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The Twitter Hypocrisy of Kenneth Roth

It is not yet clear if Twitter, the social-media site whose users send out 140-character mini-statements, is generally good or bad for public life, or for the mental health of its users. But it is inescapable: Campaigners, politicians, and rock stars use it to maintain a constant presence in the online lives of their followers. Marketing executives are obsessed with it. “Old-media” editors follow it slavishly in the foolish belief that retweets actually indicate movement in public opinion, rather than mini-campaigns by obsessives or lazy clicking by people who are bored at work.

The behavior of Twitter users can be wonderfully, unintentionally revealing. This is not so much the case for occasional users, who may choose to tweet only about one particular interest, or one side of themselves, or who just crack jokes. But in the case of some public figures, the urge to tweet can unwittingly disclose truths they would probably prefer to keep hidden. That seems to be the case for Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, one of two dominant behemoths among the myriad pressure groups around the world that describe themselves as human-rights organizations. Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human-rights conditions.

His organization may cover 90 countries a year, but during the month of July, Roth’s Twitter feed was dominated to an extraordinary degree by one specific country: Israel and its conduct of the war with Hamas. No other subject received half or even a third of the attention. On some days up to half of Roth’s tweets (and he can tweet up to 40 times in a day, including retweets) were devoted to Gaza. Most of those concerned alleged Israeli violations of the laws of war, though now and again there was a dutiful observation that Hamas, too, should observe the Geneva Conventions.

For example, on July 23, out of 28 tweets by Roth, 12 were critical of Israel. They included these:

In face of @HRW’s detailed evidence of attacks on civilians, #Israel ambassador just blathers about “kangaroo court.”

US is shamefully alone in opposing UN rights council investigation for #Gaza. It passes anyway, 29 to 1; 17 abstain.

UN rights council should ask UN rights chief to investigate war crimes by both sides in Israel-Hamas conflict.

 Names, ages & genders of 132 Palestinian children that #Israel has killed in #Gaza this month: http://trib.al/KidhhPX

 Speaks for itself: #Israel ambassador says IDF deserves Nobel Peace Prize for its “unimaginable restraint” in #Gaza.

 Despite “Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself…military operation must be proportionate & in line w/…law”: EU

 #Israel seems to use argument against “moral symmetry” with Hamas to seek immoral exemption from Geneva Conventions.

Cheap excuse. There were no “human shields” when Israel targeted boys on beach, attacked hospital, killed 25 in house

That last tweet is worth examining, because it gives a sense of the tone that underlies all the others. Many observers, especially those who run organizations concerned about the rights of the innocent, might have been inclined to take their time and investigate rather than assume that Hamas would never lie about such a thing. Not Roth. He might not have been there on that beach, but the clear sense one gets from this tweet is that he knew, knew in his marrow, that the IDF was out for Gazan blood. He might never have fired an artillery piece or sent or received coordinates or been under fire, but there are some things you just know. Like the fact that the IDF is driven by vengeance and is looking for reasons to kill Arab kids—even though that would mean Israel was violating military law and the Geneva conventions, and even though IDF leaders would have every reason to know such an attack would be a propaganda victory for the enemy.

Other things happened in the world in July 2014 that you might think would have been of at least equal interest to the director of America’s biggest and most powerful rights organization. The last week in July was the worst in Syria’s civil war for some three years—with 1,700 deaths at the hands of parties who pay little attention to the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) persecuted and drove out the Christians of Mosul.

Roth did tweet about the crises in both places—in particular about the barrel bombs used in Syria—but with nothing remotely like the obsessive energy he brought to the Israel issue. He also tweeted occasionally about other matters (Equatorial Guinea, Russia, China, Libya, Burma, Ethiopia, the Iraqi government’s use of indiscriminate bombing, Arizona executions, Poland having “aided CIA renditions and torture,” and “the insanity of US marijuana prosecutions,” etc.). Oddly, he only mentioned the African Islamist group Boko Haram a handful of times despite the fact that his own organization was coming out with a report on its depredations—and he didn’t think it worthy of notice that its actions in July included abducting the wife of the deputy prime minister of Cameroon, setting off a suicide bomb on a college campus, and taking over a town in North Eastern Nigeria where its terrorists murdered more than a hundred people.

