MAKE WAR ON ISRAEL
By Gerald M. Steinberg
Initially, human rights NGOs did little work in the Middle East. During the 1970s, these groups played a central role in the Helsinki process and in furthering the human rights agenda of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Helsinki Watch (which later became Human Rights Watch) and Amnesty International were instrumental in protesting the denial of human rights to Jews in the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes of eastern Europe, including the case of Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. The emphasis in this early stage was on the protection of the rights of individuals in repressive systems.
But over the last decade, NGOs have expanded their agendas dramatically, going far beyond campaigning against the violation of individual rights. The leaders of these organizations have been able to parlay the platforms and the massive resources at their disposal to influence "high politics" on behalf of those they cast as the weak and oppressed. NGOs were heavily involved in the politics of the civil conflict between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) guerillas, in the boycott that led to regime change in South Africa, in the debate over the legality of the Iraq war, and in the complex negotiations on the convention to ban land mines. NGOs are also very active in civil-society-building activities that reflect explicitly political and ideological agendas in many countries around the world.
In the process, they have taken sides in international disputes. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Major NGOs such as HRW, Amnesty and Christian Aid, working closely with the media and groups such as the UN Human Rights Commission, have been instrumental in promoting the Palestinian political agenda, using the terminology of international law. In 2001, the NGO community set the political agenda and shaped the discussions of the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WARC), held in Durban, South Africa), a gathering that became an anti-Israeli rally.  NGOs also drove the UN General Assembly resolution that referred the Israeli separation barrier to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. These NGOs also have gained a great deal of influence in shaping the Middle East policies of the EU, both collectively and as expressed by individual governments, as well as in the U.S. State Department.
Despite the tremendous influence and political involvement of the human rights NGOs, their agendas, structures, and activities have been largely immune from independent investigation and analysis. Powerful NGOs with budgets of tens of millions of dollars are not accountable to any outside body.  In part, the absence of accountability can be explained by the halo effect. the claims of the NGOs to represent apolitical, universal, and strictly ethical values have resulted in the unquestioned assumption that NGOs live by the creed they preach. In their pronouncements and activities, HRW, Amnesty, and Christian Aid assert that they "speak for the victims," and that their activities are motivated strictly by human rights concerns.  It is usually assumed that states, governments (including democracies), and political organizations act primarily from self-interest. In contrast, the NGOs claim to answer to a higher authority.
In their mission statements, on their websites and in their fundraising brochures, they claim to be motivated only by a commitment to universal human rights values. Amnesty, for example, explicitly states that it "does not support or oppose any government or political system. ... it is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights."  HRW pledges to uphold objectivity and condemn human rights abuses on all sides. The International Commission of Jurists claims an "impartial, objective, and authoritative legal approach to the protection and promotion of human rights."  And the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) asserts the need to "develop a constructive dialogue with governments" in its pursuit of guaranteeing human rights for all . 
However, in the highly ideological world of NGOs, each organization has clear interests, biases, and agendas. In the NGO community, definitions of key terms, such as "victims" or "violations of international law," have never been based on consistent, objective, and verifiable criteria. Instead, they reflect the entirely subjective political and ideological preferences of their leaders, contributors, and financiers. Indeed, for many ostensibly apolitical organizations, the rhetoric of human rights and humanitarian relief provides a convenient façade for pursuing a political agenda. The presence of government funding (particularly in the case of Europe and Canada) is also a means of disguising political biases.
This article analyzes the structure of NGO influence and documents NGO political advocacy through four case studies: the 2001 Durban Conference; the 2002 Palestinian attacks and Israeli responses (Jenin and Defensive Shield); the campaign against Israel's separation barrier; and the adoption of the Palestinian narrative in support of refugee claims. As will be demonstrated below, in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, most human rights NGOs systematically identify the Palestinians as victims and Israel as the aggressor (not coincidentally, in harmony with the UN, with which the NGOs work very closely).  In practice, the international NGO superpowers — HRW, Amnesty, Oxfam, Christian Aid, and the International Commission of Jurists — have become important components of the Palestinian political and diplomatic support network.
This analysis is based on the research of the NGO Monitor project and focuses on human rights NGOs.  The NGO research framework, conducted in coordination with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and supported by the Wechsler Family Foundation, was founded in order to monitor and analyze the political activities of powerful NGOs, specifically in the Arab-Israeli context. Its function is to "watch the watchers." This task is similar in concept to the global NGO Watch projects run by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Public Affairs in Australia.
