In an editorial last month, Ha'aretz dismissed the findings of an Israeli government report which concluded that the Israeli army did not kill Mohammed Al Dura in 2000, and which cast doubt on the notion that he was killed at all, as "dubious," "barely serious," and based on "a collection of circumstantial evidence" ("Israel's focus on al-Dura is harmful propaganda," May 21, 2013). But the editorial, which blamed the Israeli army not only for the death of Mohammed Al Dura, but also for the death of nearly 1,000 other children, is itself dubious and barely serious.
The government report's focus only on Al Dura, argues the unsigned editorial, "is mere propaganda that won't in any way improve Israel's problematic image of being responsible for too many children's death." Elsewhere, the editorial gives a precise number: "According to the human rights group B'Tselem, 951 children and teens were killed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza between 2000 and 2008."
We have repeatedly demonstrated
in the past
that B'Tselem's statistics for Palestinian casualties are unreliable for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the organization has applied flexible criteria for determine which fatalities were involved in hostilities when they were killed, and which were not.
But even if we accept B'Tselem's statistics
seriously misleads its readers. A careful reading of B'Tselem's data reveals a very interesting finding, one which significantly undermines Ha'aretz
's indictment of the Israeli army.
First, Ha'aretz manipulates the figure 951, Palestinian children and teens "killed by Israel" from 2000-08, by stripping it of any context. The B'Tselem data upon which Ha'aretz relies, divides the "Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces in the Occupied Territories, before Operation 'Cast Lead'" into categories based on the circumstances surrounding their deaths (see table 1 below):
1) Those that were killed while they were engaged in hostilities. (Most were armed fighters, and were killed while they were engaged in hostitlities with Israeli soldiers, or while carrying out terror attacks.) Out of the total of 951 killed: 118 (12.5 percent)
2) Those found in a place from which an attack against Israel was launched. The majority were standing close to fighters who were firing at Israeli soldiers, or next to rocket launchers or mortars at the time of firing or minutes later. There were also a number who were engaged in riots not involving life fire, such as throwing stones or attempting to infiltrate: 193 (20.5 percent)
3) Those who did not take part in hostilities; a few who were carrying toy guns or taking part with non-violence in demonstrations, mostly bystanders, and some killed from misfiring, or as bystanders killed in the course of targeted killings of wanted individuals: 612 (64 percent)
3) Minors who were killed in areas of battles, and no additional information about the circumstances of their death were available: 28 (3 percent)
In other words, according to B'Tselem, 118 out of 951 fatalities, or the "many children's deaths," for which Ha'aretz blames the army, were combatants. An additional 193 minors actively endangered themselves, or were endangered by other Palestinians, by standing next to those carrying out violent attacks, by throwing rocks, or by attempting to infiltrate into Israel. And B'Tselem does not provide details about another 28 individuals.
Thus, the actual number of innocent minors killed by Israel, including those observing demonstrations and those B'Tselem says were not taking part in hostilities, is 612, not 951.
A Dramatic Decline in Fatalities
A close look at the B'Tselem data reveals another significant point which contradicts Ha'aretz's argument about the "many young people killed by IDF soldiers." Only by reading the full B'Tselem data, and not just the first half which Ha'aretz cites, would observers realize that since 2000, the Israeli army has succeeded in significantly reducing the number of children and youth killed. Other than the three weeks of fighting during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-09, there has been a steady, sharp decline in the number of young Palestinian fatalities uninvolved in hostilities. In the early 2000s, dozens of Palestinian youth were killed every year. In recent years, that figure has declined to less than five per year.
The figure that Ha'aretz cites, 951, relates to the period from 2000 until the start of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, works out to an average of 105.5 fatalities each year. The second half of B'Tselem's data, which Ha'aretz ignores, details the number of minors killed in the last four years. According to B'Tselem, from 2009 to 2013, there were a total of 77 fatalities, an average of 19 per year, a decrease of more than 80 percent from the preceding years. (See Table 2).
And who are the 77 fatalities from the last four years? Of the total, 10 participated in hostilities (13 percent); 20 throwing stones, attempting to infiltrate, or were in close proximity to those firing at Israeli soldiers or launching rockets or mortar at Israeli territory (61 percent). (See Table 3).
In other words, according to B'Tselem, from 2000 until the start of Cast Lead in 2008, the Israeli army killed an annual averageof 68 minors who were not taking part in hostilities. According to the very same report, in the last four years, the Israeli army reduced the number of annual fatalities of minors not involved in hostilities to 12, a reduction of 70 percent. (See Table 4).
Another noteworthy trend that is apparent from a perusal of B'Tselem's full data is the decline in the number of killed minors who were not taking part in hostilities during years when large army operations were not being carried out. The decline is clear and steady. In 2000, the first year of the report, 71 minors not taking part in fighting were killed. In 2009, three minors not involved in fighting were killed, in 2010, four, and in 2011, five. Cast Lead, then, with its many Palestinian casualties, served as a dramatic turning point for the Israeli army, which reduced the number of Palestinian minors killed from dozens per year to a handful. In addition, the reduction of young fatalities during military operations is striking. In Cast Lead, 345 Palestinian minors were killed, including both those involved and those uninvolved in hostilities. In contrast, during the Pillar of Defense operation, in November 2012, 35 minors were killed, according to B'Tselem.
B'Tselem's full data, which Ha'aretz cites selectively and manipulates to smear the Israeli army, indicates that in fact, the situation for Palestinian children and teens is steadily improving. The number of fatalities has sharply declined, especially during periods in which there are no large scale army operations. The decline underscores the fact that the army does, in fact, draw lessons from prior failures, and does make an effort to reduce the number of innocent deaths. Children and teens in other areas of conflict around the world can only dream of such a high level of personal safety.
For the Hebrew version of this article, please see Presspectiva.