Israel, Lebanon and Torture

an interview with Marty Rosenbluth

MARTY ROSENBLUTH IS Amnesty International’s country specialist for Israel, the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian Authority. He previously lived for seven years as a human rights activist based in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He participated in AI’s fact-finding mission to northern Israel and southern Lebanon during the war. He was interviewed on October 1 by David Finkel from the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: Can we begin with what your delegation saw in general, and then your own observations on the ground? I understand you were in northern Israel.

Marty Rosenbluth: Right. We were one delegation that divided into two parts. When I left my home in North Carolina I was headed for Beirut. I was actually in Washington DC when I was told I was reassigned to the Israel segment.

We went into southern Lebanon and northern Israel to see the civilian toll on both sides. In the broadest sense, what we saw was very clear: both Hezbollah and Israel were violating international humanitarian law from the earliest days of the conflict. Clearly both were deliberately targeting civilians; were using indiscriminate force in a way that targeted civilian infrastructure; both at the very least showed callous disregard for civilian casualties.

ATC: Do I understand correctly that AI does not make comparative judgments about such matters? So if on one side there are 1500 civilian deaths and 50 on the other, Amnesty doesn’t judge them in relation to one another, or which side was the aggressor or the stronger power?

MR: We don’t. In fact we intentionally and deliberately avoid doing so. We measure the actions not against each other, but against the standards of international law. We say, these are the acts that are taking place and whether they conform to international law. The rest is for politicians and pundits.

Half-Empty Country

ATC: Tell us what you observed on the Israeli side.

MR: The first thing was how empty the north was. You could have sat down on a main road in Haifa and played chess without having to get out of the way for a car. Anyone who could leave had fled. Those who remained stayed in their shelters or “safe rooms,” and not surprisingly they were the people without the means to flee — the elderly, the poor or the ill.

The further north you went, the more true this was — in Nahariya near the border, the only people were those without the means to leave. One person in the hospital in Haifa had in fact evacuated to Eilat, and just ran out of money. The day after he got back to Acre, he was injured by a Katyusha (rocket fired by Hezbollah — ed.).

About half of the total population of the north had gone south. We saw how afraid the remaining people were — the Katyushas could fall anywhere. Even with the infrastructure of their shelters and safe rooms, unless they stayed there 24/7 they were at risk. Many times you had less than 30 seconds after the sirens sounded before the Kastyushas hit.

ATC: What were people saying about the war and the government?

MR: It was mixed. Many people in the shelters just wanted to get out. The shelters weren’t set up to be occupied 24/7 for 35 days. They were overcrowded, didn’t have cooking facilities. No stores were open, so anything that was needed had to be brought in by the government.

We heard the same thing when we met with government officials, volunteers and NGOs. They were all pushed to their limits, and of course they weren’t coping with hospitals and bridges and roads being destroyed. Seeing this was instructive — we could just imagine how things must be in southern Lebanon, where most everything was demolished.

ATC: Did you visit the Arab citizen population in Israel as well?

MR: Yes, we met people both at the official level of municipal governments and the unofficial and NGO (non-governmental organization) level. That picture is pretty complex. I know there was a lot of news coming out that the Arabs in Israel were disproportionately killed by the Katyushas, that there were no air raid shelters or warning sirens in the Arab areas. In fact it wasn’t quite that simple.

The best description we got, from an Arab NGO, was that there wasn’t government discrimination in dealing with the war itself, but rather that the crisis revealed the discrimination that already existed.  For example, it would be factually true to say there weren’t public shelters in the Arab sector, but you have to analyze why. The shelters are the responsibility of the local municipalities. The Arab municipalities never made it a priority, not only thinking they’d never be attacked but also because they’re desperately underfunded and have other priorities.

Since 1991 the Israeli government hasn’t built new public shelters, but required that “safe rooms” be built in new construction. Well, most construction in the Arab sector is done without permits. Why? It’s because in general, permits are unobtainable for them…

ATC: So it’s a window into the deeper social situation — in the way New Orleans was in this country?

MR: Very much so. The municipality in Nazareth told us they had raised the issue of public shelters once. But anyway, you can’t build shelters for a city’s population to live in for 35 days. We went up with the assumption that we’d see blatant discrimination in the allocation of resources, but it turned out to be more complicated.

Amnesty International has never published a report on discrimination in the Arab Israeli sector. To do that we’d have to get to structural discrimination against national minorities everywhere — the United States and Europe included.

In any case, we didn’t hear anything dramatically different from Israeli Jews and Arabs — both were complaining that the government wasn’t doing enough. The issue of language, however, was a big deal — the government didn’t get information out in Arabic until very late.

I want to add something about what happened in northern Israel. It was really clear to us, based on the pattern of Hezbollah attacks and the number of rockets, and also from Hezbollah’s own statements, that they were deliberately targeting civilians.

We don’t think that’s in doubt, and it isn’t denied. One thing that’s been covered is that some of the rockets were packed with ball bearings that burst on contact and shred people within dozens of yards.

ATC: You could call them low-tech cluster bombs?

MR: Yes, you could say that. Even though only about 10% of the rockets fired into northern Israel were packed with these ball bearings, almost all those killed in Israel were due to them.

A Devastated Land

ATC: Now let’s go to the Lebanese side. What were you hearing from the part of your delegation that went there?

