Dec 6 2006

New York Times on Israeli War Crimes

No independent analysis of pro-government spin

(NOTE: Please see the Activism Update regarding this alert.)

A front-page New York Times article by Greg Myre (12/5/06) covered a new report from an Israeli research group defending Israel against accusations of war crimes in its recent war with Lebanon. But instead of critically examining the report’s claims in the light of international law and the findings of independent human rights groups, the Times for the most part chose to pass on the research group’s spin unquestioningly.

As Myre explained the crux of the debate, the war crimes accusations are that “Israel fired into populated areas and that civilians accounted for a vast majority of the more than 1,000 Lebanese killed,” while “Israel says that it tried to avoid civilians, but that Hezbollah fired from civilian areas, itself a war crime, which made those areas legitimate targets.”

While this is perhaps the way the research group—led, as the Times notes, by a retired Israeli intelligence officer—would like to see the issue framed, it’s quite misleading. While the new report purports to show examples of Hezbollah fighters or arms in civilian areas, it fails to prove that all—or even most—attacks on Lebanese civilians involved any Hezbollah fighters. In fact, the evidence weighs against Israel in many of the attacks that have been investigated by independent human rights groups (Human Rights Watch, 8/3/06; Amnesty International, 11/21/06).

But even if Hezbollah fighters were present at all civilian locations attacked by Israel forces, that does not absolve Israel from its legal duty to minimize civilian casualties—as readers would have known had Myre taken the journalistically obvious step of interviewing independent experts on international law and human rights. While he quoted from reports issued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the quotes he selected were general or not directly relevant.

In fact, Myre incorrectly wrote that Amnesty “did not address the accusation that Hezbollah hid its militants among Lebanese civilians.” Though Amnesty’s initial September 14 report stated that it did not have enough evidence to take a position on that subject, the group treated the question extensively in its recent November 21 report (readily accessible on the Internet), which pointed out that, under the Geneva Conventions, Hezbollah’s actions do not release Israel from its obligations under international law.

Amnesty International wrote (11/21/06) that “intentionally shielding” combatants by launching attacks from amidst a civilian population is a war crime, and that fighting such a group

poses specific challenges—for example, identifying and destroying weapons located in civilian houses while minimizing harm to civilians. However, the rules of international humanitarian law take such challenges into account. This means that the challenges of fighting irregular forces may never be used to justify indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, the failure to adopt precautionary measures to protect civilians, or other serious violations.

The Times has since deleted the incorrect line from the online version of the article, suggesting that they realize that the claim is inaccurate; however, they did not replace the error with an account of Amnesty’s actual position, nor have they published a correction in the print version of the paper.

The quote Myre included from Human Rights Watch came from an op-ed by Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth published in the Jerusalem Post (8/17/06) and concerned the somewhat tangential Israeli claim that by giving warnings to evacuate southern Lebanon, all remaining people could be considered military targets. It’s a puzzling choice of quotes, considering the lead paragraph of that op-ed couldn’t have addressed the central claim in Myre’s article more clearly: “Why did so many Lebanese civilians lose their lives to Israeli bombing? The government line is that the IDF was doing the best it could, but these deaths were the result of Hizbullah hiding its rockets and fighters among civilians. But that assertion doesn’t stand up to the facts.” Roth also wrote that “under international humanitarian law, just as Israeli abuses in Lebanon did not justify reprisals against Israeli civilians, so Hizbullah’s war crimes did not justify Israel shirking its duty to protect Lebanese civilians.”

An earlier Human Rights Watch report (7/31/06) clarified: “It is a prohibited indiscriminate attack, and a war crime, to treat an entire area as a military target instead of attacking the particular military facilities or personnel within that area.” By that legal standard, if Israel actually said that it treated “civilian areas” as “legitimate targets” because of the presence of Hezbollah combatants, that would seem to be more of a confession to war crimes than a defense against such accusations.

But attacks on civilian areas are only one part of the accusations against Israel. Its well-documented use of cluster bombs in civilian areas, for example, has been strongly criticized (e.g., Human Rights Watch, 7/24/06), and the targeting of power plants, roads and other essential infrastructure has been widely condemned as illegal collective punishment (e.g. Amnesty International, 8/23/06). Questions have also been raised about Israel’s use of white phosphorous, which cannot be used as a weapon under international law (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/2/06).

The New York Times was leaked the unpublished report by the American Jewish Congress, and the article has the appearance of a story rushed into print in hopes of scooping competitors, with insufficient checking of its main source’s claims against other perspectives. The only viewpoint Myre included that was not supportive of the Israeli position was an anonymous Hezbollah official—hardly the most definitive or persuasive counterpoint to the report’s assertions. At the same time, the Times used the report’s citation of videotaped confessions of supposed Hezbollah fighters in Israeli custody as supporting evidence—despite the inherent unreliability of such testimony. (Israel, like the United States, acknowledges the use of interrogation techniques that would be considered torture under international law when used against prisoners of war.)

Indeed, immediately after the Times‘ scoop, the Associated Press put out a piece noting that it, too, had been leaked the report. The AP‘s first catch-up piece included quotes from the report author, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the American Jewish Congress, with no critics or international law experts as sources, and only a brief mention of Amnesty International’s accusation that Israel used cluster bombs indiscriminately. A later version included a quote from a Hezbollah official; though reporter Amy Teibel repeated Israeli claims about international law, she provided no independent evaluation of those claims.

The issuance of a report defending Israel’s military provides the news media with an opportunity to revisit the important issue of war crimes in Lebanon. But without the relevant context of international law and human rights findings, readers were left with virtually nothing but Israeli talking points.

ACTION: Please ask the New York Times to revisit the issue of war crimes in the war in Lebanon, providing reporting on the relevant international law. Also ask the Times to correct the record on Amnesty International’s stance on Israel’s responsibility toward civilians.


New York Times

Byron Calame, Public Editor

Phone: (212) 556-7652

New York Times Corrections