B’Tselem’s lengthy 2007 Annual Report (47 pages in Hebrew and 54 pages in the English version) reflects this NGO’s dubious methodology, its misuse of international legal terms, and selective reporting in order to promote a political agenda. Many of the factual allegations are anecdotal and unverifiable, based on inconsistent methodology, contradictory claims, and the intra-Palestinian violence is given very limited attention. However, B’Tselem has also increased its condemnation of suicide bombings and rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians, calling these actions "war crimes" and "a grave breach of the right to life", according to international humanitarian law.
B’Tselem’s press release on its 2007 annual report, headlines "131 Palestinians who did not participate in the hostilities killed by Israel’s security forces in 2007," and laments a "deterioration" in the Human Rights situation in the Palestinian territories — primarily the "humanitarian" situation. However, B’Tselem’s methodology contains internal contradictions and selective reporting exposes its political agenda.
B’Tselem’s release "highlights" a list of condemnations of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. Even the positive step of the "approved family unification for some 3,500 Palestinian families" is dismissed as a "one-time gesture"; and the two "themes" which the NGO draws from its report are: 1) the exploitation of security threats by Israel allegedly to increase control over the Palestinians, and 2) the "lack of accountability of Israeli security forces." The summary includes 6 points claiming to focus on Israel’s violations of the right to water, family life, etc, with only one point noting that "the number of Palestinians killed in intra-Palestinian clashes was the highest throughout the Intifada."
B’Tselem’s methodology is problematic and often inconsistent. (See also Tamar Sternthal’s review of B’Tselem’s 2006 report, "B’Tselem’s Annual Casualty Figures Questioned"). B’Tselem identifies casualties according to their supposed activity at the moment of their death, and therefore describes "Palestinians killed while not engaged in hostilities," as civilians (page 5). However, according to the Statistics section of B’Tselem’s website, which details the circumstances of each victim’s death, among those listed in this category are known terrorists, Hamas officials, stone throwers (which can be lethal) and "civilians" used by Palestinian terrorists as human shields (whose deaths are the responsibility of the terrorists). This classification system is used despite High Court Justice Aharon Barak’s decision that it is legal for the IDF to target and kill terrorists, even if they are not involved in terrorist activities at the moment of their death. B’Tselem’s statistics therefore do not match the numbers published by the Israeli Shin Bet (Internal Security Services). According to an amended report issued by Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin on January 13, 2008, out of 1000 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces over the past two years, 810 were categorized terrorists. (By Shin Bet’s count, only 190 fatalities were civilians, while B’Tselem’s combined figures for 2006 and 2007 describe 453 civilians)
It is noteworthy that the Statistics section of B’Tselem’s website contradicts the statements made by the NGO in its Annual Report. For instance, B’Tselem documents that on November 28, 2007, Rami Hussein Sa’id Abu a-Rus and ‘Issam Sa’di Sbiyh Hamdan were killed by helicopter gunfire, but "did not participate in hostilities when killed". However, the "additional information" section on B’Tselem’s Statistics page reveals that they were both Hamas naval police officers and that their base was bombed in response to mortar shelling on Israel. A-Rus’ and Hamdan’s senior positions in Hamas indicate their terrorist ties, (all branches of Hamas are recognized as terrorist organizations by many countries worldwide, including the U.S.A and European Union).
Likewise, on November 25, 2007, Muhammad Zaki Muhammad Quzah "did not participate in hostilities when killed". Yet, B’Tselem notes that he was wanted by Israel, and news reports describe him as a "member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades," thereby negating his civilian cover. (It should also be noted that B’Tselem describes him as "drinking coffee" at the time of his death, whereas numerous news sources report that he was fleeing arrest). Furthermore, over the course of the year, 54 Palestinians were killed while attempting to cross the security barrier into Israel (page Heb7/Eng8). B’Tselem ignores the fact that, on many occasions, Palestinians attempting to cross the barrier do so with the aim of carrying out terror attacks within Israel. By B’Tselem’s own count in this report, 38 of those 54 casualties were armed and involved in hostilities against Israel when killed.
On several occasions, B’Tselem published clearly contradictory statements. For example, in the Statistics section of its website, the group claims that Wadi’a Khalil Mustafa Samarah "did not participate in hostilities when killed," while the next sentence indicates that he was actually engaged in throwing stones at soldiers. (In some circumstances, stone-throwing is lethal.)
B’Tselem’s problematic methodology is also apparent in its frequent reliance on eyewitness testimonies in its own research and in its demand that Israel collect eyewitness accounts in its investigations of civilian deaths (pages Heb10, Eng28), despite the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony. According to Laura Engelhardt’s "The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony" published in the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies, "By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory… Eyewitness testimony, then, is innately suspect". Moreover, B’Tselem cites statistics collected by the Palestinian Health Ministry tallying the number of Palestinian deaths as a result of their inability to reach Israeli hospitals, without providing any corroborating evidence (page Heb14/ Eng 17). Clearly, Palestinians have an interest in inflating these claims. (In contrast, B’Tselem does not afford Israeli government statistics the same credibility – the NGO expressed "surprise" at the Shin Bet’s 2007 casualty figures when they differed from B’Tselem’s count.)
In addition, throughout the report, B’Tselem consistently employs the "halo effect", blindly citing figures collected and published by other NGOs. For instance, it cites Yesh Din’s conclusion that only 10% of cases filed by Palestinians against settlers in 2005 resulted in indictments (page Heb 31/ Eng 36). These figures are repeated without further investigation and directly contradict Israeli police findings that 151 (60%) of the 250 such cases filed resulted in indictments. (B’Tselem does not specify why the inclusion of figures from 2005 is relevant to its annual report for 2007). B’Tselem also repeatedly cites the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and HaMoked (pages Heb 11, 22, 28, 38, 46), despite their own credibility deficits and clear political agendas.
