Human Rights Internet Objects

I was surprised and saddened to read the critique of Internet’s treatment of the Palestinian question in the article, “International Human Rights Organizations and the Palestine Question” (MER 150). The article addresses very important issues — why do many human rights organizations avoid the issue of Palestinian rights, or handle it gingerly? Why, as with the question of human rights in Nicaragua, do those who profess a commitment to human rights seem unable to agree about basic facts? What conflicts of interest make seemingly rational and humane individuals engage in bitter disputes over the interpretation of these facts? The authors provide an object lesson, for the article’s critique of Internet, under the guise of objective scholarship, is a blatantly biased treatment of Internet’s coverage of the Palestinian question.

The central theme of the critique is that the “HRI Reporter regularly lists in its bibliography publications concerned with human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories but it rarely elaborates on those sources. In general, reports critical of Israel are listed in the Reporter, not abstracted.” This simply is not true.

In the period from December 1985 through December 1987 (the period for which Reporter entries are in a computer database, hence easily searchable) the Reporter carried 110 citations concerning human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories, 103 of which were abstracted. For example, in HRI Reporter 12/1 (February 1988) there were 16 lengthy abstracts of material on the Occupied Territories, three and a half full pages, more than on any other country except South Africa, the Philippines, the US and the USSR. In HRI Reporter 11/5-6 (Winter-Spring 1987), there were six and a half pages on the Occupied Territories, 37 abstracts, more than on any country except South Africa.

While these are the lengthiest issues of the Reporter ever produced, and while there is considerable variation in the quantity of items abstracted in any given issue — a consequence of the quantity and quality of the information received — the space the HRI Reporter has devoted to violations in the Occupied Territories has always been equal to, or greater than, violations in most other areas of the world.

Are these abstracts of reports by organizations critical of Israeli policy? Judge for yourself. In the last two Reporters, we abstracted from the reports, newsletters or bulletins of al-Fajr, the Institute for Palestine Studies, Al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man, Birzeit University, the UN Relief and Works Agency, Americans for Justice in the Middle East, the Shahak Papers, the Palestine Campaign for Human Rights, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, North American Academics in Solidarity with Palestinian Universities and others.

Even in evaluating the period from three to five years ago, when the percentage of articles we were able to abstract on any area was much smaller than it is today, the authors of the article make some puzzling assertions. For example, they criticize Internet for not abstracting a report on Lebanon by the Minority Rights Group, and one on the Ansar Prison system by the National Association of Arab Americans, in the December 1983-February 1984 issue of the Reporter. They fail, however, to mention that in that same issue, five full pages are given over to excerpting a report on Lebanon by the American Friends Service Committee, highly critical of Israeli policy. Indeed, in the authors’ treatment of Amnesty International, they specifically praise this AFSC report for properly situating the problem of the Lebanon detainees in a political context. Perhaps we should have given less space to the AFSC report and used the space to summarize several others. But it is hard to see how one could conclude that the decision to give the space to the AFSC reflected an ideological bias that was pro-Israeli or anti-Palestinian.

The statement that we have given greater coverage to official Israeli responses to critical reports than to the reports themselves also astonishes me. True, we do summarize government reports relevant to the human rights debate, including the State Department’s annual 502B reports, white papers produced by West European governments, responses governments have made to Amnesty International reports, and statements by governments to international monitoring agencies. But a check of the last two years of the Reporter indicates that we have carried no official Israeli government statements whatsoever. (This is not to say that there is anything wrong with doing so: we just have not received any that were of particular relevance in recent years.)

Then there is the issue of whether the Reporter should have cited the Anti-Defamation League’s 1983 handbook, Pro-Arab Propaganda in America: Vehicles and Voices. It is our belief that the human rights community and international scholars have a need to know of publications critical of the work of NGOs concerned with human rights. Over the years we have abstracted books, articles and reports challenging the work of groups in many parts of the world. In this particular case, we even added an editorial note suggesting that readers make “their own judgement” about the objectivity of the information presented. Is this anti-Palestinian bias?

Finally, there is the question of the report of my visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories in April 1980. As clearly stated at the outset, my purpose “was not to assess the human rights situation in either Israel or in the Occupied Territories; the purpose was to learn about, and make contact with, organizations in the region actively concerned about human rights.” In the five days I had, I visited four cities and met with representatives of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israeli Section of Amnesty International, the Nazareth Society for the Support of the Political Prisoner, Al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man, the Quaker Legal Aid Office, the Israel Secular Humanist Association, the Society for Middle East Confederation, the Mennonite Central Committee and a few others. The Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights refused to meet with me so I did not see them, although I telephoned.

