion of the population. Then there are the tens of thousands of maimed Palestinians. AI neglects many topics. 
Once again, if a man were raping a woman, it would be unconscionable to delay and, when finally intervening, simply to admonish the rapist that he is making the victim “uncomfortable.” And yet, in the current context, AI waits a long time between reports, and then mentions only a fraction of the abuses taking place -- and not necessarily the most egregious ones; it is just mentioning the “discomfort of the rape victim”.
4. The trees for the forest
Any long-term observer of the situation in Occupied Palestine will know that there is a pattern of ethnic cleansing, and that these policies are systematic. Once the scale, intent, and systematic nature are acknowledged, then the next step is to consider naming these “crimes against humanity” -- one of the most serious crimes.
Here, again, one can see AI’s bias at work, in its apparent refusal to recognize that there is a pattern and a history of abuse. It is evident from AI’s public record that it discusses individual events, or individual practices, but it is unwilling to declare that they are intentional or systematic in nature. It has a propensity to produce tedious lists of events, but then neglect important context. There is a history of ethnic cleansing, the current Israeli government is led by a war criminal, and current Israeli actions are consistent with some of the more truculent statements made by its leadership or their minions. Viewed in this context, Israeli actions must be deemed intentional and systematic, and this can only mean that serious crimes have been perpetrated -- but this is something that AI is not willing to acknowledge.
Again, the rape analogy elucidates the objection. In the case of a serial rapist assaulting a woman, it would be rather odd if the history of the rapist were ignored. In the current context, AI’s statement equates to: “hey you, knock it off.”
5. Calling for a war crimes tribunal
Anyone who has traveled to the Occupied Territories will have been confronted with some difficult questions posed by Palestinians. In particular, questions about international protection are difficult to answer. One recurrent question is why hasn’t the Israeli leadership been indicted for serious crimes. Sharon, Mofaz, Eliezer, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and Ya’alon, are some strong contenders to appear in front of a war crimes tribunal. Why this hasn’t happened yet is a good question.
Thus far, AI has refused to issue a call for the institution of a war crimes tribunal for Israel-Palestine. When questioned about this an AI researcher stated: “… but then we would have to do that for everyone.” This answer is curious from an organization that provided counsel at a lawsuit brought against Sharon in Brussels.  If Sharon deserves to be indicted for the crimes committed at Sabra and Shatila (in Lebanon), then why not name the people who should be indicted for the crimes committed in Palestine?
AI’s current stance also assumes that the Israel-Palestine conflict is much like other conflicts. However, one should note that Palestinians have been at the receiving end of occupation, dispossession, ethnic cleansing and mass abuses of human rights for decades now. To put it into perspective, consider that Ronnie Kasrils, Minister of Water in South Africa, and a longtime anti-apartheid activist, stated that the conflict in Apartheid South Africa pales by comparison to the Palestinian conflict.  During the worst years of the repression in apartheid-South Africa, airplanes or helicopter gunships did not bomb the townships. However, in the Occupied Territories this is all too common. The repression of the Palestinians is worse than that suffered by the black population under apartheid. Thus, Palestine is a case deserving special attention and action. One of the few threats that can have an effect against Israelis is the call for the institution of a war crimes tribunal to prosecute Sharon and his gang.
Until now this is as far as AI is willing to go:
Amnesty International calls on the international community:
--To bring to justice anyone suspected of war crimes or crimes against humanity who may be within their jurisdiction 
Notice the “courage” exhibited here. AI doesn’t name who or which of the parties to the conflict should be brought to justice. It is a generic request -- although, as we saw at the start of this article, AI has accused the Palestinians, but not Israel, of “crimes against humanity.”
Again, consider the rape analogy. AI’s stance equates to posting intentionally blurred “wanted” posters of both the rapist and the rape victim. Of course, there will be no name on the rapist’s poster.
6. Geneva Convention -- abrogated de facto.
The basic humanitarian law pertaining to Israeli obligations vis-à-vis the Palestinians is the Fourth Geneva Convention. However, the Israelis have long disingenuously argued that this doesn’t apply to them.  Furthermore, the actions of both the US and Israel indicate that the Geneva Convention has been abrogated de facto. If so, all AI’s trite recitations of the numerous breaches of this particular Convention are pointless. AI must decide if it wants to go down the legalistic path or to remain a human rights advocate. It is obvious from its actions that it has chosen the former role, and it is using a legal framework that will not be implemented.
7. There is a pattern and a history
AI’s dubious role in relation to Israel-Palestine is not new. During the 1980s AI didn’t list any Palestinian prisoners of conscience ; and similarly, it never referred to incidents of torture.  Things changed slightly during the first intifada; AI had no choice but to improve its coverage of Palestinian human rights -- the violations were too obvious. By the early 1990s some references were made to torture and a few prisoners of conscience were listed. So it is of interest to determine AI’s current stance on the following key contentious issues: torture, prisoners of conscience, massacre and ethnic cleansing. If these aren’t given sufficient mention, or even not mentioned at all, then a few questions arise.
