Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty field investigator, wrote an interesting article about the challenges of fact finding in war situations.
One of her main points is that eyewitnesses are often unreliable. For example:
In Gaza, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and other places I interviewed civilians who described what they thought were artillery or bomb strikes being launched by far away government forces and striking near their homes – whereas in reality the loud bangs and tremors were caused by mortars or rockets being launched by opposition fighters from their positions nearby. For the untrained ear it is virtually impossible to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire, and all the more so for those who find themselves close to the frontlines.
Another factor she mentions:
Even if they disregard it, investigators must be alert to the fact that disinformation and misinformation can contribute to shaping the perception of events, the narrative surrounding the events, and the behaviour of people who take it in good faith and internalize it, including victims, witnesses, and others potential sources.
Here Rovera is referring to lies that spread quickly and then become widely believed – including by “unbiased” NGOs – before anyone has a chance to investigate. How many times have we seen that?
She gives a specific example from Gaza:
Fear can lead victims and witnesses to withhold evidence or give deliberately erroneous accounts of incidents. In Gaza, I received partial or inaccurate information by relatives of civilians accidentally killed in accidental explosions or by rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups towards Israel that had malfunctioned and of civilians killed by Israeli strikes on nearby Palestinian armed groups’ positions. When confronted with other evidence obtained separately, some said they feared reprisals by the armed groups.
Meaning that “eyewitnesses” will often claim that there was no terrorist activity in the area of an airstrike and Israel wantonly and indiscriminately killed people for no reason.
Unfortunately, in many cases the NGOs themselves are part of the problem. Rovera admits, a little elliptically:
Conflict situations create highly politicized and polarized environments, which may affect even individuals and organizations with a proven track record of credible and objective work. Players and interested parties go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate or manufacture “evidence” for both internal and external consumption.
It is a shame that Rovera didn’t include Amnesty International itself as being guilty of this, and she ascribes the lack of objectivity almost only to fake evidence that is created by one side rather than to the ideological desire to find war crimes when none exist.
They might strenuously deny it, but Amnesty and HRW have systemic biases against Israel. This article, while a step in the right direction, only scratches the surface of how NGOs themselves contribute to the culture of lies in order to issue their reports and maintain their funding without doing basic fact checks.
And while Rovera notes that some “eyewitnesses” act out of fear, she doesn’t go far enough. At least in the territories, the lies about Israel are repeated so often that the witnesses will often tell Western reporters and researchers what they expect to hear rather than what happened. This isn’t necessarily out of fear; it is part of their culture to ensure that Israel is always blamed no matter what. It saturates their media. I cannot count how many times “eyewitness” accounts were found to be complete fiction, and fear didn’t enter into the equation. However, many of the “witnesses” happen to work for the largest employer in the West Bank – the PA – which lies constantly.
Not to mention that many anti-Israel activists that will knowingly repeat the most outrageous lies to further their own agenda.
Lets hope that this article can at least open up the discussion of how inaccurate much of the reporting and research is about Israel, even from NGOs that pretend to be objective.