Here, a methodological caveat is in order. Strictly speaking, the term "human rights NGO" is generally limited to those organizations whose mission statements focus explicitly on human rights issues and not those involved primarily in other areas, such as humanitarian relief or political support for a particular cause. Thus, the explicitly pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is not formally included within the human rights category, and the same is true for humanitarian aid groups, such as CARE. Therefore, they remain outside of this analysis, although their activities often overlap and complement those of the human rights NGOs.
In the UN frameworks, NGOs constitute powerful lobbying organizations, and, as will be demonstrated in the case studies below, have a major say in its agenda and activities, particularly with respect to issues defined in terms of human rights. Reflecting this relationship, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared that NGOs are "essential and indispensable partners for governments and the international community and act as a driving force in the conceptualization and implementation of decisions taken at major United Nations Conferences." 
The resources available to NGOs also give them access to the media. Leaders and spokespeople for powerful NGOs, such as Kenneth Roth of HRW and Irene Kahn of Amnesty, are frequent commentators on radio and television, and their analyses appear in the op-ed pages of major newspapers. These analyses and claims regarding allegations of human rights abuses are repeated in the media, where they are presented as unbiased, objective, and credible. 
In the NGO network, large organizations and small ones coexist in mutually reinforcing relationships. The major international NGOs are at the top of the hierarchy with most of the resources and impact. Amnesty boasts a half million members and an annual operating budget of $30 million with projects in 140 countries. Human Rights Watch has an annual operating budget of $22 million, and Christian Aid earned £58 million in 2002. These superpowers of the human rights NGO network are linked with numerous local groups, providing the latter with funding, media access, and personnel in return for information and the legitimacy and appearance of credibility resulting from a presence on the ground.
To a major degree, the influence of the international NGOs and their related ability to raise funds from philanthropies and governments depends on maintaining close working relationships with local and region-specific NGOs. This gives substance to their claims of grassroots connections. In return, the local NGOs are able to gain prominence for their agendas by linking with the global organizations. These provide the resources and connections necessary for effective public relations and lobbying, as well as direct links to journalists and government officials.
But these local groups, operating in Third-World environments, are often very dependent on the powers-that-be. In the Israeli-Palestinian framework — in which the international human rights NGOs invest vast resources in comparison to other conflict zones around the world — most of the local partners are Palestinian and Israeli Arab groups. These include the Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, Miftah, Al-Haq, Al-Mezan, and Adalah. Like most other Palestinian "civil society" organizations, these are closely affiliated with Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). They do not (and cannot) deviate from official positions. Analysis of the activities and agendas of a large number of these NGOs shows that many vital issues are simply not on their agendas, such as the human rights dimensions of Palestinian terror attacks, or the corruption within the Palestinian Authority. 
Even the big NGOs themselves often draw their officials from the world of political activism. For example, in the case of HRW, the longterm acting head of the Middle East division, Joe Stork, served for many years as the Editor of the Middle East Report, which had (and still has) a very explicit political agenda strongly biased against Israeli (and U.S.) policies. The political positions espoused by many NGO officials also reflect their close relationship with the UN system. Jeremy Rabkin cites the link between the NGO agenda and the record of the UN Human Rights Commission, which "issued six condemnations of Israel in 2001 and eight condemnations in 2002, while no other state has ever received more than one condemnation in the same year."  Many NGO officials have a strong ideological bias in favor of Third-World victimization and in opposition to "hegemonists," meaning the United States of America, the West, and Israel. 
By their very structures, the human rights NGOs are susceptible to bias. They draw information from local political groups, and they hire former political activists to process it. The results, in the cases discussed below, suggest that the NGOs have systematically betrayed the very principles of objectivity and disinterestedness they claim to embody.
The UN's framework for Durban (and the related activities before and after the conference) included an invitation to "interested nongovernmental organizations to be represented by observers." Under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Commission, headed by Mary Robinson, two separate but related conferences were created: one for government representatives and, in parallel, a much larger and more visible NGO forum. The agenda and preliminary texts were set during the fourth (and final) preparatory conference held in Tehran, from which Israel and Jewish NGOs were automatically excluded by the Iranian government. In their absence, the draft resolutions included references to Israel as "committing holocausts" and "being anti-Semitic." 