I regret the fact that I did not visit Birzeit University. At that time, their Human Rights Committee was not well known abroad. A meeting would have been useful. The authors criticize me for saying that the students there are “highly politicized and are often drawn there precisely for ideological reasons.” They fail, however, to note the context of this comment — that the situation in Birzeit has become a closed circle. My next sentence read: “The Israeli authorities have reacted with brutality ‘to create an atmosphere of fear and to close down the classes.’ This in turn, has made it impossible for students to study and they have become more and more radicalized. Which has provoked an even tougher policy, with random arrests, beatings, where the circle closes.”

There are other questions raised by the critique: Why did the authors selectively focus on a few issues of the Reporter, largely from the early 1980s? Why did they interview representatives of other human rights organizations, but called no one at the Internet office? There are also other factual errors, but it is not important to go into them here. What is important is to go on from here: to try to work together in publicizing the vital work of human rights NGOs in the Middle East. We will continue our efforts, beginning with an abstract of MERIP’s article in our next issue. We invite MERIP’s editors and readership to examine that issue closely. They might find gaps in our information — and we would be delighted if they can help us to fill in those gaps. But they won’t find anti-Palestinian bias.

Laurie Wiseberg
Executive Director, Human Rights Internet
Cambridge, MA

The Authors Respond

Laurie Wiseberg calls our review of Internet’s Palestinian human rights coverage “blatantly biased.” She says our main finding “simply is not true.” To demonstrate her point, Wiseberg claims that between December 1985 and December 1987 HRI Reporter abstracted 103 out of 110 citations concerning the Occupied Territories.

Our review covered a much longer period of time — from the inception of the Reporter in 1976 through July 1987 (the cutoff point of our research). Although we cannot say what the number of listings versus abstracts was for that period, we were able to discern the following patterns: 1) In general, HRI Reporter tended to list many good sources on human rights abuses in the occupied territories, but rarely elaborated on them; 2) reports sympathetic to Israel were generally abstracted at length; 3) official Israeli government responses to critical reports by human rights organizations were excerpted, but the original reports for the most part were not; 4) HRI permitted an apologist group, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL) to comment on reports concerning Israel to the exclusion of other like groups.

That HRI Reporter has increased its coverage of the occupied territories in recent months is commendable. As we stated in our study, Human Rights Internet’s work on other areas is generally balanced and useful. Unfortunately, this did not extend to the area of Palestinian human rights during the period covered by our study, a period that included key events like Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the “iron fist” crackdown in the territories.

Wiseberg offers little direct rebuttal to our review of Internet’s record other than to point out we failed to mention a five-page excerpt from an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) report that appeared in the December 1983-February 1984 Reporter. Our oversight should not obscure two important points: First, that issue of the Reporter came on the heels of Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon, when gross violations of human rights were still occurring in places such as the Ansar prison camp. Thus, it was not unreasonable for us to have expected more coverage in the form of abstracts from the various reports which were only mentioned in the issue’s bibliographic list. Second, the appearance of the AFSC excerpt was an exception to the general tendency, which was to downplay Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, as we demonstrated in our study.

Wiseberg’s statement that there is nothing “wrong” with presenting official Israeli government statements is truly astonishing, for it demonstrates she missed the point of our criticism. Our objection was not to the Israeli excerpts per se, although there are questions about this, but to the fact that HRI Reporter “rarely excerpts from the original reports” that are the object of the Israeli statements, as in the case of the 1984 Amnesty International report where the official Israeli rebuttal is given, but not the report.

Wiseberg defends the Reporter’s 1983 listing of the ADL handbook claiming that “the human rights community and international scholars have a need to know of publications critical of the work of NGOs concerned with human rights.” This is a specious argument on two counts. First, the handbook, as its title implies, has absolutely nothing to do with human rights organizations, and it remains a mystery as to why it was listed in the first place, especially since Internet claims to eschew "propagandists’ material." Second, following publication of the entry in 1983, Israel Shahak and Noam Chomsky separately pointed out to Wiseberg that the handbook was essentially a “hate” or “enemies” list that carried falsehoods and slander. Wiseberg refused to retract the entry then, and continues to defend it now.