MR: We were in constant communication. In southern Lebanon, the first thing the delegation noted, as we published in our report, it was clear that Israel was targeting civilian infrastructure — the electrical system, roads and bridges, etc. The Israelis made it very clear that destroying infrastructure was their objective.

We actually discussed this in our meetings with the top legal advisor to the Israeli military. They just said that if any object contributed in any way to Hezbollah’s military operations then it was a legitimate target. So Hezbollah used electricity. And I guess Hezbollah flushed toilets. So Israel hit the electrical and sewage infrastructure.

It’s clear that civilians would suffer disproportionately — you can bet that Hezbollah had generators – from the loss of electricity for hospitals and all the rest. The Israeli claim was absurd from the international human rights law standpoint.

They made two arguments. First, they said the roads were bombed to prevent Hezbollah from moving their soldiers north or reinforcements south. But roads and bridges are essential for civilians. They also said they warned the population to leave, so the civilian casualties weren’t their fault — but they were bombing the roads and bridges that the civilians needed in order to flee!

People ask me, weren’t Hezbollah using the roads and bridges for military purposes? I answer by asking how many people in the room have been to Washington DC. Then I ask how many people have taken the DC Metro into town from the airport. When they raise their hands, I point out that the Pentagon is the third Metro stop from the airport. Is the Metro a legitimate military target, then?

ATC: What about the massive cluster bombing right before the cease-fire? That can’t have been for strategic military purposes. It had to be to stop civilians from returning.

MR: Again, we try not to ascribe motives. Regardless of the motive, the effect is obvious. The cluster bombs are in effect land mines that will have an impact for months and years.

Our document and others show that every day people are killed and seriously injured by the cluster bombs dropped in the final two or three days of the war. Farmers are faced with the tragic dilemma of either not harvesting their crops, not rebuilding their houses, or else risk getting killed. The Israelis are refusing to cooperate with the UN by not revealing where they dropped them.

ATC: Patrick Cockburn reported in the London newspaper The Independent that some of the cluster bombs on the grounds had U.S. markings from before 1974, the Vietnam war era.

MR: Yes, we heard that many of these bombs were from old U.S. stocks. That’s partly why so many were duds that didn’t explode on impact. But Israel also manufactures its own.

We should say that basically we’ve only scratched the surface in the reports we’ve published so far. We had a team on the ground as recently as a week or two ago [middle to late September — ed.], so new reports will probably be out by the time this interview in in print. We haven’t really reported yet on the war’s effects on civilians in Lebanon in the broader sense (see AI’s website for reports as they appear).

Enabling Torture

ATC: I want to go to the question of the brand new George W. Bush Indefinite Detention and Torture Enabling Act of 2006, which Congress just passed. What’s your first response?

MR: There are several problems, the first of which is that it basically lets the President decide what is or isn’t torture. Second, it retroactively creates impunity for any U.S. official who practiced torture — for example, at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or the CIA’s secret prisons — and allows introduction of “evidence” obtained from torture. Further, it eliminates habeas corpus — that is, the right to legally challenge the grounds for detention — for non-citizens who can be held forever without charge or trial.

ATC: Have you seen the report that the U.S. practice of rewards for reporting “suspected terrorists” in Pakistan has created a bounty-hunting market there?

MR: Yes, we’ve said it for a long time. This is a big part of the prisoners at Guantanamo. Someone who doesn’t like you can make money by reporting you as a terrorist, you get snatched – and by getting rid of habeas corpus you can be locked in prison forever, and you can be tortured to get a false confession. Of course it’s torture even if they don’t call it that.

Where have we seen a government that permits torture “under exceptional circumstances” that got out of control?  Look at the example of Israel. After twelve years of legalizing what they called “moderate physical pressure,” it became routine and out of control. Finally their Supreme Court was forced to rule it was illegal — and it doesn’t work either. How many people will be tortured under this new U.S. law before it’s ruled unacceptable?

ATC: What do you see as the international implications?

MR: There are different levels. One is that it opens the door for other countries to do the same things. If you think it “necessary” then you can ignore or rewrite the Geneva Conventions to suit your purposes, and a number of countries have done exactly that. If we can do it, what prevents Pakistan or Thailand or any country with a “security problem” from saying they can do so too?

Second, among our allies and more democratic regimes, there will be a sense that this is just unacceptable. Third, wherever U.S. soldiers are captured they’ll be told, “you’re doing this to us and we’ll do it to you.” There’s also the argument that this makes it harder and more dangerous to capture people; if they’re likely to be tortured they’ll be less likely to allow themselves to be captured.

I don’t know how true that will turn out to be, but in any case it certainly weakens us all from a human rights standpoint, including the retroactive impunity for the crimes at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

I’ve just begun to see reports about this “enemy combatants” thing, that it might be interpreted that even American citizens can be designated enemy combatants and denied habeas corpus — by implication, U.S. citizens who give money to a charity that is later declared to be “linked to terrorism.”

I don’t know how long this will last. We’ll see how long it takes to get to the Supreme Court.

The only thing to be added is that there’s definitely a linkage between these two topics — the violations of human rights law in the Lebanon war and here at home. We have to find a way to hold governments and countries responsible for the international treaties and conventions they sign. It’s absurd that they can just ignore international law with impunity. Unless parties in conflict can be held accountable, there won’t be any change.

ATC 125, November-December 2006