Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Journalists, the right to live, and other human rights

 Journalists, the right to live, and other human rights

Gaza's media center, November 2012 [Image Source]
Here's the AP report of a widely publicized assault (the Jerusalem Post called it "a scathing attack") on Israel's moral standing made three days ago by the New York-based Human Rights Watch organization.

Group: Israel broke law by targeting media in Gaza

JERUSALEM (AP) — Human Rights Watch says Israeli army attacks on journalists and media facilities in the Gaza Strip during last month’s military operation violated the laws of war. Two Palestinian cameramen were killed and at least 10 media personnel were wounded in the offensive, which was launched after weeks of rocket attacks on Israel. The Israeli government says each of the targets was a legitimate military objective. A statement released Thursday by the New York-based rights group says it found no indications that these targets were valid military objectives. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Mideast director at HRW, says that “just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so.” The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the report. [Source]
As director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division and the person leveling these charges [full text here], Sarah Leah Whitson lays serious claim to the description about her on the HRW site: she's a general expert on "Middle East and North Africa issues", though - like the organization itself - she has not been free of controversy. (We will not dwell here on the serious allegations made against her; they are adequately detailed in her Wikipedia entry and in some trenchant, well-argued critiques published by NGO-Monitor this week and in January 2012.)

For all the impressive human rights work it does, HRW has some exceedingly bitter critics. In a major and very critical op ed in the New York Times, Robert L. Bernstein, the man who created HRW, wrote this about the organization he brought into existence:
As the founder of Human Rights Watch, its active chairman for 20 years and now founding chairman emeritus, I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics. Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state...  Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. [more]
Sarah Leah Whitson was HRW's key Middle East person when Bernstein wrote those words.

Bernstein then proceeded, in that 2009 essay, to make some prophetic references to HRW allegations about Israel engaging in illegal forms of warfare:
Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism... [Yet] Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region... How does Human Rights Watch know that these laws have been violated? In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes... Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”
He ended his 2009 words with a warning to HRW that unless it returned to "its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it", HRW's "credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished".

Which brings us to December 2012 when news sources throughout the world seized on Ms Whitson's well-formed words:
Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so.
And also to the apt rejoinder offered by Anne Herzberg, legal adviser to the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor:
Just because HRW claims something is a war crime does not make it so.
We don't claim to have the depth of experience of Ms Whitson or HRW. But we do say our experience in losing a greatly-loved daughter to a bestial act of Islamist terror in 2001 has made us more sensitive than many people to nuances and to the little-reported aspects of news events that somehow don't get that much coverage or attention by the likes of HRW.

For instance, here's a photo of an Arab journalist with a little-known backstory:
Portrait 1: Female reporter presents the Palestinian Authority evening news

The image is a screenshot taken from a video recording of a PA Television evening news report originating in PATV's Ramallah studios that went to air some years ago. The young woman, a reporter/presenter, was relatively new to the job at the time the picture was taken. She must have shown some journalistic talent because management in the Fatah/PLO television authority at the time assigned her to the role of presenting the evening news.

Now had this woman been, let's just imagine, intercepted by IDF soldiers or by an Israeli Border Guard patrol while peaceably en route to the nearby city of Jerusalem, we're betting that Sarah Leah Whitson  and her HRW Irregulars would have screamed bloody murder at the Israelis' temerity. The young woman is, after all, clearly a working journalist.
Portrait 2: Female journalist conducts live interview
for a Hamas television program
Portrait 3: Same female journalist fronts her own weekly TV show
on the Al-Quds satellite channel

The woman in Portraits 2 and 3 above is a regular on the Al-Quds television channel owned and operated by Hamas and beamed throughout the world to wherever there are Arabic-speaking audiences interested in the distinctive programming they offer.

The woman is the central figure in a weekly program devoted to surveying issues of interest to one of the deprived underclasses in Palestinian society. She interviews guests, demonstrates cooking recipes, and summarizes and interprets recent events. The fact that an entire program aired during peak evening hours (and on Friday nights, no less) is given over to a woman is an indication of her prominence in the telejournalism field.

Now imagine for a moment that this household-name TV personality decided to carry out some research in, say, East Jerusalem. And say that the Israeli authorities, for reasons best known to them, detained her for questioning, and refused to let her go because of some dusty old and forgotten breaches of the law she was alleged to have committed a decade or so earlier. How long would it take for the righteous indignation of Human Rights Watch to traverse the oceans, and for vociferous demands to be laid at the feet of the government of Israel demanding that the inherent rights of journalists and reporters - and international legal norms - be respected?

The name of the woman in all the photos above is Ahlam Tamimi.

Tamimi read the PA TV evening news on Thursday evening, August 9, 2001 which is when Portrait 1 was taken. She started the program with a horrific news report about a human bomb who had exploded inside a central Jerusalem restaurant that afternoon, killing many people, most of them children, all of them Jews. In the top picture, she is reading the actual report. The slight smile of pleasure that can just be made out on her lips is probably no accident. She herself, personally, planned the bombing. She ensured with the other planners that the explosive material was adequate to the task. She accompanied the bomb (a newly-pious young man with a heavy guitar case on his back) through the military checkpoints and into Jerusalem by bus and taxi, and then walked with him through the streets of Israel's bustling capital city until they reached the Sbarro restaurant where, fifteen minutes after she left him there, he exploded the deadly materials packed into that guitar case and killed our teenage daughter Malki along with fourteen other innocents.

Tamimi's journalistic career resumed a year ago when, as part of the deal transacted between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, she was released from prison far earlier than should have been the case (she had been sentenced to sixteen life terms with a strong recommendation by the judges that no reduction should ever be considered) and flew to the land of her birth, Jordan. There she was hired by Hamas to become the presenter of a new weekly program called Breezes of the Free, focusing on the many convicted terrorists still in Israeli prisons and there goals, hopes and plans. Especially plans.

Tamimi, living free as a bird and newly-married, is famously proud of the murders for which she was convicted by an Israeli court. She has no regrets; quite the opposite, and has said so as clearly as a person ever can. [Please read one of our numerous posts about this evil person: "17-Nov-11: A monster walks the streets and she has many accomplices"]

For these and other reasons, we wonder - when we read the words of HRW, and especially of Sarah Leah Whitson - whether they comprehend the nature of terrorism. Do they see how the people who fire the rockets at homes, schools and buses will use everything at their disposal - every possible thing, no limits - to carry out their satanic plans? The notion that journalists ought to be treated in some privileged way by reason of the work they do - leaving them exempt from suspicion unless there is a compelling reason to think otherwise - is an interesting one. But we're left to wonder whether at HRW they know or care how this works in a war carried out by terrorists.

Victims of terrorism, like our daughter, suffered the permanent and irreparable violation of the most fundamental of human rights - the right to live. Had the perpetrators been stopped in time, or if they were prevented from inciting others to do the same awful thing again in the future, lives would be saved. If HRW's recent condemnation fails to take that reality into account, then - in the words of their distinguished founder, Robert L. Bernstein -  they have lost their critical perspective and the role they claim is simply illegitimate and should be ignored.