Israel’s 2014 conflict in Gaza left many with the media-generated impression that the IDF ignored international law and conducted itself with unusual brutality. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Noting the skewed reports, based on fundamental misunderstandings both of the facts and of the laws of war, Jamie Palmer looks at the role played by non-governmental organizations (NGOs):
Relative to their size, human-rights NGOs make a disproportionate contribution to public perceptions of international conflicts. These charities’ ostensible purpose is the dispassionate defense of universal human rights, and this lends moral authority to their claims and value judgments. Consequently, they enjoy a reputation for impartiality upon which news organizations rely to enhance the credibility of their reporting. . . . But reputations for impartiality should be earned, not presumed. . . .
Since [many of these] organizations consider [ending the Israeli presence in the West Bank] a moral imperative, they are incentivized to promote a strict narrative of Israeli criminality and Palestinian suffering in which Palestinian corruption and violence can play no useful role (unless they can be blamed on Israel). In 2015, the Israeli organization NGO Monitor reported that [the prominent Israeli anti-IDF group] Breaking the Silence’s donors were making funding dependent on publication of a minimum quota of negative testimonies from serving and former IDF soldiers. . . .
Larger international NGOs like Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Human Rights Watch have also increasingly taken political positions on contentious matters of international law. They too believe that [the situation in the West Bank and Gaza] is a human-rights emergency for which Israel bears full responsibility. So when Israel goes to war in Gaza, the legality of this or that airstrike is seen in the context of a worldview that holds Israel ultimately responsible for the fact that there’s a war being fought at all. If these three organizations believe there are any legitimate means by which Israel can successfully fight and win wars against terrorist groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah, we have yet to hear from them. . . .
Similar reporting on American military efforts in Iraq—likewise skewed by a presumption that the U.S. presence there was de-facto illegitimate—have encouraged apologists for Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin to argue that the brutal tactics used by these dictators are no worse than those used by Western democracies, as Palmer concludes:
Liberal democracies are not just valuable for the freedoms they afford their own citizens, but for the way in which they behave. The reckless practice of holding them to higher standards than those demanded of totalitarian actors, and the misrepresentations of international law this requires, has produced a morally disfigured view of the world and of the ethics of military conflict. It has made it harder for democracies to defend themselves or sell potentially costly humanitarian interventions to their own war-weary publics. It has helped to undermine the post-cold-war liberal order and empowered its most brutal and cynical enemies. Arresting this slide requires us to recover moral clarity and self-confidence. . . . The costs of continued confusion are already steep, and they are still rising.