NGO Monitor has prepared this submission to inform and improve the process by which the State Department prepares its annual Human Rights Report on Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza. This document highlights deficiencies in the 2017 State Department publication, as well as noting key areas of concern regarding 2018.
As in previous iterations, the 2017 State Department Human Rights Report on Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza relies heavily on data provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, the 2017 edition did recognize the potential biases of many of these groups, noting, “In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations.” This represents an important development that should lead to careful examination of NGO claims. Other countries producing human rights assessments, as well as the United Nations, would do well to acknowledge this point and change their human rights assessment procedures accordingly.
Part 1: Issues from the 2017 report – Israel and Golan Heights section
Reliance on PFLP-linked sources
Of particular concern is the references to NGOs with ties to terrorist organizations. In several instances, the 2017 report cites Palestinian organizations Addameer, Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), and Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), all of which are closely linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP is designated as a terrorist organization by the Treasury Department.
Addameer and DCI-P have current and former board members, officials, and employees who are members of the PFLP – and some have been convicted of terror offences such as planning and carrying out attacks targeting Israeli civilians and public figures. Similarly, PCHR’s founder and director, Raji Sourani, acknowledged his own membership in the terror group, was publicly honored by the PFLP, and took part in that organization’s events such as a book launch celebrating PFLP Secretary General Ahmed Saadat.
The 2017 document also makes reference to the arrest of Salah Hamouri “Palestinian field researcher of the NGO Addameer.” Absent is any mention of Hamouri’s 2005 arrest and imprisonment for plotting to assassinate former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in a troubling example of erasure of this group’s terror ties. Hamouri has also been photographed with convicted terrorists, including Marwan Barghouti and Samir Kuntar. He has also posed, holding a PFLP flag, alongside Ahmed Sa’adat, and the terrorist organization has referred to him as a “comrade.”
The 2017 report also emphasized harsh criticism of Israel’s use of administrative detention of Palestinian minors, based on NGO allegations. A 2013 working paper, produced by the Office of the Special Representative of the UN General-Secretary for Children and Armed Conflict, states the use of the tactic is “lawful” when it is “provided for and carried out in accordance with national law and accompanied by certain procedural safeguards for children, including regular judicial review.” According to the Israel Prison Service (IPS), at the end of December 2017, 2 Palestinian minors, aged 16-18, were held in administrative detention. Therefore, it appears that the inclusion of this issue in the State Department report reflected the NGO campaigns, rather than the substance.
The 2017 document frequently cites the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) and its allegations of Israeli violations of the Convention Against Torture (CAT). PCATI reports are characterized by a heavy reliance on anonymous sources, making it nearly impossible to verify their claims, to understand the context of different behaviors, or to draw conclusion regarding the extent of the alleged infractions. . Military Court Watch (MCW), another political NGO cited in this context, similarly quotes anonymous and unverifiable sources.
Part 2: Issues from the 2017 report – West Bank and Gaza section
Allegations that Cite PCHR
The 2017 report cites PCHR, particularly in the context of reporting on terrorist attacks and armed clashes.
PCHR is a non-credible, unreliable source of information. Specifically, the group has a history of distorting Palestinian violence, advocating on behalf of terrorists, and making politically motivated charges of Israeli “war crimes.” Its director, Raji Sourani, is closely tied to the PFLP terrorist organization (see above “Reliance on PFLP-linked sources”). Following a terror attack in which three Israeli security personnel were killed outside the community of Har Adar on September 26, 2017, PCHR posted the following description of the attack on its website: “Israeli forces killed Nemer Mahmoud Jamal (37) from Beit Sorik village, northwest of occupied Jerusalem when 4 Israeli Border Guard officers at the entrance to ‘Har Adar’ settlement opened fire at him. Moreover, three Israeli soldiers were killed and the fourth was wounded.” This account inverts the actions of the terrorist who opened fire at the entrance to the community, and the security personnel who responded to the attack. During the 2014 Gaza War, PCHR was designated – with other NGOs — by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to provide casualty statistics.
These statistics were provided by the Hamas Ministry of Health, and many individuals identified as “civilians” killed during the conflict were actually found to be combatants and members of terror groups.
