The Israeli NGO B’Tselem has played a central role in allegations regarding civilian casualties during the 2014 war in Gaza. B’Tselem presents what it terms “initial” and “preliminary” data, but these are inherently unverifiable and based solely on information from Palestinian sources in Hamas-controlled Gaza. As the Israeli member of the UNOCHA NGO “Protection Cluster,” B’Tselem provides the appearance of credulity to the casualty claims disseminated by UNRWA/OCHA officials and repeated widely by journalists, political leaders, and others.
Lack of Independent Sources
- The primary source for casualty claims is the Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza.
- The NGO Protection Cluster framework, like similar “clusters” in other regions, is linked to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA-OPT). Three NGOs were designated to provide data: B’Tselem, Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). OCHA then acts as a “humanitarian coordination mechanism,” and “consolidates” and publicizes this information.
- However, in producing casualty claims for the “Protection Cluster” and in its own media campaigns, B’Tselem has no independent sources of information in Gaza, and as an Israeli organization, is unable to send personnel or verify information, particularly during major conflicts. Its only source of independent information is from telephone interviews with Gaza residents (details below), whose claims cannot be verified.
- In parallel, B’Tselem repeats claims from PCHR and Al Mezan – both Gaza-based NGOs that are closely linked to the Hamas agenda.
- PCHR and Al-Mezan are political organizations without credible methodologies for analysis of casualty claims, as shown in the January 2009 conflict (Cast Lead).
- They claim to distinguish between civilians or combatants by visiting Gaza hospitals and morgues. If there is no clear evidence (i.e., casualties with weapons), these NGOs claim to quiz family or organizations (Hamas, PIJ, etc.) on whether individuals were affiliated.
- These Gaza-based NGOs do not conduct background investigations. When the names are examined by the Terror Information Center in Israel, many “civilian” casualties were found to be members of terrorist groups.
- During the current conflict cases were reported of Gaza civilians killed by misfired rockets, including some that hit a hospital and a playground. Additional Gazan civilians have reportedly been killed by Hamas in fights at a food line, and Palestinian media reported that Hamas has executed “over 30 alleged collaborators with Israel in the past few days.” PCHR and Al Mezan did not mention these details, and it is not clear if they include the dead from these incidents in their lists, and whether they are listed as civilians “killed by Israel”. People who die from natural causes might be listed as “killed by Israel”. (Channel 10 news also reported that Hamas had shot and killed anti-war protesters in Gaza.)
- The lack of credibility of PCHR and Al Mezan is also reflected in their highly politicized agenda, including accusations that the IDF (“Israeli Occupation Forces”) is responsible for “massacres,” “war crimes,” and “disproportionate” and “criminal” attacks against civilians. Their allegations were a central component of the discredited 2009 Goldstone Report. During the 2009 conflict, PCHR’s civilian casualty claims were very similar to those provided by Hamas (via the Gaza Health Ministry), and later shown to be entirely unreliable. At the time, PCHR claimed that Gaza casualties were “1,167 non-combatants (82.2%) and 252 resistance activists (17.8%)”. In fact, more than half of the total were combatants.
- These NGOs fail to condemn Hamas human shielding through systematically placing civilians in close proximity to combatants and related facilities. In February 2012, PCHR stated that an IDF “warplane fired a missile at a training site used by Izz Addin al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, in Yafa Street…The bombardment resulted in damages to the neighboring establishments, especially Gaza Martyrs Boys Basic School.” PCHR and Al Mezan also fail to condemn indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, calling them “military actions.”
- PCHR and al Mezan are leaders in the “lawfare” strategy in Europe and via the International Criminal Court.
- These activities, including the role of B’tselem, involve support and funding from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “As part of the Protection Cluster, NRC co-chairs the Legal Taskforce in both the West Bank and Gaza. This brings together domestic legal aid NGOs and international stakeholders on a monthly basis to share legal information and co-ordinate legal assistance, research and court monitoring.” (http://www.nrc.no/?aid=9147817) (The NRC and its partners – UK and EU – are highly secretive, and Freedom of Information requests have been denied.)
- Thus, B’tselem’s role is to provide credibility to the casualty claims of two Gaza-based NGOs, via the UN framework and the “Protection Cluster”, but without any independent verificiation. As an Israeli organization with extensive contacts in international media and diplomatic circles, B’Tselem legitimizes and amplifies the biased and unsupported claims of OCHA, PCHR, Al Mezan, and the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Analysis of B’Tselem statements
- On July 14, Executive Director Hagai El-Ad claimed that B’Tselem was “issuing unequivocal public statements according to the information we have gathered” (emphasis added). This included unverifiable statistics regarding civilian casualties, subjective allegations of “unlawful” Israeli military actions (for which B’Tselem does not possess the required expertise), and unverifiable and emotive “testimonies” (irrelevant for analyzing the legal dimensions).
- On July 27, B’Tselem posted a “Note concerning testimonies about the ‘Protective Edge’ campaign” acknowledging that “With the current military campaign ongoing, B’Tselem is taking testimony from Gaza residents, mainly by telephone. B’Tselem verifies, to the best of its ability, the reliability and precision of the information reported; nevertheless, in these circumstances, reports may be incomplete or contain errors. Given the urgency of informing the public about events in Gaza, B’Tselem has decided to publish the information now available. When the military campaign ends, B’Tselem will supplement these reports as needed.” (emphasis added)
- In one political campaign related to its casualty data, B’Tselem created an audio advertisement with the names of Gaza children allegedly killed in the fighting and sought to air it on Israel’s public Broadcasting Authority (IBA) radio. However, due to the ad’s highly politicized nature, the station rejected it. B’Tselem released the ad on social media channels and petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice to compel the IBA to broadcast it. This incident was widely reported in Israeli media and used as the basis of further demonization campaigns against Israel internationally.