7a. Prisoners of conscience (POC)
At present, AI only recognizes two Palestinian prisoners of conscience and two “possible” POC.  It seems that it is more difficult for AI to bestow POC status on a Palestinian prisoner than for the Pope to canonize a saint. Furthermore, no lists are available of the current Palestinian POCs or what has happened to the ones who were previously imprisoned. AI admits that it “doesn’t make such lists public.” In other words, it is barely doing anything for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners, and therefore it is deemed best not to publicize this tiny list.
It also seems that the only way for a given Palestinian prisoner to be included in AI’s action list is to lobby the organization. This stands in stark contrast with the adoption of Cuban POCs. There are thousands of Palestinians in prisons, at the notorious secret prison Unit 1391 near Hadera, and even in a concentration camp in the Negev.  AI has barely moved pertaining the human rights of these people.
AI’s online archive on torture pertaining to Israel-Palestine contains 43 items, but only 17 actually use the word “torture.” Out of these, six deal with the issue of torture at any length, and the remainder mixes up torture with denial of medical treatment or police brutality outside of prison. All told there are about ten specific cases of torture listed -- again, no accurate number can be put on this due to the mixing up of cases dealing with torture, poor prison conditions, denial of medical treatment and the like. AI has not produced a specific report dealing with torture during the second intifada.
One must give AI credit on one count, i.e., it actually named one Israeli torturer, Carmi Gillon, before he became the Israeli ambassador to Denmark. The press release offers some details of the torture techniques and the numbers of prisoners tortured.  Despite this exposure, Gillon became Israel’s ambassador, and now attends cocktail parties in the diplomatic circuit -- an unrepentant torturer who advocates the use of more torture.
7c. Ethnic cleansing
The phrase “ethnic cleansing” did not appear in AI’s public record during 2002 and 2003. The very best way to describe Israeli policy against the Palestinians is to label it ethnic cleansing. The construction of the grotesque wall deep in the West Bank is a blatant land grab and ethnic cleansing operation. It is throwing thousands of Palestinians off the land, and it clearly amounts to ethnic cleansing, or the precursor to ethnocide. These are true crimes against humanity, yet AI doesn’t mention anything about ethnic cleansing.
It is true that “ethnic cleansing” is a recently-coined term, but today its meaning is well understood, i.e., the expulsion of large numbers of inhabitants from their homes due to violence, intimidation or starvation. The term doesn’t appear in the core humanitarian law, but it conveys the understood reality on the ground. Even Israeli scholars use this term to describe Israeli military practices.  AI has a choice of being legalistic or conveying information that is readily available and understood by a broad audience. Its current choice is somewhere in between, and it chooses a legalistic approach when an issue is contentious, e.g., ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
It may be difficult for AI to send its researchers into the Occupied Territories -- it is dangerous. However, one can investigate ethnic cleansing within Israel proper; one can even read about it in Ha'aretz. The Bedouins in the Negev have been systematically rounded up, their homes demolished, and their crops sprayed with herbicide by aircraft.  The land-grab wall is isolating some Palestinian communities in Israel proper, and the inhabitants have been threatened with expulsion. Ethnic cleansing is all too evident, but this isn’t something AI wants to investigate, let alone name it for what it is.
The village of Mazmuriah inside Israel had until recently a “non-status” where the residents were given West Bank identity cards.  When the wall was built it shut the village off from contact with the neighboring villages, and consequently the village lost access to basic services and contact with their main neighbors. The next step in the Israeli campaign was to order these people to leave. If this isn’t ethnic cleansing, then what is? This operation is easy to verify because it is within Israel. The situation is much worse within the occupied territories, and although less accessible, AI doesn’t mention “ethnic cleansing” (with or without quotation marks).
There are no references to the term “massacre” in AI literature -- the word is considered political. Maybe a dictionary definition is more useful, i.e., “to kill indiscriminately or in large numbers.” More than 2,600 Palestinians have been killed, yet, according to AI, none were killed in a massacre. Or as an AI press release put it: “[Irene Khan, AI's Secretary General,] also clarified that there is no legal definition in international law of the word ‘massacre’ and that its use in the current circumstances is not helpful.”  Of course, there is no legal definition of “ethnic cleansing” either. It is curious that AI is willing to spew this legalese when it suits them; obviously, it is using the term “crimes against humanity” without much reference to any legal codex. Here the usage of the term suits their ends, and there is no need to be punctilious about legal definitions.
