By: Cnaan Liphshiz
A group of Israeli researchers on Tuesday questioned the objectivity, integrity and professionalism of the international body Human Right's Watch based on findings from the first comprehensive study into the activities of the organization.
They added the report casts doubt as to the neutrality of the Goldstone Commission on Gaza.
Human Rights Watch said the accusation was "misleading" and reflected a "deep misunderstanding" of its role.
The 80-page study by the Jerusalem-based organization NGO Monitor speaks of "major flaws in the focus on Israel" by HRW. The Israeli organization noted that Richard Goldstone, the head of a UN team investigating alleged war crimes in Gaza, had been a HRW board member until recently.
"Although Goldstone resigned, his statements have strongly echoed and defended HRW's bias, particularly over Gaza," NGO Monitor said in a statement about the study.
"Goldstone's strong identification with Human Rights Watch forms the political foundation for his biased inquiry," said Professor Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor's founder. The Goldstone Commission is due to release its findings in the next few weeks.
In the study, Steinberg and his researchers gave profiles of HRW’s Middle East division staff, "which is led by ideologues with a history of pro-Palestinian activism, rather than human rights experts," according to the report's authors.
The Middle East division is headed by Sarah Leah Whitson, who participated in the Caterpillar Israel boycott campaign, and in a HRW fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia. Deputy Director Joe Stork, according to the report, participated in a "Zionism and Racism" conference in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, before joining HRW.
In its full reaction, HRW said NGO Monitor's report contained "errors of fact and misleading analysis," preferring "personal attacks" on its staff to "addressing the findings of human rights violations."
Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director, called Steinberg "a consultant to the Israeli Foreign Ministry." Steinberg said that in the past, he has consulted for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on issues unrelated to NGOs, but is no longer a consultant.
According to Roth, Human Rights Watch receives no government funds. But Steinnberg's research on HRW showed it is has received funding to the tune of $900,000 from NOVIB, a body funded by the Dutch government.
Roth told Haaretz that Steinberg's report is part of the Netanyahu government's "battle on critics," aimed at "deflecting attention" from "unnecessary" civilian deaths in Gaza. "NGO Monitor has yet to show any of our findings to be wrong," he said, adding his organization seeks out "as many viewpoints as possible."
He added that HRW has published dozens of reports on abuses by Middle Eastern governments, including Egypt, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia.
But the report's Israeli authors also accuse HRW of "methodological failures" that "violate" the fact-finding guidelines of the International Bar Association. These reports, they said, "rely on unreliable eyewitnesses and consistently confuse speculation with fact," while "omitting evidence" such as videos showing Hamas and Hezbollah using human shields.
Steinberg named HRW's investigation into the alleged firing by IDF troops on Gazans flying white flags. "The Abd Rabbo family, on whom the first incident depends, has given 14 different versions of their story since January," Steinberg said.
An analysis of 2008 publications using a weighted quantitative methodology showed, according to the study, that HRW focused more attention on Israel than on Iran, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and others. "Since 2000, HRW has called 68 times for independent investigations against Israel," Steinberg added. "There is no parallel regarding any other country."
"Human rights values and research standards have been replaced by ideology," Steingberg concluded. "The Middle East division of this powerful organization needs a full and systemic overhaul, to recover its moral foundation and relevance in promoting human rights, particularly in repressive regimes."