PCHR also frequently accuses Israel of committing “war crimes” including in the context of the 2010 rededication of a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The organization has defended the PA’s “pay-for-slay” policy, with Sourani declaring in July 2017 that “the decision of suspending former prisoners’ salaries was shocking to the prisoners, their families and all Palestinians as it is illegal, immoral, and violates the Basic Law and the international human rights law.”
In November 2016, PCHR co-authored a submission to Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the Palestinian Territories, on “Human Rights Defenders in the OPT…highlight[ing] the repressive environment within which human rights defenders (HRDs) work in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” The submission referred to Manal Tamimi, a fieldworker for the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC), as a “human rights defender.” Tamimi frequently utilizes antisemitic and violent rhetoric and imagery on social media. In August 2015, Tamimi tweeted, “I do hate Israel, i (sic) wish a thrid Intefada (sic) coming soon and people rais (sic) up and kills all these zionist settlers everywhere.”
PCHR has also called on international bodies to sanction Israel and to boycott Israeli products, underscoring their biased motivations.
MCW-HaMoked torture claims
Military Court Watch (MCW) and HaMoked allege that “Israeli authorities did not allow Palestinian detainees, including minors, access to a lawyer during their initial arrest.” By law, all prisoners have the right to consult with an attorney. And no detainees, whether Israeli or Palestinian, and whether the venue is civilian or military court, have the right to have an attorney present during interrogation. Critically, there is no international standard that requires lawyers to be present during interrogation.
Also significant, HaMoked has consistently worked to expand the definition of torture, beyond what is agreed in the Convention Against Torture (CAT). For example, in a 2016 submission to the CAT monitoring group, the group complained that Israel had limited visitation rights to Palestinian prisoners following the abduction – and then murder- of 3 Israeli teenagers by Hamas. Therefore, HaMoked allegations of torture must be particularly scrutinized to ensure that they are referring to practices proscribed by CAT.
Part 3: 2018 Human Rights Concerns
Gaza border violence
Responding to the violence along the Gaza border during the “Great March of Return,” many NGOs leveled repeated accusations that Israel employed “disproportionate use of force” against “protestors” who were “posing no imminent threat at the time they were shot.” However, these actors often lack access to the necessary information including knowledge of the rules of engagement, who was targeted and why, whether the individual was civilian or combatant; whether the civilian was directly participating in hostilities, what information was known to the military actor prior to the ordering of an attack; and whether ordering the attack was reasonable under the given circumstances. NGOs that make legal and factual conclusions outside of their area of competence and in the absence of verified knowledge is therefore not credible.
Several NGOs also invoked a legal standard of “imminent threat to life” ostensibly to determine the legality of IDF actions on the border. This represents the application of a domestic law enforcement paradigm, not suited to situations of international armed conflict. If Gaza is “occupied” as many organizations claim, the latter is definitively the applicable legal paradigm.
A credible appraisal of the conflict and clashes along the border requires consideration of the wider context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. These clashes are part of a protracted armed conflict, as evidenced by the organized attempts to storm the Israeli border and maraud in civilian communities near Gaza, as well as the terror affiliations of most of the casualties. Credible fact-finding also requires examining violations by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in detail, including fire kites and other incendiary devices launched indiscriminately from Gaza; deliberate burning of agricultural fields; intentional mass burning of tires; launching of rockets and mortars on the civilian population; co-locating rockets and other military infrastructure within civilian buildings; machine gun fire on border communities; use of human shields including children; recruitment and use of child soldiers; and incitement by Palestinian actors. NGO reports that erase these critical aspects are not reliable sources.
NGO reliance on selected “eye witness testimonies” is another major methodological flaw. For example, a 13 June press release from HRW accusing Israel of “apparent war crimes in Gaza” (as well as a similar statement from 14 May) is based on interviews with a handful of Palestinian participants, most of whom were wounded in the violent riots. Given that tens of thousands of individuals were present at the protests, HRW does not reveal how or why it selected these nine individuals, does not provide readers with the questions asked to the interviewees, fails to note whether translators were used, and does not note whether Hamas or other terror officials were present during the interview. HRW does not state whether it was able to verify interviewee claims.
In addition to unverifiable interview claims, HRW, like many other NGOs, relies on the “Gaza Ministry of Health” (aka Hamas officials) for casualty information. HRW also cites the PFLP-linked DCI-P for details regarding children killed in the violence. Thus, the use of HRW as a source by the State Department is inconsistent with fact-finding requirements.