Here is another AI tendency: the usage of euphemisms. Faced with questions about Jenin in April 2002, AI had this to say: “…Secretary General Irene Khan has confirmed that there is strong evidence indicating that grave breaches of international humanitarian law and violations of human rights in Jenin camp were committed by the Israel Defense Force. (emphasis added).” Legal experts confirm that such breaches amount to war crimes or worse. Thus, when it comes to Israeli crimes AI has a tendency of using euphemisms.
The rape analogy may be useful again. In the case of a man raping a woman at knifepoint AI’s position amounts to avoiding the issue by stating: “there is no definition of ‘knifepoint’ in law and its use in the current circumstances is not helpful; this situation is not really a rape.” AI doesn’t deem it necessary to deal with issues that don’t fall within the strict confines of its semi-legal discourse.
8. They have their comical moments too
AI is neither a pacifist nor an anti-war organization. Thus when an Israeli F16 dropped a one-ton-bomb in a densely populated refugee camp in Gaza on July 23, 2002, killing 17 people, the extent of its admonishment was: “This attack was disproportionate and is utterly unacceptable."  Perhaps next time the IOF will oblige and use a 500kg bomb to fulfill AI’s suggestion for a proportionate response. Perhaps this is why AI wants to hire military experts -- to determine if actions are “proportionate.”
The IOF also uses weapons that result in indiscriminate killings when used in densely populated areas. A flechette shell was used against a family sleeping in a tent next to their orchard in Gaza and several people were killed. The flechettes spread over a wide area and thus kill indiscriminately. It would seem that the use of such a weapon is possibly criminal in the Occupied Territories, but the response of an AI’s researcher to this was: “AI is not an anti-war organization.” This is their rationale for not issuing a condemnation about the use of such weaponry. They understand the uses of weaponry, and then they seek to hire military experts to determine if the use of a given weapon was appropriate. 
In October 2003, a helicopter attack in Gaza fired flechette missile into a large crowd killing 14 civilians.  The mere fact Israel tried to cover up this incident with false video footage is proof they know what they are doing is morally at par with the suicide bombings. The difference is that Israelis know that the destructiveness of their bombs is much higher. AI’s reaction: not a peep, although they may be consulting with their military experts.
Any time there is a question about AI’s stance the rape analogy is useful. In the case of a man raping a woman at knifepoint, AI’s stance amounts to suggesting that the rapist should “use a knife with a smaller blade.” AI will duly provide a military expert to determine if the length of the knife blade is proportionate.
9. A double standard
AI’s reaction to suicide bombings is different from its reactions to a one-ton bomb dropped by an F16 in the middle of a refugee camp. Most press releases dealing with suicide bombs use emotive language; here one will find words like “horrific” or “shocking.” When it comes to F16-one-ton-bombs there is no such emotive language. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that there is no legal definition of ‘horrific’ or ‘shocking,’ but when it comes to criticizing Palestinians, that is no bar to AI.)
Furthermore, one wonders why AI condemns the use of suicide bombings at all. Or as Prof. Nabeel Abraham put it: “If AI is not an anti-war organization then it has NO business criticizing suicide bombings which are merely human-delivered bombs and keeping quiet about aerial and artillery delivered bombs targeted on civilian areas. They are the same thing on one level; the technology is vastly different; but a flechette shell or an F16-delivered bomb is only different from a suicide bomb in the tonnage and accuracy, that's all. So, if AI deems suicide bombings to be crimes against humanity, what about the F16-one-ton-bomb?”
10. Touch With a Bargepole
Sections of AI’s reports are used by both Palestinians and Israelis for their own purposes. One can find references to Amnesty reports in many pro-Palestinian publications, e.g., electronicIntifada, Palestine Chronicle, etc. Whenever there is a reference to “Israeli war crimes,” it is deemed useful for their cause, and a given report or press release may be quoted. Most people concerned with Palestinian human rights don’t realize or ignore that the same report usually contains statements that are injurious to Palestinians.
During the Israeli onslaught on Jenin in April 2002, the “IDF” website carried a justification of their actions and stated that anyone reading AI’s reports would know what Israelis were up against -- Palestinians had after all committed war crimes.  Amnesty’s documents are so useful, even the Israelis like them!
Peace or human rights activists should treat AI documents carefully. There is a serious problem with using a given document if there are dubious sections. For example, one should not use a document condemning Israeli war crimes if it also includes references to Palestinian “crimes against humanity.” Similarly, one cannot refer to any “good” AI reports if it also produces others that are unfair to Palestinians. What is needed is for Amnesty to clarify its stance in this conflict and to produce consistent reports covering a wider array of issues. If this is not forthcoming, then activists are advised to ignore AI’s reports -- they should avoid a “pick and choose” approach to human rights. Simply put: AI cannot be all things to all people -- something it attempts to do at present.
