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Media Analyses





B'Tselem's Annual Casualty Figures Questioned


Like death and taxes, B’Tselem’s end-of-the-year publication of Palestinian and Israeli fatalities is a guaranteed affair, as is the accompanying press release. And, inevitably, journalists will dutifully report B’Tselem’s findings, sometimes inaccurately, sometimes not.

And while the publication of the statistics is a sure thing, its accuracy and the underlying methodology is most definitely not. We have yet, however, to see a mainstream journalist challenge B’Tselem's figures.

Many journalists are anxious to report how many of the Palestinians killed were civilians. To some extent, B’Tselem obliges; its Dec. 28, 2006 press release, for example, announced: “This past year, we witnessed a deterioration in the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories, particularly in the increase in civilians killed and the destruction of the houses and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.”

But how can B’Tselem make any determination about civilians when its own list of Palestinian fatalities does not identify civilians? Instead, B’Tselem identifies most (but not all) casualties as follows: “Killed when participating in hostilities” or “Did not participate in hostilities when killed.” B’Tselem made a deliberate policy choice to note whether casualties were involved in fighting at the time of their death and to refrain from labelling them as civilians or not. B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli confirmed this policy to CAMERA by phone last year.

Why, then, does the organization’s press release stray from this policy and make statements regarding the number of civilians killed in the Gaza Strip when B’Tselem no longer tallies Palestinian civilians?

History

As late as 2002, B’Tselem did provide separate lists of “Palestinian civilians” killed. In many instances, this label was completely inappropriate. As documented by CAMERA in 2003, B’Tselem’s loose definition of the term “civilian” included countless Palestinians who were killed while they were in the process of attacking Israelis, including opening fire at a bat mitzvah celebration in Hadera, killing six and injuring 35, setting off bombs, infiltrating Israeli communities and killing or injuring residents, and fighting with Israeli troops. B’Tselem has since abandoned that policy – perhaps in face of CAMERA’s criticism – but is the current practice any more credible? CAMERA reviewed B’Tselem’s details for many of those killed in December and November 2006 to find out.

An examination of those two months raised two warning flags:

  1. In many cases, B'Tselem identified individuals as not being involved in hostilities at the time they were killed, even when there was information to the contrary

  2. Among those identified as not being engaged in hostilities at the time of death were terrorists regularly involved in planning and carrying out violent attacks. Any conflation of these individuals with civilians–be it in a B'Tselem press release or by journalists–is false.

I)  On what basis does B'Tselem determine whether or not individuals were "participating in hostilites"?

In a number of cases, B’Tselem maintains that civilians were not participating in hostilities even though the circumstances surrounding the death are disputed or unclear. For example:

1) B’Tselem reports that Muhammad Mahmoud Rajab a-Jarjawi, 19, killed Nov. 23 in Beit Lahiya, “Did not participate in hostilities when killed. Additional information: Killed while on his way home from prayers, which ended at five in the morning.” Yet the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency Web site (as supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring) reported that day:

Our Gaza correspondent reported that an Israeli reconnaissance plane launched a rocket at a group of armed Palestinian resistance men who were confronting the invading Israeli tanks east of Bayt Lahiya. One of the men, Muhammad Jarjawi, 19, was killed and many others were injured

2) B’Tselem recounts that Tha’ir Hassan ‘Abed al-Masri, 16, killed on Nov. 18 in Beit Lahiya, North Gaza district, “Did not participate in hostilities when killed. Additional information: Killed while working on his family’s land.”

3) B’Tselem also reports that the same day, Sa’id Salem Suleiman Hajaj, 20, was killed in al-Qaraya al-Badwiya Maslakh, North Gaza district. He also, reportedly, “Did not participate in hostilities when killed. Additional information: Killed on his way to work, not knowing there were soldiers in the area.”

Yet, according to the AFP, he was a member of a Palestinian terrorist group and may have been armed:

Said Hahjuj, 20, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was killed in Umm Nasser, on the northernmost border, the DFLP said.

Thaer al-Masry, 16, was later shot dead in the same village, medical sources said. . .

The army, which has been operating in northern Gaza since Friday as part of a campaign to halt daily rocket salvos against the Jewish state, said both victims were armed. (“Two killed in Gaza after UN urges end to violence”)

4) Likewise, B’Tselem reports that Muhammad Salamah Hussein Hamidan, killed Nov. 16 in ‘Ein Beit al-Maa Refugee Camp in the Nablus district, “Did not participate in hostilities when killed. Additional information: Killed during an army operation while he was standing in his house next to the window.”

Yet, according to wire stories on the incident, Hamidan, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, may have been armed when he was killed. AFP reports:

Mohammed Hmeidan of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was shot twice in the chest at the window of his home in the Ein Beit Elma camp near the northern town of Nablus, the sources said.

Palestinian security sources and witnesses told AFP that the 25-year-old militant, who was on Israel’s wanted list, was killed by an army sniper.

An army spokeswoman said troops operating in the refugee camp had come under fire from Palestinians. “They identified an armed man and opened fire towards him,” she said.

Also, the AP reported:

Relatives said Mohammed Ahmedan, 25, was standing on the porch of his home in the al-Ein refugee camp, near Nablus, watching the Israeli military operations when he was shot two time and killed. They said Ahmedan was unarmed.

But the army said an initial inquiry into the incident found that soldiers had identified and shot an armed man.

On what basis does B’Tselem accept as fact a family member's version of events over the army’s?