At Durban, the NGOs and their representatives generated most of the attention. Their participation was financed by grants from the UN and governments (Canada and the EU) and by philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation.  The Palestinian NGO umbrella group, consisting of over ninety organizations, focused it resources on Durban and highlighted major figures such as Hanan Ashrawi, who served as Education Minister in Arafat's Palestinian Authority and is often its designated media spokesperson.  The Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (better known as LAW), which had received over $1 million from the Ford Foundation and additional funds from over thirty sponsors including the EU, played a central role in steering committees, workshops, and other Durban-related activities based on the theme that Israel was an "apartheid state." 
The final declaration, adopted by consensus, was a concentrated indictment of Israel and Israeli policy. The document asserted that the "targeted victims of Israel's brand of apartheid and ethnic cleansing methods have been, in particular, children, women, and refugees"  and called for "a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state ... the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation, and training) between all states and Israel."  The NGO declaration also condemned Israel's "perpetration of racist crimes against humanity, including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide."  The document did not include references to Palestinian terror or to the location of Palestinian bomb-making factories in densely populated areas. In addition, the NGO document redefined anti-Semitism to include "anti-Arab racism." 
This outcome generated immediate and intense criticism, particularly in the United States. That the local NGOs would push extreme statements was obvious. But where were the major international players, such as the Ford Foundation, HRW, Amnesty, and the International Commission of Jurists?
The New York-based HRW sought to avoid a loss of credibility (and donations) by distancing itself from the anti-Israel incitement and from Durban's blatant political agenda.  However, the record establishes no small measure of HRW complicity in Durban's outcome. As human rights scholar Anne Bayefsky has noted, HRW's Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, affirmed his organization's leading role in the process, declaring, "Clearly Israeli racist practices are an appropriate topic."  At the Durban NGO forum, HRW and other groups were instrumental in barring the participation of representatives of Jewish NGOs, such as the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ), from the caucus of international human rights NGOs. At this meeting, HRW's Advocacy Director, Reed Brody, stated that representatives of Jewish groups were unwelcome.  The Durban conference was a major element of the political strategy of isolating Israel in the international community, and the NGO network played a central role in that strategy.
NGO personalities starred in media reports that gave prominent (and in most cases, uncritical) coverage to the "massacre" allegations. The BBC quoted Derrick Pounder, a member of the Amnesty team, as saying the signs pointed to a massacre.  Although Roth (HRW) and Kahn (Amnesty) avoided repeating false claims regarding Palestinian casualties, their public comments, as well as press releases and detailed reports, included numerous references to unsubstantiated allegations of Israeli "war crimes."  Months after the events, these NGOs issued more detailed reports with similar conclusions, resulting in another round of prominent reports in the press.
In Britain, Christian Aid, one of Europe's wealthiest and most powerful humanitarian NGOs, produced a film, Peace under Siege, on Operation Defensive Shield as part of its charity campaign. Christian Aid, it should be noted, receives widespread support from major United Kingdom churches, including the Church of England. Its purpose, according to its mission statement, is to:
Its political agenda enjoys widespread legitimacy among the Leftwing British political elite.
The Christian Aid film highlights claims that Israel's antiterror policies are designed primarily to ruin the Palestinian economy and destroy its infrastructure. The analysis of "the roots of Palestinian poverty" focuses on Israeli policy, in which on "every corner a Palestinian boy is shot." A very general mention of suicide bombings is provided in a four-second sequence, followed by several minutes of images highlighting the damage caused by the IDF response. The film omits mention of the terror attacks preceding Defensive Shield or of Palestinian bomb factories located in civilian areas. In addition, scenes of tanks pushing ambulances were given prominence, while images of Israeli suffering were practically nonexistent. 
The politicized reactions of human rights NGOs to Jenin and Operation Defensive Shield are also illustrated in multiple condemnations of Israel for "war crimes," and "disproportionate," "indiscriminate," and "excessive use of force." This rhetoric was often initiated in the publications of the local Palestinian (including Israeli Arab) NGOs and amplified by the international organizations. For example, in June, 2002, an NGO known as Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel),  funded by the Ford Foundation, EU, and other organizations, issued a special report that claimed:
The petitioners sought an "immediate end to the shelling and striking of civilians and civilian targets, as the army is prohibited from indiscriminately attacking against civilian targets." 