A recent mailing requesting donations for Amnesty showed a prominent “Action!” slogan. Upon opening the leaflet one found an array of options to donate money to AI. Action equates to donating money to AI.
Browsing AI’s website takes one to a section where one can read about a given case of a hapless prisoner, and then one can press a petition button. Presto! A liberal soul will now feel much better. One can now go to the next case and press another button for further liberal gratification. Amnesty should perhaps provide one button that will sign the petitions for all cases in one shot. Then, instead of wasting time reading all the individual cases AI could direct volunteers to read something more meaningful about human rights abuses. However, this piecemeal, one-case-at-a-time approach misses the big picture entirely, and goes to the heart of its failure in covering the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Instead of focusing on the individual prisoner, perhaps it would be far better to motivate activists with an explanation of why violence, torture or other human rights abuses occur in the first place. Activists armed with such information will tend to be more active and committed to fight human rights abuses, and may find more effective ways to act. Sending a regular contribution to AI or pressing the silly buttons on its website are hardly something that equates to “action.” In reality, AI’s approach translates to a neutralizing of protest; it channels idealistic people with a desire to change things into activities that are of limited use.
Next time an AI letter comes through the letterbox, cross out all parts having to do with fundraising. Now, read the remainder and determine if you’ve obtained any insight into why human rights have been violated in the cases in question. It is unlikely that you will have done so. It is also unlikely that the letter will state anything about the mass abuse of Palestinian human rights.
12. Oh, we are so apolitical…
AI justifies its stance on the basis that it is an apolitical organization. However, this apolitical posturing is a smokescreen behind which hides a political organization willing to play along with the propaganda needs of major powers. This means that it will lend itself to issuing reports tarnishing the accepted enemies, and it will neuter criticism of accepted allies.  In the case of Israel-Palestine, this results in minimizing and circumscribing criticism of Israel, and removing any critical sting. At the same time, AI is willing to criticize Palestinians and tarnish them with accusations of very serious crimes. Above all its function is to de-legitimize Palestinian violence.
When AI is willing to issue human rights reports that lend themselves to propaganda campaigns on the eve of war, and when it is unwilling to be more critical of official allies, then it is up to the US and UK governments to foot AI’s bills; it is no longer the responsibility of the public at large to do so.
13. Where was AI when the ethnic cleansing was going on?
It took years for AI to finally recognize a handful of Palestinian prisoners of conscience, it took decades to recognize the Israeli torture practices, and it took decades before AI ever uttered the term “war crimes” as a label for Israeli actions. Even when it used such terms it did so in an ambivalent fashion and with a frequency resembling the sexual habits of Pandas -- it seldom occurs, and then when it happens it is difficult to determine if it really happened. AI’s current stance indicates that it is possible to go through the motions, use the “human rights” jargon and produce statements that are supposedly useful to Israelis and Palestinians. In reality, its stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians is biased, ineffective, confused and sometimes injurious. In the face of on going ethnic cleansing AI waits hundreds of days to issue reports, and it barely raises its voice pertaining the systematic and mass abuses of human rights. It is a shameful stance.
To clarify Amnesty’s position on Israel-Palestine, the rape analogy is again useful. The Israeli onslaught against the Palestinians and the decades of dispossession are equivalent to the gang rape of a woman held at knifepoint. While this is going on Amnesty’s role is akin to standing on the sidelines wringing its hands and bleating occasionally: “both sides must make human rights central to their relationship,” “this activity is making the woman uncomfortable,” “the rapists must freeze all f***ing activity,” and “resisting the rapists constitutes a crime against humanity.”
de Rooij is a writer living in London, and is a former supporter of
Amnesty International. He can be reached at
email@example.com (NB: all emails
with attachments will be automatically deleted.)
on Jenin”: an interview with Prof. Francis Boyle by Dennis Bernstein,
CAQ, Summer 2002, pp. 9 -- 12, 27.
1) Nabeel Abraham, et al.; International Human Rights Organizations and the Palestine Question, Middle East Report (MERIP), Vol. 18, No. 1, January-February 1988, pp. 12 — 20.
2) Dennis Bernstein and Francis Boyle, “Amnesty on Jenin”: an interview, CAQ, Summer 2002, pp. 9 — 12, 27.
3) Paul de Rooij, “AI: Say It Isn't So,” CounterPunch, Oct. 31, 2002
4) Paul de Rooij, “Ambient Death in Palestine,” Dissident Voice, June 21, 2003.
5) Sara Flounders, “Massacre in Jenin, Human Rights Watch and the Stage-Management of Imperialism,” CAQ, Fall 2002.
6) Diana Johnstone, Fools' Crusade, Pluto Press, London, 2002.
Other articles by Paul de Rooij: