NGO Monitor, a project of the Institute for NGO research, has prepared this submission to inform and improve the process by which the State Department prepares its annual Human Rights Report on Israel, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza. As our previous analyses note, improvements have been made in recent reports. Nevertheless, the 2018 report exhibits several shortcomings, particularly in its source material. The following document highlights these deficiencies, offers recommendations, and discusses areas of concern in advance of the drafting of the 2019 report.
As in years prior, the 2018 report relies heavily on data provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In contrast to similar reports published by other governments, the State Department includes a caveat that “In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations. The Department of State assesses external reporting carefully but does not conduct independent investigations in all cases.” Still, as acknowledged, such sources are used throughout the report, sometimes as the sole source on a specific issue.
It is crucial that the State Department continue to not just note, but also critically evaluate NGO sources. Other countries producing human rights assessments, as well as the United Nations, would do well to change their human rights assessment procedures accordingly.
Part 1: Issues from the 2018 Israel and the Golan Heights Report
Gaza Border Violence
The 2018 report repeatedly cites “human rights organizations” in the section on “Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings.” These organizations are cited in reference to the riots along the Israeli-Gaza border (which began in March 2018).
- The report correctly identifies the protests as “co-opted by terrorist organization Hamas” since “many of the victims were operatives of Hamas or encouraged by Hamas to protest near the fence.”
However, the State Department report omits the fact that the riots are an organized military operation to attack and breach the Israeli border – in sharp contrast to propaganda from Palestinian armed groups and NGO sympathizers, which portrayed the border events as spontaneous and grassroots “peaceful protests.” According to analyst Joe Truzman, however, protestors are organized into specific units, such as the “Kushuk unit,” which is responsible for “delivering tires to the border to light on fire, removal of barbed wire at the security fence, throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, and grenades.” Other units include the Hamas-led “night harassment unit,” which organizes night operations to infiltrate the border, and the “Sons of Al Zouari Unit,” which is responsible for the preparation and launching of incendiary balloons towards Israeli civilian areas. This factor is important in providing context.
An October 12, 2018 incident exemplifies the violent objectives of the riots. According to news reports, Palestinian combatants used the cover of burning tires and smoke machines to detonate an IED on the border fence. They then infiltrated Israeli territory, and three members of the armed group headed towards an IDF post a few dozen meters from the fence with the intention of abducting one of the soldiers. They were killed after attempting to enter the post and trying to seize the soldiers’ weapons.
The State Department could also include quotes from senior Hamas leaders, including spokesman Salah Bardawil, who stated in a May 2018 interview, “50 of the martyrs were from Hamas, and the other 12 were regular people. So how can anyone claim that Hamas is reaping the fruits, when it paid such a steep price? What did Hamas gain? 50 martyrs…” The absence of these details from NGO sources highlights the need to treat these critically.
- In its analysis of the Gaza-border violence, the State Department cites the Israeli NGO B’Tselem when describing injuries sustained by rioters. B’Tselem methodology is often opaque, including in its coverage of these clashes. In its November 22, 2018 report, the organization admits that its analysis “is not a representative sample” of casualties in the Gaza border riots. According to the group, it surveyed only 406 out of an alleged 5,800 individuals with gunshot wounds, representing 7% of the casualties. B’Tselem does not detail how these individuals were selected, does not provide the reader with the exact questions asked to these individuals, nor does it state whether any of these individuals were affiliated with Palestinian terror groups.
An April 6, 2018 B’Tselem report on the riots claims Israeli soldiers stationed on the border were “not in any real danger” and demanded that IDF soldiers “must refuse to open fire on unarmed demonstrators.”