What is going on here?

For several years now, critics of Human Rights Watch—including the organization’s co-founder and chairman emeritus, Robert Bernstein—have pointed out that it directs a disproportionate amount of critical attention to Israel, a country that, unlike most others in the Middle East, has a large and flourishing civil society and human-rights sector of its own. HRW has usually batted away that claim by pointing out that other countries in the Middle East have been the subjects of as many or more HRW “reports.” This is a disingenuous response, because the overall amount of material put out on Israel, measured by words and pages, is strikingly out of balance and because HRW’s reports on Israel are uniquely accompanied in almost every case by high-profile press releases and press conferences. As its executive director, Roth has devoted much of his letter writing and public work to alleged Israeli crimes, to the exclusion of other matters. And he has taken his conduct to Twitter.

It is not only the frequency of his Israel-related tweets that leaves little doubt that the Jewish state
occupies a special, preeminent place in Roth’s pantheon of villains. It’s also what he chose to tweet. He jumped on any and every critical piece in the papers. Moreover, the sneering tone of many of his tweets rather undermines his claim that he has no special animus against Israel and was just giving that human rights–abusing, international law–breaking country the critical scrutiny that it so obviously deserve.

For example, here were some of his tweets from the last week in July:

If abiding by laws of war isn’t incentive enuf for #Israel to avoid killing civilians, the p.r. disaster should be.

Why does #Israel condemn #Hamas for firing from a cemetery? Duty is not to endanger living civilians, not dead ones.

It’s far too facile to pass off global condemnation of #Israel’s West Bank settlements & reckless killing of Gaza civilians as anti-Semitism

No excuse for Israel shelling school killing 20. Hamas “in vicinity” not enough. Precautions, not targeting, is issue

Roth seemed delighted to tweet the declaration of the BBC’s notoriously anti-Israel editor Jeremy Bowen, who “saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.” He was even more pleased when the New York Times echoed his own narrowly legalistic definition of human shields: “Hamas is putting civilians at risk but ‘no evidence’ it forces them to stay—definition of human shields: @NYTimes.” He must have known perfectly well that a “human shield” in the normal use of the term can be voluntary; he probably knew some of the American anti-war activists who served as “human shields” for Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Roth’s pleasure was apparent when he tweeted a New York magazine blog post that claimed that an Israeli spokesman had admitted that the kidnapping of three Israeli boys that ignited the current fighting had not been perpetrated by Hamas: “Remember when #Israel insisted Hamas was behind kidnap-murder of three West Bank teens. Oops, turns out it wasn’t.” That article and its claim were later discredited; Roth did not see fit to tweet that correction of fact.

Occasionally Roth remembered that he is supposed to be holding both sides to the standards mandated by international law, but his notion of balance seemed to be an eccentric one given the context. Hence on July 27: “Judging by the vitriol of its defenders, #Israel seems to be losing the p.r. war. Time to start respecting Geneva Conventions. #Hamas, too.”

You can feel the grudging dutifulness of the Hamas add-on. Which is odd, given that Hamas’s entire strategy is based on violating the Geneva Conventions. Roth appeared loath to admit that it is standard operating procedure for Hamas to endanger the civilian population of Gaza for military advantage. (Hamas knows that the Israelis may hesitate to fire on rocket launchers, ammunitions stores, and command centers if the obvious likely cost in civilian lives outweighs military necessity, and Hamas also knows that if the Israelis do fire, then the propaganda advantage compensates for the loss of the target.)

Roth certainly showed no awareness—though he must have been told, must have been briefed—that the IDF frequently chooses not to engage tactically important targets out of deference to both the Geneva Conventions and humanitarian considerations. And he gave the IDF no credit for the multiple warnings—including telephone calls—of impending missile and air strikes. These are a unique practice in the annals of warfare.

