A Blood libel disguised as an investigative report

This report has been extensively revised on Aug. 15, for clarity.

HRW blood libel

News item:

A Human Rights Watch report claiming IDF soldiers killed 11 Palestinian civilians holding white flags in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead is “based on unreliable witness reports,” the IDF said in a statement released Thursday.

“Moreover,” the statement continued, the international human rights organization “didn’t bother to give the report to the IDF before releasing it to the public via the media, to allow for in-depth investigation.”

The army stressed that soldiers were under orders to “honor the ‘white flag’ as a sign of surrender… and to avoid harming” anyone raising such a flag.

HRW presented its report at a press conference on Thursday morning, alleging that most of the 11 were women and children and that they were killed in seven separate incidents during Operation Cast Lead.

“In each case, the victims were standing, walking, or in a slow-moving vehicle with other unarmed civilians who were trying to convey their non-combatant status by waving a white flag,” the 61-page report entitled “White Flags Death,” said.

The allegations in the report are truly shocking. According to “eyewitness testimony” which is “corroborated” by “ballistic evidence” and “forensic medical examinations”, Israeli soldiers shot and killed unarmed Palestinian civilians, including children, while they waved white flags.

Most people don’t read beyond the executive summaries which present the conclusions of such reports. And they are truly horrific. But if you read the presentation of the details of specific incidents, another picture emerges. Large amounts of scientific-sounding ‘evidence’ are presented, but much of it is totally irrelevant to the conclusions drawn.

Careful reading shows that the case rests entirely on the testimony of Palestinian ‘witnesses’, to whom the investigators are led by Palestinian organizations, whose personnel also provide translators. Sometimes the interviews were even done in the presence of Hamas operatives!

HRW did not have staff on the ground in Gaza during the war. All investigations were done after the fact, and they also relied on medical reports from Physicians for Human Rights–Israel.

Of course not only is it in the interest of Palestinians to lie and exaggerate, there is a history of them doing so, in those cases in which the stories can be checked. By then the damage is done, and anyway nobody pays attention to the later reports calling attention to the fraud.

In response to criticism, HRW is now going to great pains to present what they do as actual investigation. Let’s look at one claim in the HRW report, chosen almost at random:

In one case documented in the report, on January 7 in eastern Jabalya, two women and three children from the ‘Abd Rabbo family were standing for a few minutes outside their home—at least three of them holding pieces of white cloth—when an Israeli soldier opened fire, killing two girls, aged two and seven, and wounding the grandmother and third girl.  “We spent seven to nine minutes waving the flags and our faces were looking at them [the soldiers],” said the girls’ grandmother, who was shot twice.  “And suddenly they opened fire and the girls fell to the ground.”

Eyewitness accounts, tank tracks, an ammunition box and bullet casings found at the scene, and an examination of the grandmother by forensic experts indicate that an Israeli soldier fired upon identifiable and unarmed women and children. [my italics]

This is what one reads in the summary portion of the report, and it sounds damning. “forensic experts” tell us that the Israelis have committed what appears to be a war crime, or a least a case of callous disregard, etc.

Now let’s look at the details, later in the report:

In the early afternoon of January 7, 2009, four days after the start of Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza, Israeli tanks stopped at the house of Khalid ‘Abd Rabbo, who lives at the eastern end of al-Quds Street in Jabalya’s ‘Abd Rabbo neighborhood.[9]  According to three family members who witnessed the incident, an Israeli soldier fired on two women and three young girls who had come out of the house holding makeshift white flags.  Two of the girls died; the grandmother and the third girl were wounded, the girl seriously.  Ballistic evidence found at the scene, medical records of the victims, and examinations by foreign doctors of the two wounded survivors corroborate the witnesses’ account… [my italics]

“Ballistic evidence” usually means that a bullet found at a crime scene can be matched to a weapon which can be tied to the alleged perpetrator; and there are all kinds of medical examinations that can bear on the determination of how and by whom a crime was committed. But neither of the above is the case here. When you read the rest, ask yourself if anything is proven by the ‘evidence’ presented except two things:

  1. Some Palestinians suffered gunshot wounds, two of whom allegedly died, and
  2. The survivors and family members claim that they were shot by Israeli soldiers.

According to Khalid, his brother, and his mother, on January 7 at least one IDF tank pulled up to the western side of the house.  When visiting the house on January 25, 2009, Human Rights Watch saw the tread marks of what appeared to be more than one tank, probably the IDF’s Merkava, in an area about 10 meters from the house’s western side.  About one dozen spent 7.62 x 51 millimeter bullet casings littered the ground, as did an empty ammunition box with Hebrew writing for 230 7.62mm bullets.  The 7.62 x 51 bullet is fired from the FN MAG 58, a machine gun used by Israeli infantry troops and also mounted on tanks and armored personnel carriers.

This detailed ‘evidence’ is irrelevant. We know that at some time a tank or other treaded vehicle was present.  We do not know that the cartridge cases or the ammunition box had anything to do with the tank or the incident — it is after all, a war zone — or even if they were placed there later.

According to all three family members, around noon the family heard the tank outside their house and then a soldier on a megaphone calling on them to come outside.  Afraid to send out any men, two women and three female children gathered at the door, at least three of them holding pieces of white cloth.  They stepped outside and saw an Israeli tank about 10 meters away with its turret pointed at the house.  On the front steps stood Khalid’s mother, Su’ad, 54, his wife, Kawthar, 26, and their three girls, Su’ad, 7, Samar, 4, and Amal, 2.  Khalid’s mother Su’ad explained what happened next:

We saw one tank and we saw others behind.  We were with the white flags in order to make them see that we were civilians.  We spent seven to nine minutes waving the flags and our faces were looking at them.  And suddenly they opened fire and the girls fell to the ground.  Su’ad fell and when I saw her I turned to my right and when I turned I got hit… The shooting came from where the tank was but I don’t know who shot.  Su’ad was wounded in the neck and chest.  Amal was hit in the chest and abdomen and her intestines came out.  Su’ad died immediately.  We took Amal inside and she died in there because the ambulance could not come.  Samar was injured in the chest and the shots exited her back, leaving large holes and damaging the spine.  She is now paralyzed….

Interviewed separately, Khalid and his brother, who had both remained inside the house, confirmed this version of events.  According to Khalid, the women and girls were outside for about five minutes when an Israeli soldier emerged from the top of the tank and without warning opened fire with automatic gunfire.  The women and girls managed to scramble back inside the house, some of them bleeding badly, he said.

The suggestion is that the firing was done by Israeli soldiers with their personal weapons, or possibly from a machine gun mounted on the tank.

The statement that they were “interviewed separately” is irrelevant, since the handpicked “witnesses” had plenty of time to discuss their stories beforehand. One wonders also about the translators, as well.

Now we get to the “forensic experts”:

On February 2, Human Rights Watch brought two forensic pathologists, Dr. Jørgen Lange Thomsen from Denmark and Dr. Shabbir Ahmed Wadee from South Africa, to examine Su’ad ‘Abd Rabbo, who was recovering at her relative’s home in Jabalya.[18]  The doctors told Human Rights Watch that Su’ad’s wounds were consistent with having been shot twice, once in the left arm and once in the left buttock.  The bullets were not large caliber, they said, based on the absence of extensive internal injuries.  According to Drs. Thomsen and Wadee, who gave their assessments in each other’s presence, the entry and exit wounds on Su’ad’s left arm were indistinguishable due to the healing.  The other bullet, they said, had entered the left buttock and exited the front of the left flank.  This was consistent with Su’ad’s claim that she turned to her right towards the house when the shooting began.

They state that “the bullets were not large caliber” as though this establishes something about the circumstances of the shooting. Since the Kalashnikov rifle commonly used by Hamas also fires a 7.62mm bullet (although it is shorter than the MAG ammunition), what exactly would this prove? Since the spent bullets themselves were not recovered, it is not possible to tell if they were IDF MAG or Hamas AK47 ammunition.

And there is no way to correlate them with  cartridge cases or ammunition boxes found around the house. Real forensic ballistics would involve matching a spent bullet to the barrel of the weapon that fired it. HRW is simply talking nonsense. There is no “ballistic evidence” here!

These ‘findings’ only prove that these people got shot somehow, in the middle of a war. They also may prove that they were not shot by Wyatt Earp, who carried a .45.

But there’s more:  had the Palestinians been shot by an Israeli wielding the standard issue M-16 rifle — which uses an even smaller 5.56mm bullet — there probably would have been severe internal injuries and a large exit wound, because of the tumbling effect characteristic of this type of ammunition. So we do know that they were probably not shot by an IDF soldier with his personal weapon. We also can conclude that these “forensic experts” lack expertise with gunshot wounds from military weapons.

The HRW report continues,

Human Rights Watch also spoke by telephone with the doctor treating Samar in Brussels, Dr. Said Hachimi Idrissi.  He said that, as of March 6, Samar had undergone three surgeries, one in Gaza and two in Brussels.[19]  The first surgery in Gaza removed the bullets, so Dr. Idrissi could not comment on the caliber of bullets that had hit her.  The two subsequent surgeries in Brussels were to clean up a serious infection that Samar had developed around her spinal cord.  A July 22 television report on Samar by the BBC said the girl was paralyzed from the waist down due to her spinal injury.[20]

Which proves… that the girl was shot.

The whole business about the caliber of the bullets is a red herring. It has no bearing at all on who shot the victims, although it is presented as if it does. The HRW report is profoundly dishonest.

The only actual ‘evidence’ that these people were shot in cold blood by Israeli soldiers is the testimony of the Palestinian family members.

HRW and Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, who reported this incident have few if any staff that speak Arabic. The PHR report in which the “forensic” medical examinations are reported  states that

It was agreed after negotiation with the [Palestinian] Ministry of Health that the team should be enabled free and undisturbed work in order not to compromise its mission as an independent fact-finding team. The team therefore relied heavily on the fieldworkers of NGOs AlMezan (a Gaza-based human rights organization) and PMRS [Palestinian Medical Relief Society] in order to reach witnesses and sites [and for translation -- ed.]. It should be noted that in some parts of the tour a representative of the de facto government (Hamas) accompanied some members of the team and observed their work.

Is it not possible — even likely —  that testimony from interested parties obtained under such conditions would be untrue in a large proportion of cases?

HRW and similar organizations are going to greater lengths to make their blood libels sound like real investigative reports, but they still have a way to go before they are convincing.

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