The State Department’s 2018 report reflects this argument, stating “Human rights organizations claimed most victims posed no imminent threat to the IDF.” This misleading claim was totally rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court in a May 24, 2018 response to a petition by Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, against the IDF rules of engagement. (translation from original Hebrew by NGO Monitor):
“The factual basis of these petitions is, with all due respect, defective and lacking, both in terms of the content of the open-fire regulations and in terms of the nature and essence of the events under discussion, and is inconsistent with the actual situation. On this basis, the petitioners draw faulty legal conclusions, first and foremost with regards to classifying the events as supposedly “distinctly civil events”; however, as an examination of the actual situation shows, the events under discussion are part of the armed confrontation between a terror organization – Hamas – and Israel.” (emphasis added)
“In this context, the respondents believe that the petitioners make light of the tangible, proximate, severe danger posed by rioting masses… The position of the respondents is that the danger posed by a rioting mass of thousands of people is tens of times greater than that posed by a single person or a small group of people. Moreover, this danger becomes instantaneously immediate when the masses reach their target, and preventing [the danger] at this later stage will require, from a tactical perspective, large scale live fire which the respondents are trying to prevent.”
- The NGOs, as well as the State Department report, also ignore the fact that during this period, an Israeli soldier was killed by sniper fire along the border, while others were injured by IEDs and grenades. Under the laws of armed conflict, the IDF may target combatants and so-called protesters who are directly participating in hostilities by attempting to break through the border fence and threatening great risk to Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Part 2: Issues from the 2018 West Bank and Gaza Report
Reliance on UNICEF-oPt as a Source
The report cites the United Nations in the section on Palestinian children. These statistics are identical to UNICEF-oPt claims on “11 interferences to education in the West Bank.” Since 2013, UNICEF-oPt has funneled funds to the group Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) for a project titled “Protected and safe access to schools as an emergency response for vulnerable communities in the oPt.”1 In addition, EAPPI was an implementing partner on a 2015 UNICEF-oPt grant “to support all aspects of documentation and reporting, information sharing, and data collection.” As noted by a prominent EAPPI activist, “The primary thing is to collate information for the United Nations on people going through the checkpoints and to intervene when we can.”
The EAPPI activists relied upon by UNICEF are individuals on a three-month visit. They are not qualified research experts with extensive training in human rights reporting, but rather a self-selecting group of volunteers with minimal experience and knowledge of the conflict. Yet, their allegations are fed into a UNICEF database, and subsequently copied into UNICEF’s and the UN Secretary-General’s reports. Furthermore, EAPPI activists engage in anti-Israel advocacy such as BDS campaigns and comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany. The State Department should therefore be particularly cautious of relying on UNICEF-oPt and UN reporting related to educational interferences, as EAPPI is often the source of such claims.
Additionally, the State Department should note that although UNICEF has also relied on groups that have ties to the PFLP terrorist organization, such DCI-P, in direct contract to the universal principles of human rights and rights of the child that UNICEF claims to advance.
Unsubstantiated NGO Allegations
When describing the perpetrators of stabbing attacks in Jerusalem, the report cites “unsubstantiated media reports and NGOs,” claiming, “not all of those killed posed a lethal threat to the security forces or civilians at the time they were killed.” The report provides no examples to support this accusation.
The report also claims that “Humanitarian organizations continued to raise concerns about “the shrinking operational space” for international NGOs in Gaza following Israeli media reports that Israeli authorities arrested a French Consulate employee who admitted to smuggling weapons from Gaza to the West Bank in official diplomatic vehicles, which led to further scrutiny on both nongovernmental and diplomatic visitors to Gaza.” The report provides no evidence as to how these measures against terror and crime possibly resulted in a “shrinking operational space” for NGOs in Gaza, nor does it suggest what measures should be taken in the case of a diplomat official smuggling weapons.
Reliance on PFLP-Linked Sources
Unlike the 2016 and 2017 reports, the 2018 State Department report does not cite the terror-tied NGOs Addameer, Al-Haq, and Defense for Children International -Palestine (DCI-P). All three NGOs are closely linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), designated as a terrorist organization by the US, EU, Canada, and Israel.
However, the 2018 report continues to reference the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a group that also has ties to the PFLP terror group. PCHR is quoted in the 2018 report’s West Bank and Gaza section on issues such as the alleged shooting of a Gaza fisherman, Hamas’ increased use of the death penalty, and limits on visitation rights for family members of Gazans inside Israeli prisons.