This is not to say that the IDF doesn’t get things horribly wrong—it’s all too clear that it does—or that its use of indirect fire in the conflict is not problematic, or that warnings are not sufficient if civilians have no place to take shelter.

But if Roth really understood the logic behind the Geneva Conventions and was honest about them, there would surely have been dozens of tweets from him calling for Hamas to stop endangering the civilian population of Gaza by placing rocket launchers in and around schools, by putting military headquarters in hospitals, and so forth. The few such tweets he did post tended to have an oddly surprised tone, like this one from July 30: “This is becoming a bad habit. #Hamas should never be storing weapons in UNRWA schools. Schools should be protected.” Apparently Roth was remarkably unaware that Hamas routinely keeps rockets in, and launches rockets from, civilian areas and protected targets such as hospitals and schools.

Roth was not alone among the professional human rights–worker class in his selective outrage and inability to see the gross illegality Hamas practices. For example, he retweeted a statement from the International Committee for the Red Cross that “firmly condemns…extremely alarming…attacks against humanitarian workers, ambulances, & hospitals.” But in so doing, both he and the ICRC were deliberately ignoring the pattern of the unlawful use of ambulances and hospitals for military purposes. The very reason international law dictated the use of symbols such as the Red Cross on battlefields was to create a zone of safety around them. When militants use those symbols as camouflage, they are the ones who are destroying the system.

The exploitation of such norms by militants and insurgents was a common feature of the Iraq War. Any U.S. Marine who fought in Fallujah will tell you about the many times that the insurgents used ambulances to ferry fighters and munitions. When coalition forces fired on ambulances being used as troop carriers, they were duly condemned around the world as war criminals. In fact, under a rational and unbiased reading of the laws of war and armed conflict, those who misuse ambulances that way are the war criminals.

Not to have admitted this reality was disingenuous at best. But then so were Roth’s assertions that the UN Human Rights Council—the one lately chaired by Syria and Libya—is a morally serious body.

To wit:

NYTimes dead wrong saying UN rights council “focused entirely on Israel” in launching Gaza probe. Still no correction.

UN rights council recently launched investigations for Syria, SriLanka & NKorea but when it does for Gaza (both sides) it’s accused of bias.

Roth also chose to take the Hamas casualty claims, delivered via the Gaza health authorities, as gospel—as did many media organizations. Here he tweeted a Washington Post graphic of the death count: “Palestinian Gaza deaths: 116 militants, 571 civilians. If that’s precision, who is the target?” Even if those numbers were accurate at the time, which is questionable, a serious analyst would surely have been concerned about who counts as a civilian, who did the classification, and on what basis. In the past, Gaza police were counted as civilians, as were teenaged fighters. A serious analyst would also have been highly aware of the military usefulness to one side of the ability to claim, truthfully or otherwise, a massacre of civilians. Roth displayed none of the skepticism that such an understanding engenders.

The Washington Post graphic to which Roth linked demonstrates the problem. Genuinely random or reckless fire in civilian areas would be likely to kill a more or less equal number of males and females. Yet according to that same graphic, only 121 out of 749 Palestinian “civilians” were women. That is 121 too many, and something to be regretted and explained, but it should have made any objective observer wonder at the civilian status of the males and whether they were not in fact mostly combatants.

It was the small things that really gave away the obsessive nature of Roth’s attitude toward Israel. In July, he tweeted on more than one occasion a complaint about Israel State Radio:

Israel state radio won’t let @BTselem rights group read names of #Gaza children killed. Only cold numbers allowed.

“Don’t mention the children”: Michael Rosen poem on Israel state radio refusal to allow reading dead Gaza kid names

 Not once did he mention the Hamas TV broadcast in which a Hamas cleric declares that “we will exterminate” the Jews, “every last one.”

