What has been the performance of human rights organizations during the first two years of the intifada? A fresh look at eight organizations surveyed prior to the uprising (MER 150) shows that overall coverage has increased, as one might expect based on the intensity and duration of the uprising, but coverage remains uneven. Some organizations that had been reporting on the Occupied Territories prior to November 1987 improved their coverage; others did not. Among those organizations that had in the past ignored Palestinian rights abuses, some saw the intifada as an opportunity to take up the issue. A notable few, however, have remained silent.
The majority of human rights organizations surveyed were spurred into action by the intifada. Physicians for Human Rights, which had been set up in 1986-1987, not long before the onset of the uprising, was one of the first organizations to send a fact-finding mission to the West Bank and Gaza once the intifada broke out. The mission’s report The Casualties of Conflict received wide media attention. PHR’s latest report, Health Care in Detention (April 1990), is first-rate, and draws the important conclusion that certain types of physical abuse practiced by the Israeli security forces “represent torture as defined in international standards.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists published a lengthy report, Journalism Under Occupation, in late 1988. In CPJ’s 1990 world survey, Attacks on the Press, the entry on Israel and the Occupied Territories ranked among the most extensive, next to that of EI Salvador. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights produced one major report dealing with Palestinian rights during 1988-1989 (Detention of Human Rights Workers and Lawyers, 1988), and has issued numerous memoranda and letters to Israeli officials concerning the use of deadly force, harassment of human rights workers and torture. In May 1990, the Lawyers Committee provided detailed testimony to Congress about human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories.
The committees affiliated with the Human Rights Watch group (originally Helsinki Watch) finally include a Middle East Watch. Middle East Watch’s first report, Human Rights in Iraq, appeared in February 1990. In May, the organization presented written testimony to Congress on the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories, which was part of a study (published in July) critical of Israel’s system of accountability, particularly in the area of killings.
Amnesty International stands out as having had the most extensive coverage of human rights violations during the intifada. Amnesty has issued nearly a dozen reports and statements regarding the situation in the Occupied Territories over the past two years. Six of these short reports were published as a booklet in the US. These reports focus on the use of live ammunition, tear gas and other types of force against civilians, a departure from Amnesty’s traditional focus on prisoners of conscience, torture and executions. In June 1989, Amnesty took up the issue of administrative detention (Administrative Detention During the Palestinian Intifada), the subject of two reports prior to the uprising. Although the report did not condemn the practice outright, since it is not forbidden by international law, it did sharply indict Israeli use of it.
In January 1990, Amnesty issued Killings in the Occupied Territories. More recently, Amnesty-USA director John Healey called on the US government “to support a plan to protect human rights and stop the killings” by the Israeli army. But his positive statement was coupled to another calling on the Israeli government to “bring to justice Palestinians responsible for the rising number of murders of alleged collaborators.” This is akin to asking the South African government to “bring to justice” blacks responsible for killing alleged collaborators in Soweto.
Human Rights Internet continues to cover the Occupied Territories, but this coverage is uneven and not commensurate with the volume of human rights abuses there. In the past two years, only the spring-summer 1988 double issue of the HRI quarterly featured Israeli practices, with a lead article on Palestinian rights by Raja Shehadeh (“After 21 Years of Israeli Occupation”). Shehadeh’s sparse identification as “co-founder of Al-Haq,” with no explanation of that organization’s role, was in marked contrast to detailed background information on other contributors.
Two groups conspicuous for their silence are Cultural Survival and the International League for Human Rights. Dedicated to defending the rights of tribal and ethnic peoples, Cultural Survival continues to act as if the Palestinian people are extinct. As Jason Clay, the organization’s director of research explains it, “the Palestinians are more of a geographic designation than a cultural one,” though Cultural Survival has championed the plight of several peoples (Kurds, Tibetans, Timorese) who share conditions of occupation, dispersal and denial of national rights with the problematic Palestinians.
While Cultural Survival has never addressed the issue of Palestinian rights, the International League for Human Rights has in the past taken up the issue only to obfuscate Israeli abuses. During the past two years, however, the organization has maintained a steady silence on Israeli human rights violations. In keeping with its tendency to focus on communist regimes and other official enemies, ILHR quickly issued a report on the “Massacre in Beijing” last summer, while ignoring the prolonged “massacre in Palestine.”