PCHR’s director, Raji Sourani, admitted that he served “a three-year sentence [1979-1982] imposed by an Israeli court which convicted him of membership in the illegal Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine…”, 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. Former PCHR Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors Jaber Wishah served as “the head of the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Gaza,” according to a December 27, 1985 article in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. PCHR’s former head of its “training unit” Bassam Aqraa was referred to by the PFLP as a “comrade.” (See Appendix I)
In addition to its ties to the PFLP, PCHR has a history of advocating on behalf of terrorists, and making politically motivated allegations of Israeli “war crimes.” PCHR also promotes BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaigns against Israel.
Part 3: 2019 Human Rights Concerns
UN Commission of Inquiry on Gaza
On February 28, 2019, the UN Human Rights Council published its Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on the riots along the Israel-Gaza border, which began in March 2018. As with previous UNHRC investigations on Israel, the COI ignored readily and publicly available information that points to the obvious legality of Israeli actions. It is important for researchers and writers of the 2019 State Department report to recognize the bias and flawed methodology of this UN report, and not rely upon it as a source.
From the outset, the inherent bias of the COI’s mandate hampered its ability to produce an objective and credible report. UN Human Rights Council Resolution S-28/1, establishing the COI, is solely addressed to Israel and is silent as to the numerous violations by Palestinian actors.
Several of the claims made in the COI are easily discredited through open source material, such as the terror affiliations of the majority of Gaza protestors. Additionally, the COI does not provide names for 21 of the individuals it claims Israel killed without justification, making it impossible to verify the circumstances, raising the question of how unverifiable information was allowed to be include in the UN’s report. Further analysis demonstrates that over 15 of the protestors mentioned in the COI were operatives belonging to terror groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and DFLP. Others were killed by Israeli forces while violently attacking soldiers with drones, stones, and tires, or attempting to breach the border fence.
Children were also exploited during the ongoing weekly “March of Return” protests at the Gaza border. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, and others reportedly encouraged children, some as young as seven, to carry out acts of violence or serve as cover for such acts along the border fence in hopes that they will be injured or killed.
In 2019, there were a number of documented instances of recruitment and use of Palestinian minors by armed groups, such as Hamas and the PFLP. For example, at least five Palestinian minors carried out terrorist attacks against Israelis in 2019. These included a 14-year-old boy who stabbed a woman at a bus stop, a 16-year-old girl who was shot trying to stab a soldier at a checkpoint, a 16-year-old who attempted to stab a border police officer in Jerusalem’s Old City, a 15-year-old who was caught by police near Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs brandishing a knife, and a 15-year-old who stabbed an Israeli father and his 17-year-old son visiting a dentist in a West Bank village, after asking the victims if they were Jewish.
As noted above, Palestinian children were encouraged to participate in the March of Return riots.2
Unfortunately, Palestinian incitement and child recruitment are underreported by the human rights community. In a bulletin published on December 22, 2017, UNICEF-oPt acknowledged that it was “not in a position to document cases of child recruitment and use of children” (emphasis added) by armed groups in Gaza, even though many of its NGO partners (PCHR, World Vision, Save the Children, UNRWA, and WHO) have a presence there. This disingenuous claim was then echoed in the 2017 UN Secretary-General’s report on Children and Armed Conflict, which states that “The United Nations did not receive reports of the recruitment and use of children in 2016; however, this violation is difficult to document, particularly in Gaza” (emphasis added). These “difficulties” are not explained and the justifications for the omissions are not credible.
Terror against Children
In 2019, a number of Israeli minors were again targeted in terror attacks, including a 9-year-old boy who was injured in a shooting attack and a 16-year-old who was stabbed in the upper torso in Jerusalem’s Old City. On August 23, 2019, 17-year-old Rina Shnerb was murdered in a bombing that injured her father and brother carried out by a PFLP terror cell commanded by Samer Arbid. According to the Israel Security Agency (Shabak), Arbid prepared and detonated the explosive device. Arbid had previously worked for PFLP-linked NGOs Addameer and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC).
Israeli children in the Gaza border region suffer psychological effects of years of rocket barrages. In 2018 65% of callers to the NATAL — Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center hotline reporting PTSD symptoms were from southern Israel, the area hit hardest by rockets from Gaza. NATAL reports that a quarter of all calls were from Israeli children affected by Gaza violence.
