Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

"Personnel is Policy": Amnesty International and Israel

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It is no secret that Israel has been receiving "special" attention and treatment from several human rights organisations, which is expressed not only by the disproportional scope of research efforts dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also in strong biases and double standards when it comes to evaluating claims about Israel and its policies.

As AIJAC's Tzvi Fleischer documented in 2009 with respect to Human Rights Watch , a lot of these problematic practices can be explained by the staff the human rights NGO chooses to do its supposedly impartial documentation. In Human Rights Watch case, it was demonstrated that the people responsible for compiling problematic reports and media releases had largely been hired by the organisation after working as dedicated anti-Israel activists in organisations insisting Israel is an "Apartheid state" or demanding boycotts against Israel, and even explicitly rejecting Israel's right to exist. It is not surprising that such people, rather than impartially monitoring and compiling human rights claims against various Middle East regimes, would focus their scrutiny overwhelmingly on Israel, would be very credulous in accepting any claim directed against Israel, and would look for ways to stretch and twist international law and human rights concepts to condemn Israel - as in fact happened with Human Rights Watch. (For more on how Human Rights Watch went off the rails on the Middle East, see here and here.)

Now, it has been revealed that the other "giant" among international human rights NGOs, Amnesty International, apparently has similar personnel issues - which may explain some of Amnesty's recent reports and statements on Israel, such as the controversial new report about administrative detention and Palestinian prisoners' hunger strikes called "Starved of Justice: Palestinians detained without trial by Israel".

Amnesty International did not even make an effort to cover up its one-sided approach as it admitted that the report "is not intended to address violations of detainees' rights by the Palestinian Authority, or the Hamas de facto administration" - singling out Israel, and not demanding the same accountability from the Palestinian side.

This one-sidedness was rightfully criticised by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Embassy in London (where the offices of Amnesty International are located), who both claimed that the report should not be taken seriously and at face value since it was written without asking the Israeli side for its version and without fact-checking with Israeli authorities.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said that the report "strikes us as a public relations gimmick," while the Israeli embassy in London stated that Amnesty International had become "ridiculous" and pointed out the organisation's deteriorating credibility. Amir Ofek, press attaché at the Israeli Embassy in London, said: "... when it comes to Israel, Amnesty is now just the leftovers of an organisation of the same name which once enjoyed a lot of credibility".

Critics charge that instead of investigating and raising awareness to real human rights violations, Amnesty International is preoccupied with promoting and advocating Palestinian political agendas. In the case of this recent report, the political context of Amnesty's investigation was the Palestinian prisoners hunger strike - with the organisation apparently deciding to join in the effort to promote the prisoners' demands with a well-timed "report."

But perhaps the most telling part of the "Starved for Justice" report is actually what doesn't appear in it - the names of the authors. Amnesty International's policy is to not reveal the names and identity of researchers who write its reports, but this policy raises serious questions of transparency and credibility. This is particularly true because it has now been revealed that, like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty ignores its own values of impartiality by hiring ex-activists with clear and known biases and conflicts of interests to work on Israel-related reports.

According to NGO Monitor, the London-based Amnesty International Secretariat (IS) researchers on "Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)" were likely Deborah Hyams and Saleh Hijazi. Their names were also listed as media contacts in a press advisory on the "Starved of Justice" report. NGO Monitor argued that this politically-charged report was heavily based on the ideological backgrounds of these two researchers - who seem to be the only two researchers listed for the region by Amnesty.

Deborah Hyams has been working for Amnesty International since 2010 and has an extensive history of extreme "pro-Palestinian" and anti-Israeli activism. She worked for numerous pro-Palestinian NGOs, such as the Alternative Information Center (AIC), Jews for Justice in Palestine and Israel (JPPI), Rachel Corrie Foundation, and Ma'an Network. During the second Intifada in 2001 she volunteered as a "human shield" in Beit Jala, a launching site for gunfire and mortar attacks on civilians in the nearby neighbourhood of Gilo in Jerusalem, in an attempt to prevent Israeli military response to such attacks. Her lenient views of violent Palestinian terrorism were also expressed in a 2002 Washington Jewish Week article, in which she said that: "while she does not condone suicide bombings, she personally believes they ‘are in response to the occupation.'" She even went as far as to justify the Palestinian use of violence, when she stated that "occupation is violence... and the consequence of this action must result in violence." She is also a signatory to a letter from 2008 in which it is claimed that Israel is "a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land."

Clearly, with that kind of record of anti- Israeli activism and public statements, it is impossible to expect Hyams to conduct any research project regarding Israel with impartiality, objectivity, or a strict adherence to the actual tenets of human rights law.

The second "Israel and OPT" researcher, Saleh Hijazi has an even more obvious conflict of interests, since he is a former Public Relations Officer of Palestinian Authority - a body which helped sponsor the prisoner's hunger strike that the Amnesty "Starved of Justice" report was clearly designed to assist.

Hijazi worked as a Public Relations Officer for the Office of the Ministry of Planning of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah in 2005. In 2007 he was listed as contact for the NGO "Another Voice," whose slogan was "Resist! Boycott! We Are Intifada!" On an even more personal level, Hijazi testified in a UN conference in March 9, 2011 as a Human Rights Watch researcher and described his father's alleged arrest by the Israeli authorities "when the Israeli military could not find an activist neighbour."

Moreover, since he is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian who grew up in Ramallah, he should be prohibited from working on Israeli-Palestinian issues under a long-standing Amnesty policy. In order to maintain impartiality, Amnesty once had in place a policy prohibiting researchers from working on projects relating to their counties of origin, known as the "Work On Own Country" (WOOC) policy. It is unclear to what extent this policy is still in place today, but if Amnesty cared about impartiality at all, Hijazi's personal history should certainly have disqualified him from researching any Israel-related issues for Amnesty.

Taking the background of Amnesty International "Israel and OPT" researchers into consideration, the credibility of their report and its conclusions, rhetoric and recommendations should be seriously questioned, as should their motivations in choosing a research topic clearly designed and timed to coincide with and assist a Palestinian political campaign. More than this, Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, should not be taken at face value as a self-proclaimed neutral "human rights" watchdog on Middle Eastern issues as long as it fails the most basic tests of impartiality and transparency by hiring politically-motivated pro-Palestinian activists as researchers on Israel-related issues.

Or Avi-Guy

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