During and after the Gaza War (December 2008 - January 2009), the network of political advocacy NGOs joined in broad condemnations of Israel, through unsupported allegations that the vast majority of Palestinian casualties were civilians. 

Similarly, the UN’s Goldstone Report, which is based almost entirely on the NGOs’ claims without independent analysis, repeated the accusations of disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Israel: “Only one of every five casualties was a combatant” (paragraph 361). In contrast, the Israeli military stated that of 1166 Palestinian deaths, 709 militants were killed in combat; the Israeli evidence was ignored or dismissed.  

However, in a November 2010 interview given by Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad to the Al-Hayat newspaper, Hamad acknowledged that 600-700 Hamas members were killed in the Gaza fighting. This more than doubles the number of combatants published by the NGOs’ and Goldstone’s unreliable version of events, and is another example of false claims used to justify indictments against Israel.

Based on these admissions, Goldstone and the NGOs have the moral obligation to immediately acknowledge the degree to which their allegations against Israel are unsupported.

NGO Casualty Claims

  • On January 21, 2009, PCHR alleged that there had been a total of 1,285 Palestinian deaths, among which 895 were civilians (nearly 70%). These figures were repeated in the Associated Press, Haaretz, Reuters Alertnet, and other media outlets. On March 12, 2009, PCHR released different numbers –  1,417 dead, of whom PCHR alleged 926 were civilians, 255 police officers, and 236 “resistance fighters” (65% civilians; 83% if police officers considered non-combatants).
  • On January 14, 2009, Al Mezan reported that only 13.9% of the deaths were “fighters.” Al Mezan further claimed (January 15, 2009) that “about 70% of IOF’s casualties of these attacks are from families who were hit inside their homes or as they left their homes to flee these areas. Most of the other victims were also civilians.”
  • During the fighting (December 31, 2008), B’Tselem accused the IDF of committing “war crimes” by “targeting” police personnel, claiming that these individuals were not “directly participating in the hostilities.”  B’Tselem based itself on controversial International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) guidelines, which use a highly disputed and unworkable definition of the standard for those “taking a direct part in hostilities.” (However, many ICRC legal consultants refused to support these broad guidelines.)
  • On September 9, 2009, B’Tselem released a Comprehensive Review of Gaza War Casualties, with revised figures and the admission that “many police officers in the Gaza Strip are also members of the military wings of Palestinian armed groups,” and therefore, combatants. However, by then, B’Tselem’s initial reports of higher numbers of civilian casualties had been repeated and adopted by major international media outlets and by the Goldstone Commission (see below). 
  • On April 14, 2010, Defence for Children International – Palestine Section (DCI-PS) published a list alleging that 352 children died “as a direct result of Israel's military offensive.” In contrast, PCHR claimed that 313 children were killed during the fighting.  
  • DCI-PS does not distinguish between civilians and combatants under the age of 18, and does not criticize the Palestinian terror groups for utilizing child soldiers. However, some of the individuals on DCI-PS’ list, such as Ibrahim Mostafa Fraih Sa’id and Ibrahim Abed al-Rahim Rajab Suliman, have been identified by B’Tselem and PCHR as combatants (Suliman’s age is 18 according to PCHR). In these instances, DCI-PS wrote, “Despite DCI-Palestine’s best endeavours to collect affidavits from eyewitnesses to [the child’s] death, no reliable evidence could be gathered.” 
  • For a more detailed analysis on the contradictory statistics of civilian death in the Gaza War, see NGO Monitor’s report, “The NGO Front in the Gaza War: Debate over Palestinian Casualties.”

Statistics as “Proof” of War Crimes

Media, UN, and NGO publications on the Gaza War largely centered on comparing unverifiable reports of Palestinian civilian casualties to Israeli casualties. The disparity was then cited as “proof” of disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks carried out by Israel against Gaza civilians, and as the basis for war crimes accusations.  

The number of casualties resulting from a military operation, however, is not a factor in determining whether a war crime has been committed.  Instead, international law requires assessments of information known to military commanders prior to an attack, such as enemy locations, presence of military objects, presence of civilians, anticipated harm to civilians, military advantage , and evidence of intent. 

NGOs focusing on political advocacy clearly do not have the expertise or access to details that would allow them to make these assessments.

Similarly, the sole reliance by NGOs on casualty figures provided by Palestinian sources for political purposes as the basis for charges of “war crimes” is one example of how NGOs distort international law in order to demonize Israel.  (See case study on Hamas terrorist Nizar Rayan.) NGOs also grossly inflate the number of civilian casualties, mislabel combatants as civilians, and make other false accusations to promote their political objectives.

The Goldstone Report

The “Palestinian casualties” section of the Goldstone Report cites PCHR, Al Mezan, and B’Tselem (pages 90-91). The report states 

“Statistics alleging that fewer than one out of five persons killed in an armed conflict was a combatant, such as those provided by PCHR and Al Mezan as a result of months of field research, raise very serious concerns about the way Israel conducted the military operations in Gaza. The counterclaims published by the Government of Israel fall far short of international law standards” (paragraph 361). 

In turn, the conclusions of the Goldstone Report were roundly endorsed by NGOs, particularly Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Conclusion: Will NGOs acknowledge the new information?

In a lecture at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (November 10, 2010), HRW founder Robert Bernstein noted the new Hamas numbers and their impact on the credibility of NGO reports: “It will be interesting to see if the Goldstone Report and Human Rights Watch reports are reevaluated by them – all of which took the [original] Palestinians’ figures as fact.”

Indeed, the new information proffered by Hamas necessitates corrections from NGOs such as B’Tselem, PCHR, and Al Mezan, as well as the media correspondents, UN officials, and others that presented the NGO statistics as authoritative. 

More importantly, though, this episode highlights the unreliability of NGO claims, and reinforces the need for careful and skeptical evaluation, instead of simply repeating the original biases. The Goldstone Report demonstrates the need to discard and reject such false “investigations” that simply consist of a collection of such NGO allegations.