Children in southern Israeli are also put in physical and psychological danger by incendiary balloons, kites, and other airborne devices with explosives attached that are launched from Gaza. Many of these devices are designed to appear as toys to attract children, placing children in southern Israel in physical danger and creating a “severe psychological effect.”
Zoning and Building Rights
In 2019, there were several high profile cases in Israel and the West Bank involving illegal building. International bodies, including the UN and the EU have admonished Israel for demolitions in Area C of the West Bank.
As stipulated in the legal framework of the 1996 Oslo II Agreement, Israel is responsible for planning and construction in Area C.
Israeli, Palestinian, and international NGOs condemned Israel for exercising its obligations as the administrative power in Area C. Since 2009, the government has issued numerous demolition orders for the Area C Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar, citing the location on public land adjacent to a highway. Following an appeal, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that “there is no dispute that the entire complex was put up in violation of the zoning laws.”
It should be noted that the Israeli government actively and routinely demolishes illegal building by Israeli citizens in Area C, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. Similarly, in 2019, as in past years, Israel also demolished homes built by Jewish Israelis in Area C of the West Bank, upholding its responsibilities for planning and zoning for all Area C populations. The Israeli NGO B’Tselem, cited by the State Department on issues of planning and zoning in Area C in several yearly human rights reports, compiles statistics on Palestinian home demolitions, but not demolitions of Israeli homes and infrastructure in Area C.
Similarly in 2019, Israel issued demolition orders for several illegal East Jerusalem structures that were built along Israel’s security barrier. The Israeli Supreme Court, based on evidence presented by the IDF, ruled that the illegal buildings had to be demolished as they posed a security risk, blocking a buffer zone around the security fence while providing a cover for those seeking illegal entry into Jerusalem from the West Bank. Several NGO statements, including those from Ir Amim, B’Tselem, and Amnesty International deemphasized the security necessity of clearing the illegal structures from the buffer zone.
Amendment 28 to Israel’s Entry into Israel Law
One issue that has been emphasized by the UN, Israeli, and international NGOs is the 2017 Amendment 28 to Israel’s Entry into Israel Law (No. 5712-1952). This law states that “A person who is not an Israeli citizen or permanent resident of the State of Israel will not be granted a visa and a residence permit of any kind, whether s/he, the organization or the body s/he works for, calls for a boycott of the State of Israel or undertakes to participate in such a boycott.” In 2019, NGO criticism of Amendment 28 was applied to the work visa renewal case of Human Rights Watch (HRW) “Israel/Palestine Director” Omar Shakir.
On November 5, 2019 the Israeli High Court rejected HRW’s demand that Israel renew Shakir’s work visa, upholding the April 2018 ruling of the Jerusalem District Court and May 2018 decision by the Israeli Interior Ministry. Shakir’s activities were found by all three bodies to be in direct contravention of Amendment 28.
In October 2016, HRW hired Omar Shakir to serve as its “Israel and Palestine Country Director.” Shakir has been a consistent supporter of a “one-state framework” and advocate for BDS campaigns, consistent with longstanding HRW practice of hiring anti-Israel activists to serve in key positions relating to Israel.
As documented by NGO Monitor, Shakir has promoted in boycotts of Israel for more than a decade. During his time in Israel, Shakir and HRW targeted Airbnb, petitioned FIFA sanction the Israel Football Association, promoted the UN BDS Blacklist, and attacked Israel for responding to violence along the Gaza border.
At the time, Israeli officials and media outlets widely discussed MIFTAH’s history of publishing antisemitic materials, as well as its BDS advocacy. They expressed concern that US Representatives would seek out such a group to host them on a visit to the region.
In March 2013, MIFTAH published an article written by Nawaf al-Zaru that repeated the antisemitic blood libel that Jews use Christian blood to bake Passover matzah. After significant public criticism, MIFTAH removed the article, but attacked the blogger who exposed the article for “smearing” the organization and downplayed the centrality of the blood libel in the article.
On February 1, 2010, MIFTAH published an article by Bouthaina Shaaban, Presidential Political and Media Adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in which she claimed that Israel kills children to steal their organs. On September 8, 2007, MIFTAH published an article by conspiracy theorist Elias Akleh that claimed that Israeli rabbis instructed their followers “to steal and burn Palestinian crops, to kill their farm animals, and to poison their water wells.”