The handbook incident highlights another questionable HRI practice — not discussed in our article — that of allowing the ADL to periodically comment on criticism of Israel. As far as we can determine, HRI Reporter has not published commentary by other apologist groups on behalf of some favored government or country. HRI is unique among the organizations in our study in permitting an avowedly pro-Israel front group periodic access to its newsletter for purposes of defending its patron state.

Wiseberg misses the point of our criticism of her 1980 trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories. She says she now regrets not having visited Birzeit, but ignores our main point, that she did solicit and publish the opinions of ordinary Israelis about the “humaneness” of occupation that brutalizes “Israelis along with the Palestinians.” For what other country, we asked, does HRI engage in such hand wringing?

Wiseberg’s 1980 trip raises a more serious conflict of interest problem not discussed in the MERIP article. In her report Wiseberg admits, much to her credit, that she has both family and friends in Israel, having lived there in 1963-1964. She adds that she has “an emotional attachment to the country and that this report will inevitably reflect those linkages.” Her candor alone does not insure against conflicts of interest, nor substitute for rigorous standards. We think it would have been more appropriate to have sent someone else in her place. The fact that HRI gave its imprimatur to her trip and ensuing report, despite her admitted attachment, raises serious questions about the organization’s internal checks and balances. (Compare, for example, Amnesty International’s rules prohibiting members and employees from taking up human rights cases involving their national countries.)

Why wasn’t Wiseberg interviewed? Our method was to rely on each organization’s published record. In those cases where we were unable to locate that record or when a relevant issue arose that was not covered in the record, we made an effort to contact the organization in question directly. HRI’s record is fully published and available for all to see.

Nabeel Abraham
Janice Terry
Dearborn, MI

Missing: Israel & Palestine

Reading through your excellent “Primer: Israel’s Military Regime” in the January-February issue we were extremely surprised, even a bit shocked, that among a variety of sources listed you did not mention our monthly Report on the Palestinians Under Israeli Rule which, from April 1977 to January 1987, was the only full and objective source on the sum total of events, oppression and settlement in the Occupied Territories.

Maxim Ghilan
Israel & Palestine

The Editors Respond

The sources listed were not intended to constitute a complete list; they were primarily those sources used in compiling the primer. Israel & Palestine’s Report is included in the more extensive Further Reading list appearing in this issue.

Israeli Peace Activists’ Trial

The hearings in the trial of Latif Dori, Yael Lotan, Eliezer Feiler and myself [for meeting with the PLO] have come to an end. The last sessions, toward the end of January, were devoted to hearing the witnesses for the defense.

All concerned decided that the sides would submit their summaries in writing. It will be about mid-March before all the summaries are in the hands of the presiding judge. My guess is that we can expect a verdict sometime in late April or early May. I do not want to make any forecasts about the nature of the judgment.

Let me fill you in on developments since my last report. After hearing the witnesses for the prosecution, our counsel entered a no-case-to-answer plea, which was rejected on December 17. The same day, Latif Dori took the stand as the first witness for the defense. Latif testified about the preparations for the meeting and its purpose. At a certain point the prosecutor suggested to Dori that he should have gotten up and left when the head of the PLO delegation identified himself as such and requested the Israeli delegation to inform the Israeli public that the PLO delegation was extending its hands towards peace. Dori answered that it had not occurred to him to leave at that moment, especially since and others had waited years to hear such a clear and positive exposition to the PLO stand.

Yael Lotan’s testimony centered on the difficulty of any objective use of the terms “terror” and “terrorist.” Yael drew on her own personal family experience: Her father was a close colleague of the incumbent prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, in the days of the Stern Group, then considered definitely a terrorist outfit by the entire Jewish community in Palestine. Lotan explained that we met with the PLO not as an act of identification or support but in order to further the dialogue for peace.

When the trial reconvened on January 18, the bulk of the proceedings were devoted to testimony from Gail Pressberg, who analyzed the development of the political thinking of the PLO leadership. Eliezer Feiler discussed the nature of the PLO as an umbrella organization, political in essence, similar in many senses to the Jewish Agency during the Mandate period. My testimony centered on the legal and constitutional aspects of the law purporting to ban such meetings. January 19 and 20 were devoted to expert testimony from MK Matti Peled, Professor Sari Nusseibeh, MK Victor Shem Tov and Yehoshafat Harkavi.