International NGOs then repeated this terminology. Amnesty gave a high profile to its report entitled Israel/Occupied Territories: Wanton Destruction Constitutes a War Crime, which stated:
The upward flow of political rhetoric from local to international NGOs is also evident in the activities of Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists. This organization claims to be "dedicated to the primacy, coherence, and implementation of international law and principles that advance human rights" based on its "impartial, objective, and authoritative legal approach to the protection and promotion of human rights through the rule of law."  In reality, the ICJ is closely tied to three highly politicized Palestinian NGOs: Al-Haq, LAW, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). All three organizations are funded by the Ford Foundation and the EU. All were very active in the Durban framework and have continued to attack Israel on human rights grounds, couched in international legal terminology. A typical LAW press release features a list of Palestinian casualties, but no mention of terror attacks.  Another LAW report, promoted by the ICJ's worldwide public relations operation, claims there is:
This statement, like many others issued by political NGOs, ignores complex legal and political questions related to the definitions of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is also no attempt to establish criteria and analyze the context of events. The unwillingness to provide context is demonstrated in an analysis of the reports, press releases, and letters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published by Human Rights Watch in the period between October, 2000, and April, 2004. Out of a total of 103 items, only thirteen highlighted Palestinian terror attacks, such as bus and café bombings, drive-by shootings, and attempted "mega-attacks" designed to kill large numbers of civilians. The vast majority of HRW's reports consisted of condemnations of Israeli responses (as well as intense support for efforts in Belgium to bring Ariel Sharon to trial based on events in Lebanon in 1982).
Similarly, the NGO community launched a major campaign in condemnation of the Israeli policy of targeted killing of terrorist leaders, such as Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ar-Rantisi, in early 2004. There is a great deal of debate regarding the moral and international legitimacy of Israel's policy, and strong arguments have been presented from opposite perspectives, not only in terms of policy but also in the context of the wider international response to large-scale strategic terrorism. However, this debate is rarely reflected in the positions of the human rights NGOs.
For example, in HRW's 2004 World Report, Executive Director Roth, a former prosecutor, accused Israel of "indiscriminate" attacks that "cause disproportionate harm to civilians" and argued against the substitution of "war rules when law enforcement rules could reasonably have been followed." Instead, Roth suggested that terrorists "be arrested and prosecuted rather than summarily killed," arguing that "assassinations typically take place when there is no battle raging."  A counter-argument has been made that targeted killing is the most discriminate of all counterterrorism measures, and that attempts to arrest terrorists on hostile ground would be more likely to produce mass casualties.  From HRW's position, one would not even know that Israel had a case and that its case enjoys support from many prominent legal authorities.
At the same time, there are some notable exceptions to this general tendency, and prominent NGOs have occasionally focused on the human rights violations of Palestinian terror attacks. For example, in October, 2002, HRW released a 172-page report, entitled Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks against Israeli Civilians.  This report marked a major departure from previous policies. HRW documented and criticized violence and other unsavory practices of non-state actors, including the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, Hamas, etc. Terrorist attacks were labeled "crimes against humanity," and their impact on Israelis was spelled out in detail. However, HRW pulled its punches in drawing conclusions, refusing to consider the evidence regarding Yasir Arafat's direct involvement. (The PLO leader was criticized for sins of omission — the failure to stop the attacks.) HRW also continued to deny the right of Israel to defend itself against terrorism, and this report had no impact on HRW's subsequent lobbying campaign against Israel's separation barrier to prevent acts of terrorism.
Thus, despite the occasional exception, the overall impression left by the human rights NGOs is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a morally lopsided contest between victimizer and victim, oppressor and oppressed, in which nearly all the guilt falls upon one party — a position more or less identical to the Palestinian narrative.
On this issue, as in many others related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, HRW has been one of the most active groups, distributing press releases and mass e-mails that included a call to the U.S. government to penalize Israel for constructing the separation barrier.  HRW's statements parrot Palestinian claims that the barrier will impede "freedom of movement," endanger "access to food, water, education, and medical services," and appropriate land, without giving the Israeli rationale behind the barrier.  There is little or no analysis of the Israeli security environment, the role of the Palestinian Authority in the failure of the Oslo process, and the strategic use of terrorism. In this case, as in many others, the choice of issues that receive emphasis, as well as the rhetoric and repetition of Palestinian claims, reflect a political agenda.
