B’Tselem’s summer 2007 booklet "The Gaza Strip – One Big Prison" paints a picture of Israel as an aggressor and occupier with full control of the Gaza Strip, that does not perform its humanitarian responsibility to the Palestinians and imprisons them in their own land. To its credit, B’Tselem has occasionally included the context of terror and acknowledged Israel’s security concerns, but its selective choice of facts, disproportionate focus, and the use of one-sided photographs, demonstrates the primacy it places on ideological campaigning over accuracy.
B’Tselem’s "The Gaza Strip – One Big Prison" booklet is a powerful example of the sophisticated public relations machine involved in NGO campaigns. The text and images are skillfully combined to promote B’Tselem’s political agenda: Israel as the persistent occupier, besieging Gaza and creating a humanitarian crisis. Yet, careful analysis shows that B’Tselem’s arguments lack coherence and largely rely on unverifiable anecdotal evidence. This is particularly pronounced in claims regarding the number of "civilian" casualties which are repeated and compounded by superpower partner NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Christian Aid.
The booklet states on the back cover: "Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into the largest prison on earth, while at the same time renouncing responsibility for the lives and welfare of its residents." The entire publication is premised on this statement, although its veracity (and that of other claims) is never proven. There is no attempt to conduct a serious analysis of the nature of Israel’s responsibility to Gaza following Disengagement, or an investigation of who is responsible for the deteriorating conditions. The result is a diatribe of demonizing claims against Israel, which exploits the rhetoric of universal human rights.
Israel as "Occupier"
Throughout the report, B’Tselem confuses one-sided emotional claims with international legal obligations. For example, B’Tselem ignores the official definition of "occupier" in international law as one who performs the functions of local government. According to Article 6 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949, "the Occupying Power shall be bound… to the extent that such Power exercises the functions of government in such territory". (On this basis, Abraham Bell of Bar Ilan and Fordham University Law School argues that "There is no legal basis for maintaining that Gaza is occupied territory.") Instead, the NGO minimizes the role of Hamas as the elected governing authority in Gaza and claims that Israel still acts as an occupier with all the legal responsibilities that accompany that status, "whether you call it occupation or not" (page 2).
B’Tselem repeatedly argues that Israel is entirely responsible for Palestinian movement into and out of Gaza. Although B’Tselem mentions that the south-western Rafah crossing is controlled by the Palestinian Authority in conjunction with Egypt and monitored by EU representatives (page 6), it nevertheless insists that the Palestinians’ inability to travel for study or medical care is entirely Israel’s responsibility.
B’Tselem repeatedly asserts that Israel is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The section on pages 12-13, "Value Added Tax", shows Palestinian men, women and children struggling over a sack of rice, provided by an international relief agency. B’Tselem blames Israel for withholding tax monies from the Palestinian Authority, since Hamas came to power. Yet, the NGO fails to mention that Hamas is a terrorist entity which refuses to renounce violence or recognize the State of Israel, and that many other Western states have also ceased diplomatic ties with Hamas. B’Tselem also ignores evidence showing how Hamas diverts humanitarian aid, as on February 7, 2008, when it confiscated 10 trucks of food and medication sent to Gaza by the Jordanian Red Crescent Society.
On the spread entitled "An Economy to Chains" on pages 10-11, B’Tselem claims that "Israel has complete control over imports to and exports from Gaza, bringing its economy to the brink of collapse." While acknowledging that "clearly… Israel has genuine security concerns regarding Karni," the authors assert that on many occasions, the crossing has been closed for no valid reason, without providing evidence to back these claims. Moreover, this report ignores the fact that many terrorists have been caught at the crossing attempting to smuggle themselves and their explosives, such as on the night of January 13, 2005, when terrorists entered Israel via Karni and killed six Israeli civilians.
B’Tselem’s descriptions of Israeli actions appear chosen to create an image of strength and brutality:
- Israel "responded forcefully" and with "massive force" to the 2800 rocket attacks (at the time of writing) since disengagement in August 2005.
- B’Tselem further claims that "Israel intentionally destroyed the only power station in the Gaza Strip in June 2006", ignoring the fact that this operation followed the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
B’Tselem omits the context of terror and often implies that Israel is deliberately or at the very least, recklessly, targeting civilians in statements such as "Palestinians close to the perimeter fence, including children, have been shot dead."
B’Tselem attempts to reinforce this claim through repetition of casualty statistics. For instance, the NGO repeatedly alleges that Israel has killed 668 Palestinians, "including 359 who took no part in the fighting" without providing sources. The unreliability of B’Tselem casualty statistics is a frequent subject of analysis (see also "NGO Monitor’s Analysis of B’Tselem’s Annual Report for 2007" March 13, 2008).
B’Tselem does provide some valuable context at the beginning of the booklet, stating that Palestinians have launched 2800 rockets and mortar shells on Israel from the Gaza Strip over the past two years, resulting in an Israeli military response. It also affirms that internal fighting among Palestinian factions is responsible for numerous Palestinian deaths. Moreover, B’Tselem correctly acknowledges Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism and to prioritize its own security. The text asserts that "international donors must insist that the Palestinian Authority respect international law and hold accountable all Palestinians who target Israeli civilians" (page 3).
However, context (especially that of terror) is starkly lacking with regard to specific events. For instance, on page 4, B’Tselem suggests that Israel deliberately blocks Palestinians’ access to the Gaza seashore, denying trade opportunities and fishermen their livelihood. B’Tselem ignores the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly employed marine routes to smuggle weapons. Most notoriously, on January 3, 2002, the IDF seized a ship, Karine A, containing 50 tons of arms and explosives ordered by the Palestinian Authority from Iran and Hezbollah, sailing toward the beaches of the Gaza Strip
Anecdotal accounts of Palestinian suffering
A broad red band is printed at the bottom of each page, containing personal stories of devastation. Out of nine accounts, only one is from an Israeli point-of-view, a highly disproportionate imbalance that reflects much greater sympathy for the Palestinian position. These narrators essentially serve as "eyewitnesses", reinforcing the report’s arguments by illustrating its claims. However, like all "eyewitnesses", these people have their own agendas and the claims cannot be verified. On page 5, a mother explains how helicopter fly-overs cause her daughter, Miriam, to "wet her pants". Such explicit descriptions of fear resulting from terrorism in Israeli children do not figure in the booklet.
Use of pseudo-legal language
The booklet ends with powerful pseudo-legal language vaguely citing "international humanitarian law", without providing specific sources. For example, B’Tselem twists the legal standard of proportionality by claiming that "even attacking military targets is prohibited if the attack will cause disproportionate harm to civilians". This statement omits the concept of military advantage, the requisite legal standard of intent, and fails to provide a definition of what constitutes "disproportionate" harm. (See "International Law and Gaza: The Assault on Israel’s Right to Self-Defense, Abraham Bell, JCPA, Vol. 7, No. 29, 28 January 2008 ) Although B’Tselem asserts that "these rules are universal", the text of the booklet demonstrates B’Tselem’s unbalanced application of these concepts, as it attributes almost complete responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to Israel.
Use of photographs and images
The booklet makes extensive use of images to convey B’Tselem’s political message on an emotional level. Color photographs occupy three-quarters of the booklet. Each pair of facing pages is covered by a provocative image on a particular subject, ranging from humanitarian needs to the collapse of the Palestinian economy. The red color dominates these pages, evoking blood. For instance, two schoolgirls in uniform walk across the cover page past a pile of rubble. A red silhouette of the Gaza Strip is superimposed over the image.
Another recurring motif is that of the barbed wire and vertical metallic bars, which appear prominently in three of the pictures (pages 2-3, 6-7, 10-11), reinforcing the image of Gaza as a prison.. This motif portrays the Palestinians as victims and evokes imagery reminiscent of the Holocaust, transforming the earlier victim into the aggressor. Even more poignant is the man behind the fence with his hands clasped together in prayer position (pages 6-7). (There are no photographs of Israelis in the booklet).
B’Tselem repeatedly claims that "Israel Cannot Disengage from its Responsibility". This phrase serves as a slogan stamped diagonally at the bottom of each picture. Yet, it ignores Israel’s continued provision under fire of fuel, electricity and medical supplies, essential to the livelihood and survival of the Palestinian people.
B’Tselem’s summer 2007 booklet "The Gaza Strip – One Big Prison" paints a very one-sided and politicized image of Israel as an aggressor and occupier with full control of the Gaza Strip. To its credit, while B’Tselem includes some context and acknowledges Israel’s security concerns, its selective portrayal of facts, disproportionate focus on Israeli actions and the use of powerful photographs, demonstrates the primacy it places on campaigning over accuracy.