These four witnesses related in great detail the nature of the PLO, its real positions as against the distortions of those positions. Thanks to the efforts of our expert witnesses, the court (or the appellate courts, if the need arises) will be able to relate to a record rich in legal and political substance. We hope, at the earliest possible opportunity, to translate certain sections of the protocol, which are of definite public and scientific importance.

This is a good time to say a word about our lawyers, Amnon Zichroni and Avigdor Feldman. Thanks to their devoted efforts and high professional abilities we, and our cause, were ably represented in court. They did everything above and beyond the line of duty to challenge the anti-democratic legislation designed to choke off the peace dialogue.

It is true that the impact of the trial on the media faded toward the end. We were unable to connect the trial proceedings with the uprising in the territories. It appears that the media can concentrate on a limited number of aspects of a question in any particular time frame. We, on our part, and you, our supporters, certainly understand the connection between our trial and the fight against the occupation and for Israeli-Palestinian peace. We thank you for your help up to now, and do not go away. We may still be needing you.

Reuven Kaminer


Your issue on “Human Rights in the Middle East” (November-December 1987) was enjoyed extensively here for its rich information, but one correction is necessary. On page 31, the article on “Political Rights and Censorship in Jordan” stated that in 1978 “most of the central committee of the Communist Party were arrested after one member turned out to be from the mukhabarat.” Such an event has never occurred and has been confused with the real one which occurred in 1986 with the People’s Party, a splinter group from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Their nine-member central committee did include an infiltrator. They were all arrested and sentenced to one or two years in prison.

[Name withheld] Amman

Superficial on Jordan

As two dedicated readers of Middle East Report, we were disappointed in your uncharacteristically superficial and unstudied coverage in the November-December 1987 article on “Political Rights and Censorship in Jordan.” Your special correspondent provides some good insight into the inner workings of the Jordanian intelligence service and its role in sustaining the country’s present political structure, and presents a possibly interesting, if incomplete, picture of the political environment within the Jordanian borders. But it fails to weave an informative and analytical interpretation of the peculiarities of the Jordanian political scene. His/her shaky understanding of the country’s political nuances is reflected in a puzzling and somewhat inaccurate reading of important political players and their actual share in local power politics. For example, while the government’s closure of the Jordanian Writers’ Association does represent yet another repressive measure, readers should know that this is an organization long reduced to the fringes of Jordan’s intellectual life. In fact, it was the government’s rash, shortsighted and totally unnecessary action which gave legitimacy to a bankrupt association no more authentic than the new, “officially” created federation.

The article is rich with references to the Jordanian Communist Party, to the exclusion of almost all other leftist and rightist currents which define the regime’s opposition, however weak. The regime in fact feels little need to brace itself against the JCP, a party weak in organization and boasting no mass appeal. Most disappointing is the article’s curious omission of the fundamentalist influence in Jordanian society, and the key role political-religious parties have started playing in this small kingdom.

Press censorship and the absence of freedom of speech is no mystery to the Jordanian citizen. The article is riddled with little stories, all probably true but not documented, stories that would enrich any informal gathering but hardly qualify for MERIP’s attention. Paradoxically, your correspondent extracts Amineh Adwan’s “Every Time I Write Something, I Think What Will I Have to Pay?” from the Jordan Times, a local daily newspaper, to support the case for intolerable press censorship in Jordan. In fact, a few bookstores in downtown Amman still sell books by Marx, Lenin and Samir Amin, and this controversial MERIP issue arrived by mail, totally uncensored.

The article’s premise, that Jordan can pride itself on neither freedom of press nor speech, is still valid, but the simplistic, black-and-white argument rests solely on a few generalized statements that could very well apply to Zimbabwe, and on hearsay communicated to your fortunate correspondent.

In all fairness to MERIP’s efforts, we have yet to come across a study, cryptic or thorough, that does justice to Jordan’s complex sociopolitical and economic circumstances. We would like to emphasize that despite our criticism of this article, we continue to be avid and appreciative readers of your journal. If we were not, we would not have found it incumbent upon ourselves to register this opinion.

Amal Ghandour
Rula Atalla

How to cite this article:

"Letters (May/June 1988)," Middle East Report 152 (May/June 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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