Multiple NGOs have participated in the campaign accusing Israel of abusing Palestinian minors in detention. These reports frequently distort and decontextualize data and misrepresent key facts.
NGO reporting on this issue often cites DCI-P, directly or indirectly. As an organization with close ties to the PFLP terrorist group, DCI-P is a flagrantly unreliable source of information. DCI-P and allied NGOs castigate for prosecuting Palestinian minors in military courts. However, that criticism ignores the fact that international law requires Israel to use these courts. Applying Israeli civilian law would require annexation of the territory.
Moreover, these reports make no mention of the fact that the procedural and evidentiary rules in the Israeli civilian and military court systems are nearly identical. In addition, the military courts only have jurisdiction over a small subset of terrorism- and security-related crimes committed in the West Bank.
The number of Palestinian minors detained per year is miniscule, and pales in comparison to arrests of minors in Western countries, including in the US. According to the State Department’s 2017 Human Rights Report, as of October 19, 2017, 282 Palestinian minors from the West Bank and Gaza were held in Israeli prisons – representing a mere 0.02% of Palestinian minors in the West Bank. Similarly, NGOs often cite the DCI-P claim that between 500-700 Palestinian minors are detained annually by Israel. Based on April 2017 data published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) DCI-P’s high range of 700 yearly arrests represents only 0.05% of Palestinian youth in that region. In comparison, the Department of Justice reported that over 850,000 US minors were arrested in 2016, representing over 1.1% of that population, without the backdrop of armed conflict. In addition, according to military court statistics, only around half of detained Palestinian minors are prosecuted by Israel. The remainder are released shortly after arrest or transferred to the Palestinian Authority. In addition, in considering this issue, it is important to note the involvement of Palestinian minors in terrorism.
Another source of NGO reporting on this issue is UNICEF documentation. However, UNICEF does not have its own data collection capacity, but rather works closely with DCI-P and Addameer, an official PFLP affiliate, and uses the claims made by these NGOs. These close relationships undermine the credibility of UNICEF reports.
The 2013 UNICEF report on Israel, cited by MCW, claims that “mistreatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic, and institutionalized.” As demonstrated by the small number of cases, Israeli actions cannot be considered widespread. Moreover, the numerous Israeli legal safeguards, designed to ensure that minors are treated respectfully, are tried fairly and are informed of their rights proves that any abuses that occur are not the result of “systematic” or “institutionalized” behavior.
These unreliable sources of information often lead to grave misrepresentations of international law, and Israel’s compliance with it. For example, DCI-P, UNICEF, and their NGO partners claim that minors are placed in solitary confinement. However, international and domestic law forbids minors from being held with the adult population. Therefore, if a sole minor is arrested, they must be held separately from incarcerated adults. This is also an issue to be considered in the compilation of the US State Department report for 2018.
Israel’s BDS law
In April 2018, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced that it would not renew the work visa granted in April 2017 to HRW employee Omar Shakir, a long-time pro-BDS activist. This decision was based on the fact that Shakir’s visa had expired and under Israel’s BDS law, which allows for the denial of entry to figures active in launching BDS attacks against the country. Of course, under international law, Israel retains the sovereign right to admit or deny entry to foreign nationals for whatever reason.
In its response to the decision, HRW and its local lawyer, Michael Sfard, make the false claim that “neither HRW – nor Shakir as its representative – advocate for boycott, divestment or sanctions against companies that operate in the settlements, Israel or Israelis (sic).”
In reality, both HRW and Shakir repeatedly have demonized Israel, including calls for boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israeli and other companies and businesses.
Shakir has been personally involved in targeting the Israeli banking sector, Israeli football clubs, and American companies (e.g. Airbnb) with BDS campaigns. In September 2017, HRW called on “institutional investors” to divest from Israeli banks. Shakir has also supported calls for an arms embargo against Israel.
Nevertheless, the government has allowed Shakir to remain in Israel while his case is pending.
Ahed Tamimi release
On December 19, 2017, the IDF arrested Ahed Tamimi. She was subsequently charged with assaulting IDF soldiers in a filmed incident, as well as inciting to violence. In a separate video clip, Tamimi clearly encourages suicide bombing and other acts of terrorism, saying, “Whether it is stabbings or martyrdom operations or throwing stones, everyone must do his part and we must unite in order for our message to be heard that we want to liberate Palestine.”
