The NGO B’Tselem, which calls itself ‘The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories’, released its annual report in March 2012. The sixty-three page document provides a broad overview of the Israeli authorities’ human rights record in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the past year. The report provides an insight into both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the media debate surrounding it.
Entering its forty-fifth year, coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories has generated a plethora of criticism from government, media, and NGO watchdog groups. While many try to provide fair and balanced coverage, bias is almost always evident when reporting on this situation.
Politically-charged motives of different countries, organizations and individuals are apparent in all forms of media they produce. According to a 2001 study by FAIR, only four percent of US media included the word ‘occupation’ when reporting on clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Without this context, US media uses an omission of information to reinforce the view that any Palestinian retaliation is an offensive attack. British media, on the other hand, has been praised for its accurate reporting of the conflict. B’Tselem is often the choice source material for such commentary—in 2011 alone, the organization was mentioned in local and international media over one thousand times.
Established by prominent academics, journalists, attorneys, and Knesset members, B’Tselem seeks to stand out as an objective authority whose sole goal is to protect individuals. As stated on their website, B’Tselem’s mission is to ‘document and educate the Israeli public and policy-makers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories’. In doing so, the organization hopes to ‘change Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories and ensure that its government [...] protects the human rights of residents there [...] under international law’.
In its 2011 report, B’Tselem notes an increase in the number of uninvolved Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in the Gaza Strip. The document also shows an increase in the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians compared to the previous year. Hundreds of documented incidents of violence against Palestinians and harassment of Palestinians by Israeli security forces are also presented.
Crucially, the report demonstrates Israel’s failure in particular situations to upkeep the notion of state protection of the individual. A potent passage from the 2011 report reminds the reader that ‘one of the principal functions of any government is to enforce the law and protect the life, limb, and property of people under its jurisdiction. Israel, being the occupier in the West Bank, is responsible for the area’s Palestinian residents, whom international law classifies as protected persons.’ Heart-wrenching stories of individuals negatively affected by occupation scatter the pages. They demonstrate both the misclassification of Palestinians in Occupied Territories as protected peoples as well as B’Tselem’s veritable actions hoping to improve their situation. For example, B’Tselem demanded a criminal investigation into the death of Omar al-Qawasmeh, who was unlawfully shot to death in his bed, mistaken for another man wanted by the Israeli military. In this way, B’Tselem admirably brings lawfulness to families who would otherwise have no form of legal justice under occupation.
The report also examines Israel’s counter-terrorism efforts and their legitimacy under international law. In a prominent example, the report describes the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) bombing of a Hamas weapons warehouse in a residential neighborhood in Gaza. Although both the location of the warehouse and the attack on it were unlawful, more blame is placed on the IDF for not preventing harm to civilians. The bombing was carried out at night without warning, resulting in the death of innocent Palestinians.
Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor has accused B’Tselem of pursuing a pro-Palestinian political agenda, seen primarily as a reflection of its European funding. The organization points out that B’Tselem downplays genuine Israeli security concerns in its research. Checkpoints, for example, are described purely as a detriment to Palestinian life, and not at all as a means of preventing attacks against Israeli civilians. On the other hand, NGO Monitor has itself been accused of bias, characterized as pro-Israel by The Economist amongst others.
In response to criticism advanced by NGO Monitor and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), B’Tselem issues rebuttals based on its own research alongside statistics from the Israeli army and international organizations. However, B’Tselem’s Palestinian-centered focus does shine through by means of diction and omission in the 2011 report. NGO Monitor’s accusation about bias in the description of security checkpoints can indeed be observed. The report describes only offenses against Palestinians carried out by Israelis at the checkpoints, and not their benefit towards the security of Israel.
Although B’Tselem claims to strive towards an admirable goal, it lies within a vicious cycle of blame for being biased—alongside even the most prominent humanitarian agencies acting in the region. The UN and Amnesty International have been criticized for presenting Israel in a negative light. According to UN Watch, from 2004-2005 the UN General Assembly passed nineteen resolutions concerning Israel. During this period, not a single resolution was passed about Sudan, where a genocide was occurring in the region of Darfur.
B’Tselem’s goals and actions are no doubt humanitarian in nature, but leave open the question as to whether an unbiased human rights agency can operate in such a conflict.
B’Tselem’s annual report can be found here: