What do you get when you combine a radical activist who volunteers as a human shield for terrorists with a former Palestinian Authority spokesman? The Israel research department for Amnesty International.
“Impartiality” is a core value of Amnesty’s statute. Further, Amnesty’s editorial guidelines state, “Media content produced by Amnesty International should be fair and objective.”
These claims of “impartiality” and “objectivity” are the foundation of Amnesty’s reputation as one of the leading promoters of human rights. In Israel’s case, however, Amnesty ignores its own values and instead allows people with clearly biased agendas to produce its reports. This is apparent in Amnesty’s upcoming report on Israel’s use of administrative detention, to be released on June 6. Amnesty lists two workers with clear conflicts of interests - Deborah Hyams and Saleh Hijazi - as the report’s media contacts.
Hyams joined Amnesty in 2010, after a long record of pro-Palestinian activism. In 2001 she volunteered as a “human shield” in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, to deter Israeli military responses to recurrent gunfire and mortar attacks targeting Jewish civilians in Jerusalem. In a 2002 Washington Jewish Week article, “Hyams said that while she does not condone suicide bombings, she personally believes they ‘are in response to the occupation.’” In another instance she defended the use of violence, stating “occupation is violence… and the consequence of this action must result in violence.” This background precludes any reader of Amnesty’s report from accepting it at face value.
As with the case of Hyams, if Amnesty wants to maintain impartiality, it should disqualify Saleh Hijazi from working on Israeli issues. Hijazi, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem and raised in Ramallah, has a clear lack of objectivity in this regard. In 2005, he worked as a Public Relations officer for the Office of the Ministry of Planning in Ramallah and in 2007 he was listed as contact for the NGO “Another Voice” – under the group's signature “Resist! Boycott! We Are Intifada!”
Hijazi has a “special” conflict of interest with regards to administrative detention in particular. On March 9, 2011, while as a researcher for Human Rights Watch, he spoke at a UN conference where he described how his father was supposedly arrested by the Israeli authorities “when the Israeli military could not find an activist neighbor.” How can Hijazi be impartial when he is simultaneously claiming to be a victim of the very same country on which he is reporting?
Hyams and Hijazi are not the only Amnesty employees to have long-standing biases against Israel.
In August 2010, the executive director of Amnesty-Finland, Frank Johansson, referred to Israel as “a scum state” on his blog. Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty’s Crisis Response & Country Priorities Manager gave an interview where he explained that the Arab-Israeli conflict is caused by “The USA play(ing) both Arab and Israel sides to generate money, power and control.” And, that “Israel always pushes the buttons to make all the surrounding Arabic states such as Syria,
feel insecure. So they then buy weapons off other states and this is a great profit-making industry.”
To be sure, critiquing the author instead of the argument may be considered bad form. However, when a report’s key architects are so blatantly biased, it is both warranted and necessary in pursuit of the principles of universal human rights. In this framework, describing the context of events is crucial to accurate reporting. Ideological biases will reshape the entire picture according to the reporter’s pre-judged conclusions.
Such bias is amply displayed in Amnesty’s 2012 Annual Report, released just last week (May 30.) In the section about Israel, possibly written by Hyams and Hijazi, Amnesty refers to the Palestinians having “fired indiscriminate rockets and mortars into southern Israel, killing two people and endangering the lives of others." (pg. 267) The “others” at the end of the sentence are over a million Israelis forced for the last 10 years to live in constant fear of rockets targeting them and their children.
This phrasing is to be expected from a hardcore pro-Palestinian activist such as Hyams, a former Palestinian Authority official such as Hijazi or a conspiracy theorist such as Benedict. However, it is completely inappropriate for the world’s largest human rights group to describe one million Israeli non-combatants as merely “others.”
When human rights organizations are co-opted by people with a specific political agenda, they are incapable of fulfilling their mandates. Amnesty’s choice to staff its Israel section with clearly biased researchers has made it tragically irrelevant for the championing of human rights in the region as a whole. Those who value human rights should be the most outspoken against the political hijacking of one of the world’s most powerful NGOs.
Gidon Shaviv is a PhD candidate at Israel's Bar Ilan University and an Israel Research Fellow placed at NGO Monitor. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, policy or positions of the Israel Research Fellowship Program.