MIFTAH The organizations has also published articles that advocate for BDS, as well as a list of Israeli products and companies, located both in Israel and abroad, for individuals to boycott in order “to force foreign governments, corporations, and individuals to abandon their support of Israel vis-a-vis threats to the economic interests.”
Attacks on NGO Monitor
An emerging trope in UN criticism of Israel is the assertion of a “shrinking civil space” and “silencing” of civil society. However, the very same UN agencies and officials that level these charges are engaged in a concerted campaign to silence and restrict Israeli NGOs with which they disagree.
We will relate here to one specific target, namely NGO Monitor. In submissions and speeches to UN platforms, NGO Monitor publishes detailed research on the antisemitism and anti-Israel bias of UN officials and NGOs that partner with the UN. Rather than engaging with and substantively responding, the UN continues to fund and cooperate closely with antisemitic, BDS, and terror-tied NGOs, and they are working together in maligning NGO Monitor.
In a speech launching the UN’s 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick attacked NGO Monitor by name.
In an accompanying written piece, McGoldrick appeared to reference NGO Monitor reports on PFLP-linked NGOs. Referring to evidence of PFLP connections to ostensible human rights NGOs, McGoldrick stated that the UN had been forced to spend “time and effort spent on rebutting spurious allegations.”
In March 2019, UN Special Rapporteur “on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory Occupied since 1967” Michael Lynk censured NGO Monitor following a speech by an NGO Monitor representative at the Human Rights Council decrying Lynk’s use of antisemitic rhetoric in his reports.
In May 2019, three other UN Special Rapporteurs sent a letter to the Israeli government falsely accusing NGO Monitor of “harassment” of NGO staff in UN forums. The letter states that “the organisation in question has publicly accused multiple organisations working for the protection and promotion of respect for human rights in the OPT of disseminating demonizing statements against Israel, having ties with armed groups, and being engaged in anti-Israeli ‘lawfare’, a practice alleged to include engaging with the Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court.” The letter did not reject NGO Monitor’s research on its merits, nor did it specify how sharing these concerns constituted “harassment” or why involving the Israeli government would have any effect on NGO Monitor, which is unaffiliated with the government.
When presented with credible, fact-based analyses demonstrating concerns relating to terrorism and antisemitism, the UN should engage substantively, to ensure that its agencies and programs are not bolstering extreme and destabilizing actors. Instead, the global body and its officials respond by attempting to silence its critics, attacking civil society organizations like NGO Monitor.
Part 4: Conclusion
As demonstrated by this and previous submissions, claims made by NGOs regarding Israeli human rights practices often lack credibility and should not be relied upon without independent verification. The State Department was correct to identify in its 2018 report that several sources “harbored political motivations.” Nevertheless, by citing politicized NGOs in the 2018 report, in some instances without providing an official Israeli counter, context was omitted on issues such as zoning rights, the Gaza border riots, and child combatants.
Future reports would also have increased credibility if all source material by NGOs tied to terrorist organizations was omitted. Furthermore, having stated that it “now uses this [IHRA] working definition and has encouraged other governments and international organizations to use it as well,” the US State Department should apply the definition to determine if NGOs that submit to future reports are in violation of IHRA and unfit for use.
These steps would ensure that the State Department is following its own guidelines and will safeguard future reports from biased, politicized, one-sided, and terror-affiliated sources that could negatively affect the accuracy and credibility of the report.
Appendix I- Raji Sourani Receives Award from the PFLP
- In 2016 and 2017, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) was also listed as an implementing partner on this project. CPT was founded by a coalition of church groups and sends teams to various conflict zones, including to the West Bank, to “promote peace and non-violence.” Participants on CPT’s programs have little to no contact with Israeli society and return to their home churches where many advocate for BDS campaigns against Israel.
- According to Hamas interior minister Fathi Hamad, “We will teach our children, starting from kindergarten to school age, how they must move forward to liberate our land. Young people of Gaza; after you finish your advanced courses in the March of return, you must join the (military arms of Hamas). After one year we managed to recruit all the young people of Gaza.”