Human rights in the Middle East

In a report striking for its frank condemnation of a close ally, the State Department took Israel to task – along with the Palestinian Authority – for committing “numerous serious human rights abuses” last year. The release last week of the department’s annual country-by-country reports on human rights practices put a surprisingly detailed spotlight, and a fair one, on extreme measures taken by both sides during the armed conflict that erupted between them last September.

There was little, if any, new information in the department’s reports on Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories. But the clear-eyed and unvarnished accounts of extra-judicial killings, excessive force, vigilante violence, live fire against civilians and other abuses seemed unusually blunt, especially given America’s unshakably close relations with the Jewish state.

If anything, the Mideast report reflected deep frustration among American officials that their peace efforts, which brought the sides closer than ever before to a final agreement last July, had disintegrated into a maelstrom of violence. The document bore the thinking of both the Clinton administration officials who prepared it and the Bush administration team that issued it.

Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders rejected the criticism, each arguing, predictably, that the report was unfair to their particular circumstances. Not so. The open warfare known as the Al-Aqsa intifada, now in its sixth month, has been fueled by tit-for-tat retaliation and escalation by both sides. Neither is blameless. The report was right to describe the overall human rights record of each as “poor.”

The report stated that Israel’s security forces killed 307 Palestinians and injured at least 11,300 last year in armed clashes. More have died since. Israel was also rightly criticized for having “targeted for killing a number of Palestinians” who were accused by Israel of attacking, or plotting future attacks on, Jewish settlements or military targets. And Israeli forces were cited for using “excessive force” against Palestinian rioters.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry contends, not without merit, that Israeli actions “must be seen within the context of the current armed conflict, which has been marked by daily terrorist acts against Israeli civilians.” These included bombings, lynching, shootings, grenade and mortar attacks and 3,000 live ammunition assaults by Palestinians. At least 58 Israelis have been killed in the intifada. Given that, Israel argues its response is “proportionate, measured and responsible.”

For their part, Palestinian Authority security forces are accused in the report of killing members of Israel’s security forces, participating in armed attacks with Fatah’s Tanzim militants and abetting civilian violence against Israelis. But the report cautions it is not clear to what extent top Palestinian officials authorized such actions. Perhaps, but Israel makes a compelling case that Palestinians are incited to violence by their leaders. And Palestinians understandably counter they are responding to Israel’s occupation of their lands.

Nothing can justify terrorism like Thursday’s fatal highway bombing against Israel, but the human rights report ought to inspire soul-searching by both sides. It is a pragmatic recitation of the terrible costs and unnecessary abuses that deepen the cycle of violence. It is healthy for the United States to keep its eyes open and be willing to criticize its partners in the moribund peace process, even its closest ally in the region, when criticism is due.