Civilian casualties, Gaza and the political war

Recently, IDF figures of casualties during Cast Lead were confirmed and the NGO accounts debunked by the most unlikely of sources – Hamas.

The distortion of international law is a primary weapon in the political war attacking Israel’s legitimacy.
During the Gaza War, casualty statistics were used by many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claiming a human rights agenda to bolster these campaigns.
NGOs issued dozens of publications purporting to document the number of Palestinian civilian casualties. They frequently compared those figures to the number of Israeli casualties, which were lower. To pursue their political objectives, NGOs often deliberately and grossly inflated the Palestinian count, mislabeling combatants as civilians or “children,” and made other false accusations.
NGOs such as B’Tselem, Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), and Defence for Children International – Palestine Section (DCI-PS) each issued differing reports, alleging that between 70 – 85% of those killed were civilians.
In contrast to these NGO reports, the Israeli military stated that of 1166 Palestinian deaths, 709 “militants” were killed in combat; the Israeli evidence was largely ignored or derisively dismissed. Recently, though, the IDF figures were confirmed and the NGO accounts debunked by the most unlikely of sources – Hamas.
In a November 2010 interview given by Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad to the Al-Hayat newspaper, Hamas acknowledged that 600-700 Hamas members were killed in the Gaza fighting – more than double the number of combatants published by the NGOs’ and Richard Goldstone’s unreliable version of events.
With these new revelations by Hamas, NGOs, media correspondents, UN officials, and others that presented the NGO statistics as authoritative should now issue corrections.
In a November 2010 lecture at the University of Nebraska, Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein noted the new Hamas numbers and their impact on the credibility of NGO reports: “It will be interesting to see if the Goldstone Report and Human Rights Watch reports are reevaluated by them.”
Indeed, Goldstone and these NGOs have a moral obligation to immediately acknowledge that their allegations against Israel were unsupported.
THE DISPARITY between Palestinian and Israeli casualties was presented by the NGOs as “proof” that Israel’s military operation to stop rocket attacks on its population centers was illegitimate. It also served as the basis for “war crimes” accusations.
The media and the UN Human Rights Council repeatedly highlighted these allegations without independent verification; they were a prominent theme in Goldstone’s report indicting Israel.
In particular, NGOs and Goldstone used their unsupported casualty claims as the sole basis for charges of “disproportionate” or “indiscriminate” Israeli attacks against Gaza civilians, even though under international law, the number of casualties is not a dispositive factor in determining whether war crimes were committed.
Instead, international law requires assessments of what was known to military commanders prior to an attack, such as enemy locations, presence of military objects, presence of civilians, anticipated harm to civilians, military advantage, and evidence of intent.
NGOs ignored these aspects because they did not posses the expertise or access to information that would allow them to make these assessments – and because more complex evaluations would conflict with their political agendas.
Instead, each NGO conveyed its version of events. B’Tselem alleged that 75% of those killed were civilians. PCHR originally claimed 70% and later increased to 85%, and DCI-PS alleged that Israel killed 352 “children” (PCHR claimed 313).
In reviewing the list, however, it is clear that many were actually members of Hamas’ Qassam Brigades or Islamic Jihad.
Shockingly, although DCI-PS claims to advocate for children’s rights, this group did not condemn the terror groups that enlisted child soldiers. NGO superpowers HRW and Amnesty International, along with the Goldstone report, accepted their various allegations as facts, including them in their condemnations and reports.
Some of the NGO attempts to boost the numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties were clearly absurd. B’Tselem accused the IDF of committing “war crimes” by “targeting” what Hamas defines as its police force. The NGO claimed that they were not combatants, because at the time of the IDF attack, they were undergoing a “training course” on “first aid” and “human rights.” In September 2009, B’Tselem revised this charge, belatedly admitting that “many police officers in the Gaza Strip [were] also members of the military wings of Palestinian armed groups.” Yet, by then, B’Tselem’s initial claims had been repeated and adopted by the media and copied in Goldstone’s report. Similarly, PCHR labeled many fighters as “civilians,” including Nizar Rayan and Said Siam, architects of Hamas’ military campaign.
But again, the media, the UN, and others disregarded this gross manipulation.
THIS EPISODE highlights the repeated unreliability of NGO claims, and reinforces the need for their careful and skeptical evaluation. Now that Hamas has revealed the correct statistics, a reexamination of these NGO reports is warranted.
Goldstone specifically demonstrates the need to discard and reject politically motivated, false “investigations” that consist simply of a collection of such NGO allegations.
The writer is the legal adviser of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution that promotes accountability and transparency among nongovernmental organizations that claim to protect human rights in the Middle East. She is the author of NGO ‘Lawfare’: Exploitation of Courts in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.