Roth’s Twitter feed at the end of July featured no tweets on the reports that Hamas fired an anti-tank missile from a Khan Younis mosque or that the al Wafa hospital was used as a command center and rocket-launching site. Nor was there a word about the growing evidence that Hamas has used threats to prevent journalists from taking pictures of fighters, rocket sites, or anything that might detract from a narrative of a one-sided war against civilians.

It is an interesting question as to why Roth seems to have such a disproportionate bugbear about Israel—and why HRW under his watch has hired so many people from what HRW program director Iain Levine calls “solidarity backgrounds” who are highly unlikely to be objective observers of Israel and Palestine.

Ideology presumably plays a role: All too often HRW fails to give authoritarian left-wing governments in Latin American countries like Ecuador and Bolivia the attention they deserve while directing disproportionate attention at countries the left tends to dislike, such as post-genocide Rwanda. But it’s not simply a matter of his being a man of the left. After all, so is Bernstein, and so are many other people who don’t believe that Israel should be subject to especially hostile and prejudiced scrutiny. It could have something to do with the interests of his fundraisers, or reflect a desire to maintain good relations with some of the media organizations on whose favor HRW depends. Or it could be something personal.

It is possible that simply heading an organization such as HRW—which today draws its staff and support from the left and arrogates to itself the status of a quasi-court of international law rather than a political-pressure group—leads to a kind of déformation professionnelle. But it often feels as if Roth has a religious sense of mission regarding Israel; it’s his crusade. In general, Roth never admits to being wrong and consistently represents HRW and its staff as infallible (except when, as was the case with Richard Goldstone and former military expert Mark Garlasco, they change their mind about alleged Israeli war crimes). But he responds with particular, extraordinary ferocity to any and all skeptical questioning of himself and the organization concerning Israel. HRW is of course not alone in subjecting Israel to disproportionate attention and particularly hostile scrutiny. Amnesty International does the same, and indeed its priorities have become even more distorted by the agendas of the left than have HRW’s.

Nor is it only Israel that prompts a disproportionate abundance of publicity efforts and a frequency of reports by HRW. The United States merits particular HRW scrutiny for its death penalty, its drug laws, its alleged persecution of Muslims in the name of anti-terrorism, Guantanamo Bay, and alleged torture during the war on terror. These are all legitimate subjects of concern, but, as Robert Bernstein has pointed out, the United States has many, many domestic-rights organizations, not least the ACLU and Human Rights First. Given this fact, it is hardly necessary for HRW to join the American fray. HRW was, after all, founded to promote human rights in closed and authoritarian societies, and there are plenty of countries where its well-funded efforts and influence are desperately needed. One must conclude that the reason for its scrutiny of America, like its scrutiny of Israel, is not objective necessity but the ideological inclinations of its leadership and staff.

It is worth noting that HRW’s attention often seems to depend not on the scale of a crime or even the identity of the victim (they don’t seem to care as much about Arabs killed by Arabs, or Muslims killed in Indian Kashmir) but on the identity of the perpetrator. In other words, they care more about certain bad guys than others, and it is this fact that determines the scale and intensity and tone of attention. And it is meaningful that among its bad guys are the United States and Israel—two democratic countries.

Human Rights Watch does invaluable work in many parts of the world in the tradition that began when Robert Bernstein, Orville Schell, and Aryeh Neier founded Helsinki Watch in 1978. Today, Roth and his coterie exploit HRW’s justly admired reporting from places other than the Middle East to give credibility to their anti-Israel advocacy. It’s bad enough that the lack of integrity in that advocacy (including the subjective, less-than-rigorous “investigations” concerning alleged Israeli crimes) undermines HRW’s overall credibility. But as polemicists and activists, they are figuratively firing at Israel from inside a Red Cross ambulance—and in so doing, are violating the most basic norms of honesty and proper conduct.

About the Author

Jonathan Foreman, an American-British journalist living in London, wrote “The Good News from Afghanistan” in our July/August issue.




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