B’Tselem – Less Reliability and Credibility, More Politics

, July 28, 2015

Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 15,  No. 23    July 28, 2015

B’Tselem’s reliance for its funding and sources of information on partisan political organizations
places the organization’s credibility and reputation in question.

B’Tselem logo

In the charged atmosphere of the Middle East in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in particular, the coverage and monitoring of humanitarian issues in a reliable and honest manner is perhaps the most important yard-stick for the credibility and reputation of any self-respecting humanitarian organization.

Whatever the subject-matter, whether it is human rights in the territories administered by Israel, human rights within Israel, or human rights in the territories controlled by Hamas in the Gaza Strip or by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria, the credibility of any monitoring mechanism or watch-dog group must be based on accuracy, honesty, reliability and impartiality.

As difficult as it may well be to apply such values in situations of active armed conflict and daily political and social tensions, where emotions may sometimes override or influence accuracy and reliability, genuine credibility cannot and should not be driven by or be based on a politically-inspired agenda.

Similarly, and by the same logic, any genuine and reliable human rights organization financed by politically driven sources, places its operational independence and the credibility of its reporting in question.

This is particularly relevant with respect to the functioning of B’Tselem, which defines itself as “The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.”1

On its website, B’Tselem prides itself on having earned “an international reputation as the leading source of reliable information on human rights in the Occupied Territories,” and whose “… reports have gained B’Tselem a reputation for accuracy.”  B’Tselem states that it “ensures the reliability of information it publishes by conducting its own fieldwork and research, the results of which are thoroughly cross-checked with relevant documents, official government sources and information from other sources.”

B’Tselem declares that it is funded “by contributions from foundations in Europe and North America that support human rights activity worldwide, and by private individuals in Israel and abroad.”2

Clearly, any genuine and substantive monitoring of the actions by Israeli governmental authorities would be perfectly legitimate and even necessary, in the circumstances, assuming this is carried out in a bona fide and impartial manner, based on objective international criteria and accepted norms and applied to the actions of all states.

However, the reliance by B’Tselem both for its funding and for its sources of information on clearly partisan political organizations and groups driven by a blatantly political anti-Israel agenda, places in question its credibility and international reputation.

B’Tselem’s flawed reporting is relied-upon by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) organizations for their anti-Israel campaigns.

boycott

In one of B’Tzelem’s recent publications entitled “Israel in the West Bank: 47 Years of Temporary Occupation,”3 this mélange of flawed factual and legal analysis, as well as partisan political prognostications and criticism, are particularly evident, undermining any purported claim to reliability by B’Tselem.

B’Tselem acknowledges on the one hand that the term “occupation” is a legal term describing the status of a territory seized in armed conflict and not being part of the occupier’s own sovereign territory, pending diplomatic agreement determining the status of the territory. However, on the other hand, B’Tselem goes on to make unsubstantiated and reckless political value-judgments that Israel “apparently considers the West Bank, and particularly Area C, as its own, a part of its sovereign territory,” and that “one of its policy objectives is to drive Palestinians out of Area C, at least in part to facilitate its future annexation to Israel.”

Furthermore, B’Tselem implies without any empirical substantiation that the situation of occupation which has existed for 47 years is the result of “Israel’s sweeping, long-term objectives” of annexation, and as such, attributes to Israel all responsibility for the continuation of the occupation.

B’Tselem prides itself and its reputation on being reliable and accurate and bases its findings on “its own fieldwork and research, the results of which are thoroughly cross-checked with relevant documents, official government sources and information from other sources.”4  It is therefore curious as to what serves as B’Tzelem’s empirical factual or legal basis for its unfounded determinations about Israel’s policy and objectives.

In a similar curious and creative interpretation, B’Tselem presents the widely acclaimed and acknowledged Israel-PLO “Oslo Accords” as serving Israel’s purpose of annexation by “enable[ing] Israel to cement its control over the entire West Bank” and to avoid a negotiated solution.

Does B’Tselem Repudiate the Oslo Accords?

B’Tselem appears to mislead its readers by deliberately ignoring the fact that the Oslo Accords, which received endorsement by the UN and were witnessed by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, the U.S., Russia, the EU and Norway, established a new and unique legal and political framework agreed-upon by the Palestinians and Israel. This framework in effect replaced what B’Tselem describes as “the occupation” with an agreed-upon, unique sui generis regime applicable pending attainment of a permanent status agreement. This framework obliged the parties to negotiate between them a permanent status agreement, determining the ultimate sovereign status of the territory and the powers and authority of the respective parties.

The assumption when these accords were finalized was, and still remains, that only through direct and bona fide negotiations between them, and not international intervention and pressure from politicized NGOs and foreign powers, can a final agreement, which will cover all agreed-upon issues, including Jerusalem, borders, refugees, settlements and the like, be reached.