Finally, the NGO network has played an important role in legitimizing the highly contested Palestinian narrative of the origins of the conflict and the refugee issue. The claims regarding refugee status and rights have been among the main points of contention since the 1948 war. The issue is extremely complex, but this has not prevented international and local NGOs from issuing statements in support of the Palestinian claims disguised in terms of humanitarian dimensions. For example, Save the Children Fund (SCF)'s Eye-to-Eye Project provides "an educational resource center for teachers and educators who often lack an in-depth knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict." This resource transmits an anti-Israel polemic, lacking balance or mention of alternative narratives and interpretations of events. The resource center time line includes an incomplete and one-sided list of UN resolutions and treaties, resulting in a version of history that assigns responsibility for the conflict exclusively to Israel. SCF misleadingly explains the failure to resolve the refugee issue as "due, in large part, to Israel's opposition to the return of refugees and also to the lack of international will to uphold basic principles of international law applicable to Palestinian refugees."  Similarly, in this resource center, the background to the renewed violence that began in September, 2000, is based entirely on the Palestinian narrative.  None of this is related to Save the Children's medical activities and again highlights the exploitation of human rights claims, rhetoric, and resources to promote a political agenda.
Many other members of the NGO network adopt the Palestinian rhetoric of the "right of return." HRW has published a policy paper explicitly headlined, "The Right of Return,"  and Christian Aid publications also regularly use this term. And the Palestinian Nongovernmental Network (PNGO), which encompasses ninety-two groups, including Al-Mezan, Miftah, Al-Haq, etc., condemned the April, 2004, Bush-Sharon declaration for opposing the "Palestinian refugees' Right of Return." 
In January, 2004, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) issued guidelines requiring NGOs receiving funds through this agency to pledge "not to promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry, or the destruction of any state, nor … make sub-grants to any entity that engages in these activities." The U.S. government guidelines list prohibited organizations, including many Palestinian groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (the armed wing of Fatah), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.  In response, the Palestinian Nongovernmental Network, comprising ninety-two Palestinian NGOs, refused to sign the document. PNGO members announced that they preferred to forgo USAID funding, amounting to approximately $1 billion for the West Bank and Gaza between 1993 and 2002. PNGO urged its members to seek alternative funding from Europe and Japan, which do not require a similar pledge. 
Clearly, there is heightened awareness that, in some cases, NGO policies are contributing to the atmosphere of tolerance for violence and rights violations that they are pledged to eradicate. Unfortunately, that awareness is still limited to the United States government and, to some extent, the Ford Foundation. In contrast, HRW, Amnesty, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, the International Commission of Jurists, as well as their Palestinian partners, continue to pursue political agendas in the guise of human rights advocacy. The claims of moral guardianship and support for victims are still given wide credibility without careful investigation. Until the public demands that they receive the same scrutiny as government and corporations, they will continue to make subjective and biased use of terms such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, disproportionate use of force, excessive response, indiscriminate killing, and arbitrary use of force. In doing so, they will continue to be central elements in the Palestinian strategy of isolating and delegitimizing both Israel and its policies.
Beyond expanding the public accounting and analysis through projects such as NGO Monitor and NGO Watch, as well as congressional hearings and investigative reporting, there are additional strategies to reform these human rights NGOs. Mainstream corporations and private sources fund many NGOs. Exposure of NGO support for radical political causes under the guise of human rights can generate negative publicity. When the Ford Foundation's support for the major NGOs active at the Durban conference was publicized, Foundation officials responded quickly, and funds for some NGOs were cut. In the longer term, the promulgation of an NGO code of conduct, similar to professional codes for journalists, lawyers and academics, would create norms by which NGO activities could be assessed. Such accountability depends on discarding the halo that has, until now, granted NGOs immunity from criticism, even as they promote radical Palestinian agendas.
The Israeli-Arab Conflict
The Middle East & the Arabs
Radical Islam & Islamic Terrorism
War & Peace in the Real World
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
Gerald M. Steinberg is Professor of Political Studies, directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, and is a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, all at Bar Ilan University. Simon Lassman, Simon Plosker, Aharon Etengoff, and other members of the NGO Monitor team provided research for this article.
The foregoing article by Gerald Steinberg was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Summer, 2004, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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