5) B'Tselem claims that Wahib Musieh Nayef a-Dik, killed on Dec. 14, 2006 in Kafr a-Dik:

Did not participate in hostilities when killed. Additional information: Killed when restoring the ancient palace in Kafr a-Dik. Soldiers who came to the site claimed that stones had been thrown at them from the site. One of the soldiers fired at him when he opened the door on the top floor of the palace.

Yet, the AP reports on the incident as follows:

The Palestinian officials said the man was throwing stones at two army jeeps that entered the village of Kufr al-Dik around noon Thursday when he was shot by troops. He was wounded in the chest and died on the way to the hospital, they said.

The AFP reported:

Construction worker Wahib Misleh, 25, was hit in the chest and arms after Israeli soldiers opened fire at stone-throwers in the village of Kafr Al-Didk, they said. Witnesses said he was not among those throwing stones.

The army said soldiers had fired at a person who was getting ready to throw a concrete block on the troops from atop a building.

There are conflicting Palestinian sources on whether or not a-Dik was involved in hostilities at the time he was killed. The Israeli army insists that he was involved in violence at the time of his death. How then can B’Tselem definitively state that he was not involved in the hostilities?

Internal Contradictions

6) Regarding Muhammad (‘Eid) Amin Mahmoud Ramaheh, B'Tselem details:

27-year-old resident of Ein Beit al-Maa Refugee Camp, Nablush district, killed on 14.12.2006 in Ein Beit al-Maa Refugee Camp, Nablus district, by gunfire. Did not participate in hostilities when killed. Additional information: Killed when shot at short range when he ran from his car when an undercover unit tried to arrest him. He was armed.

And according to an IDF press release:

The forces set up a roadblock in order to stop Ramaha, but when Ramaha’s vehicle arrived it bypassed the roadblock and collided with another vehicle, injuring a number of civilians. As the forces approached Ramaha’s vehicle, he and one of his men opened fire at them. The soldiers returned fire, killing the two, who had been armed with an M-16 and a handgun.

While B'Tselem itself acknowledges that Ramaheh was "armed" and the IDF records that he opened fire, the report nevertheless contradicts its own description by categorizing Ramaheh as someone not engaged in hostilities when killed.
 
7) And in another internally contradicting example of a Palestinian casualty placed in the category of "not being involved in hostilities at the time of death," Btselem writes that 14-year-old Jamil Abd al-Karim Jamil al-Jabaji, killed Dec. 3, 2006 in Askar Refugee Camp, “Did not participate in hostilities when killed. Additional information: Killed while throwing stones at soldiers.” Hurled stones can be lethal, and throwing such potentially deadly weapons constitutes participating in "hostilities." 

II) Participation in Hostilities Before Death

Many journalists – and even B’tselem’s own press release writer – miss the key qualifier in the organization’s current policy of labelling whether or not casualties were participating in hostilities at the time of their death. Such reports, like this Dec. 29 BBC article, wrongly assume a Palestinian killed while not participating in fighting is a civilian. There are numerous cases, however, of Palestinians fighters – those who regularly launch rockets, prepare bombs, dispatch suicide bombers, smuggle weapons, or battle Israeli soldiers – being killed by Israeli soldiers while not in the midst of hostile activities. For example, on Nov. 8, the IDF killed ‘Alaa a-Din Jamil Khamaiseh and Salim Yusef Mahoud Sa’id (Abu al-Heija) in al-Yamun (Jenin district). B’Tselem writes that they “did not participate in hostilities when killed. Regarding the former, B’tselem at least adds: “Killed while in a car during an attempt to arrest wanted persons.” Similarly, regarding Abu al-Heija, B’Tselem adds, to its credit, that he was “Wanted by Israel.” According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, both were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade–designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the EU for carrying out suicide bombings and other violent attacks against Israelis–and thus should not be classified as civilians.

Indeed, B'Tselem consistently fails to mention whether or not each casualty is a participant of  a terrorist organization. A case in point is Muhammad Ramaha (example #6 discussed above), the head of Tanzim in the Ein Beit Ilma refugee camp. According to a Dec. 14, 2006 Israel Defense Forces release:

Rahama was involved in terror attacks and in attempted attacks in the Nablus area and in Israel’s home front. Rahama continued to plan suicide bombings during the recent ceasefire. He was planning a suicide bombing in the immediate future which was being guided and funded by terrorists in the Gaza Strip. An 8kg explosive device which was captured yesterday near Nablus had been prepared by Rahama and members of his infrastructure, and was intended for use in a suicide bombing.

Not only did B’Tselem contradict its own description by stating that Ramaha “did not participate in hostilities when killed,” but the organization also covered up the fact that Rahama was a Tanzim leader involved in numerous terrorist attacks. Both of these points have obvious bearing on the question of whether or not Rahama can be considered a “civilian.” The same can be said about B’Tselem’s two-fold distortion regarding Said Hahjuj (example #3 above.)

Conclusion

B’Tselem can not be relied upon as a trusted source for figures on Palestinian civilian casualties. Nor can the details it provides on the circumstances of death for Palestinian casualties be considered accurate. As NGO-Monitor editor Gerald Steinberg notes, “the ‘halo effect’ protects the NGOs from the same type of accountability that they demand from others.” Journalists should take note and report on B’Tselem’s figures with healthy skepticism instead of allowing B’Tselem to ring in each new year with falsehoods and distortions.


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