To attribute to Israel the sole responsibility for the non-attainment of the permanent status agreement, and hence to what B’Tselem terms as “the 47-year occupation,” is similarly without any empirical basis and is nothing more than a biased and slanted political determination. It ignores the continuing refusal by the Palestinian leadership to return to a negotiating mode, preferring to by-pass negotiating directly with Israel by seeking international intervention through the UN and other international bodies.

In claiming under the title of “Israeli occupation is here to stay” that Israel is taking advantage of ”a legal framework appropriate for short term solutions,” B’Tselem is also misleading its readers and falsely claiming to make a legal determination regarding the anticipated or actual length of an occupation, or regarding the foreseeable extent of the negotiating process. Such false determination by B’Tselem has absolutely no legal basis.

In this context, a report issued in 2012 by the Legal Adviser of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on a meeting of legal and humanitarian experts under the auspices of the ICRC regarding “Occupation and other forms of administration of foreign territory,” in discussing the subject of “Prolonged Occupation”, states that: “…the participants agreed that International Humanitarian Law did not set any limits to the time span of an occupation. It was therefore recognized that nothing under International Humanitarian Law would prevent occupying powers from embarking on a long-term occupation and that occupation would continue to provide the legal framework applicable in such circumstances.5

Regrettably, misleading readers with false information from unreliable sources would appear to have become the modus operandi of B’Tselem. It is particularly evident in its coverage and monitoring of human rights abuses during the various military confrontations between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, replete with inaccurate and unreliable factual claims and unsubstantiated legal determinations.6,7

In criticizing B’Tselem’s modus operandi during the recent 2014 Gaza conflict, NGO Monitor’s legal advisor Anne Herzberg claims in an article entitled “B’Tselem adds to the chorus of false Gaza war allegations”:

“B’Tselem’s claims regarding international law are marked by major omissions and distortions. It notably fails to state that under the laws of war, the presence of civilians does not render military objectives immune from attack. B’Tselem also does not explain why targeting Hamas fighters or Hamas command centers did not ‘effectively assist military efforts’ or ‘provide a military advantage’ to Israel.”

“B’Tselem has a history of presenting faulty information on civilian casualties in alleged attacks against ‘families bombed at home.’ Independent studies have identified at least 14 combatants present in such incidents, whom B’Tselem misleadingly portrayed as innocent civilians.”8

B’Tselem’s Obligation

By presenting itself as a reliable human rights monitoring group while at the same time accepting funding from governments and sources with a clearly partisan, anti-Israel bias, B’Tselem is in fact, misleading its constituents.

The constituents include organizations such as the UN’s Human Rights Council Gaza fact-finding committee, which, in its recent report on the Gaza conflict, placed heavy reliance on B’Tselem’s reporting.

While it is clearly not a legal body, B’Tselem nevertheless repeatedly permits itself to render flawed, over-generalized and sometimes irresponsible legal determinations and accusations.

If B’Tselem genuinely seeks to reinstate any iota of credibility and reliability, it must function in a manner true to its declared policies, including reviewing its modus operandi and its financial sources.

Only then can it come to the international community with clean hands.

* * *

 Notes

http://www.btselem.org/about_btselem
http://www.btselem.org/sites/default/files/2011_btselem_english_brochure.pdf
http://www.btselem.org/publications/47_year_long_temporary_occupation
4 Ibid, footnote 2
5 ICRC publication, April 2012, at page 72
6 See The Gaza War 2014; The War Israel Did Not Want and the Disaster It Averted, http://jcpa.org/the-gaza-war-2014/ and specifically “Hamas’ Silent Partners” and “Human Shields and Inflated Casualty Numbers.”
7 See “The NGO Front in the Gaza War,” Feb. 2009, http://www.ngo-monitor.org/data/images/File/NGO_Front_Gaza.pdf and specifically at page 32 “B’Tselem: Illusion of Credibility” which cites Jonatan D. Halevi, “The struggle over Israel’s narrative through statistics on the number of Palestinians killed in IDF operations,” JCPA Blog, October 26, 2008 (Hebrew). Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20090805123744/http://www.jcpa.org.il/Templates/showpage.asp?FID=528&DBID=1&LNGID=2&TMID=99&IID=19183 and CAMERA, “In 2007, B’Tselem Casualty Count Doesn’t Add Up,” September 4, 2008 (updated November 2, 2008). Available at http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=7&x_issue=39&x_article=1533
http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article/b_tselem_adds_to_the_chorus_of_false_gaza_war_allegations

About Amb. Alan Baker

Amb. Alan Baker is Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.