On July 29, 2018, Tamimi was released, following the completion of her 8-month sentence. Interviews conducted with her after her incarceration depict a stay in jail that stands in stark contrast to the claims made by PFLP-associated NGOs such as DCI-P and Addameer. When asked by an interviewer as to how she spent her time in prison, Tamimi answered, “There were many things I did there. As I stated I took the law course…we spent a lot of time on it…studying for high school. I was reading books, we were singing, we even made group breakfasts, ever room bringing their own things, and we had breakfast together outside, also having lunch together most of the time. We also had parties, we were singing and dancing, many things, we spent our time together, like watching TV, and jumping in the rooms and going crazy. We did many things.” (Translated from the original Arabic by Stand With Us),
Restrictions on Movement
A number of incidents in 2018 highlighted the troubling nexus of humanitarian and diplomatic personnel and terrorism. Consideration of Israeli restrictions regarding the flow of goods and individuals into and out of Gaza must recognize the abuse of humanitarian frameworks by terror-linked actors.
In March, Israel indicted an employee at the French Consulate in Jerusalem for involvement in smuggling weapons for Hamas from Gaza to the West Bank.
On April 6, 2018, Israeli forces killed Yaser Murtaja on the Gaza border. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman later identified Murtaja as a Hamas officer, involved in the terror group’s drone program. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), he was scheduled to begin working for the organization shortly after he died.
On August 20, 2018, Hani Majdalawi opened fired and lobbed a grenade at Israeli forces on the Gaza border. Majdalawi was killed in the exchange of fire. He was later identified as a member of Medecins Sans Frontier (MSF-Doctors Without Borders).
In November 2018, the Israel Security Service (ISS) announced that it had foiled a Hamas plot to launch suicide bombings against Israelis which relied on Gazans with medical permits to enter Israel to pass messages and information to terrorists in the West Bank.
Recruitment and Use of Minors in Terrorist Activity
Palestinian and Israeli NGOs, and UN bodies such as UNICEF, were regularly critical of Israel’s detention of Palestinian minors. These groups were mostly silent in the face of violence committed by Palestinian minors, as well as mass incitement by Palestinian officials, and their recruitment into terrorist organizations.
On May 14, 2018, Islamic Jihad announced the deaths of three of its members, killed in clashes with Israeli forces on the Gaza border, including a 17 year-old.
On July 26, 2018, 17 year-old Tareq Yousef stabbed Yotam Ovadia to death and injured two additional Israeli civilians, in an attack on the West Bank community of Adam.
On September 16, 2018, 17 year-old Khalil Jabarin stabbed US citizen Ari Fuld to death at a shopping center in the West Bank region called Gush Etzion.
The direct involvement of Palestinian minors in acts of terror has been a trend in attacks since October 2015.
Nation State Bill
The disparate narratives surrounding the Nation State Bill serve as a cautionary tale for overreliance on political NGOs. Detractors of the proposed legislation argued that it could not be reconciled with democratic values, while supporters presented it as codification of the de-facto state of affairs in the country. These pronouncements were premature, often reflecting the political preferences of their authors.
Absent from most NGO commentary on the subject was a fact-based, nuanced presentation of the legal significance of the proposal. Often lacking was an analysis of how, if at all, the bill would inform judicial rulings in Israel, or how its application would be influenced by other Basic Laws.
NGOs on both sides of the issue sought to influence the public perception of the bill, without doing much to increase understanding about the practical ramifications of its implementation. Therefore, when reporting on this development, the State Department should seek out pluralistic representation of Israeli legal experts, capable of assessing its legal impact.
As demonstrated throughout this submission, NGO claims concerning human rights practices often lack credibility and should not be relied upon without independent verification. The factual and legal basis for their allegations of human rights violations and international crimes is frequently methodologically flawed and driven by political agendas, leading to misleading and distorted analyses.
NGO Monitor strongly recommends that the State Department subject such NGO claims to careful scrutiny and refrain from repeating NGO claims without independent verification. At the very least, the claims of politicized NGOs should not be presented at face value, and each controversial NGO statement should compared with the official Israeli version. In particular, the State Department should refrain from relying upon accounts produced by NGOs that are tied to terrorist organizations.
Such steps are essential to ensure the credibility, objectivity, and accuracy of the documents produced by the State Department.