Reporting the facts to promote a political agenda
B’Tselem frequently manipulates facts to promote its biased political agenda. For example, on November 4, 2007, three security guards at a factory in Gaza were killed by a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter, targeting terrorists shooting rockets at Israel from the site of the factory. The terrorists used the guards as human shields, yet B’Tselem counts these casualties among those killed "while not engaged in hostilities." The statistical implication is that Israel is responsible for their deaths, yet B’Tselem later acknowledges the responsibility of the terrorists in such cases (page Heb10/ Eng 12).
B’Tselem creates a false impression of excessive Israeli use of force, attempting to persuade readers through questionable statistics and high numbers. The use of statistics is particularly misleading when juxtaposed with the "low" number of Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists over the same period of time. While tallying Palestinian deaths, B’Tselem begins with a total, all-inclusive number and only afterwards distinguishes between civilian casualties and terrorists’ deaths. Yet, the exact opposite is done with regards to Israeli casualties. First, B’Tselem states that seven Israeli civilians were killed in 2007 by Palestinian terror organizations, in suicide bombings, rocket attacks and shootings. B’Tselem next adds that six more Israelis, soldiers and policemen, were also killed over the year. Finally, B’Tselem asserts that "this is the lowest number of Israeli civilian casualties since the beginning of the Intifada", but fails to acknowledge that the decrease in Israeli deaths is due to an improvement of security measures, rather than to a moderation of the violence. And of course there is no moral equivalence or valid comparison between the deaths of terrorist victims, on the one hand, and the perpetrators of this violence, on the other.
B’Tselem also praises the decrease in Palestinian rocket attacks, despite the fact that they remain numerous and continue to terrorize the residents of Sderot and surroundings on a regular basis (monthly average: 109 – page Heb 10/ Eng 12). However, to its credit, B’Tselem does consider suicide bombings and rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians as "war crimes" and "a grave breach of the right to life", according to international humanitarian law (page Heb 10/ Eng 12). It also stresses the universal responsibility to abide by such laws, whether or not the group one belongs to has ratified this treaty, one considers the "occupation" legal or the civilians targeted live in legal or illegal settlements.
Only toward the end of the document does B’Tselem address internal Palestinian fighting, which killed 346 (among them 71 civilians and 24 children) in 2007 and injured thousands more (page Heb 45/ Eng 52). Although the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are accused of much worse human rights abuses than Israel ("a sharp rise in grave human rights violations," such as torture, extra-judicial executions and abductions), the fact that this section is placed at the very end of such a long report, and is barely mentioned in the press release, diminishes its significance and the attention given to it by the reader. In total, B’Tselem devotes only 4 pages to violations of human rights by Palestinians (pages Heb10, 45-47/ Eng12, 52-54), while Heb 43/ Eng 50 pages are devoted to Israel. No condemnation of Palestinian honor killings or their persecution of Palestinian Christians may be found anywhere in this document.
Use of International Legal Rhetoric
Throughout its report, B’Tselem makes generalized statements condemning Israel, referring to international humanitarian law without citing specific provisions. For instance, it claims that Israel is not observing the principle of proportionality and engages in operations in which the harm to civilians is greater than the anticipated military gains (page Heb 7/ Eng 9). To support its allegation, B’Tselem focuses on the claimed civilian casualties without analyzing the military advantage of the operation or its intent – both critical factors under the legal standard.
Furthermore, B’Tselem repeatedly minimizes Israel’s security concerns. The NGO claims that “[e]ven in cases in which restrictions are imposed for security reasons, it is doubtful that they accord with the principle of proportionality. In many cases, the way in which restrictions are imposed raises doubts as to whether they are indeed rationally tied to the declared security aim” (page Heb18/ Eng 24). B’Tselem ignores the fact that the checkpoints have been instrumental in preventing attacks against civilians within Israel. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the first 6 months of 2005 alone, "389 Palestinians, among these potential suicide bombers… wanted terrorists and those suspected of terror activities," were apprehended at checkpoints.
On page Heb 11/ Eng 13, B’Tselem blames the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza on Israel’s isolation of the area. No mention is made of Hamas as a terrorist organization which has prompted many Western governments to cease direct funding. B’Tselem argues that under international humanitarian law, Israel remains responsible for the welfare of Palestinians in Gaza, despite the August 2005 disengagement (page Heb 14/ Eng 18), and that its current policy constitutes “collective punishment”. B’Tselem insists that Israel should allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that in the week of January 7-14, 2008 alone, two trucks labeled as humanitarian aid were found to contain explosive materials used by Palestinian terror organizations to produce rockets and bombs. B’Tselem also claims that, according to international humanitarian law, Israel is responsible for the security of the Palestinians in the West Bank, as the “occupying power” (page Heb 30/ Eng 35). B’Tselem’s continued branding of Israel as an occupying force in Gaza, however, directly contradicts the definition of occupation in Article 6 of the 1949 Geneva Convention. (See also "B’Tselem’s Gaza Report – Ideology Instead of Facts," NGO Monitor, March 13, 2007)
B’Tselem’s annual report ends with a general statement that international humanitarian law applies equally to every nation and regime worldwide, and that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority must abide by its principles. This is a responsible and important change by B’Tselem, but its effectiveness is blunted by being placed at the end of the long report.
As in its May 2007 report on the alleged torture of Palestinians by the Israel Security Agency, which was shown to contain numerous errors, B’Tselem’s Annual Report for 2007 reveals the NGO’s political agenda and promotion of the Palestinian narrative. In order to promote this goal, B’Tselem presents unverifiable statistical evidence gathered with a questionable methodology, and manipulates international humanitarian law.