Maurice Ostroff

B’Tselem’s casualty figures based largely on phone interviews

One of the biggest NGOs providing the UN with data on West Bank casualties uses wildly unverified information

The UN relies mainly for information on casualties in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) on the NGO Protection Cluster framework which in turn is linked to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the (OCHA-OPT). The OCHA-OPT has in turn appointed three NGOs to provide data on Palestinian casualties: The Israel based B’Tselem and Gaza based Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights and Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), both of which rely heavily on information from the Hamas Ministry of Health in Gaza.

B’Tselem dominates the Palestinian casualty information scene and one should expect that with its international funding and extensive world wide contacts, this organization would observe a rigid standard to maintain credibility in its data collection methodology. Sadly, the opposite is the case. Unfortunately B’Tselem provides the UN and the world with much unverified, inaccurate information.

For example during the recent Gaza conflict B’Tselem relied largely on telephone interviews to provide information that it claims to be reliable. Believe it or not! B’Tselem’s web site declares without embarrassment:

“..B’Tselem is taking testimony from Gaza residents, mainly by telephone. [emphasis added]. |

If, understandably, you find this difficult to believe, see screen shot below.


One example of many is Rima Kasab, who lives in a-Shuja’iyeh neighborhood in Gaza City and gave her testimony by phone to Salma a-Deb’i, B’Tselem’s field researcher in Nablus, on 10 July 2014.

Amazingly in these telephone conservations with Gazans whose homes were damaged or destroyed, B’Tselem purports not only to be able to determine that the homes were not used for military purposes but also to distinguish between combatant and civilian casualties.
The organization’s credibility is damaged further by its rush to immediately to put out possibly incomplete or erroneous information as further admitted on its web site:

“.. in these circumstances, reports may be incomplete or contain errors. Given the urgency of informing the public about events in Gaza, B’Tselem has decided to publish the information now available.”


In conformity with its Special Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Amuta for NGO Responsibility has submitted a written statement evaluating the credibility of casualty statistics submitted to the OCHA. The following extracts are important: 

“The details regarding civilian casualties, including the questions of military necessity and proportionality in complex urban environments such as Gaza, are central to judgments regarding potential human rights violations and international legal requirements related to LOAC [law of armed combat] and IHL [International humanitarian law]
“OCHA’s statements and statistics are frequently cited as authoritative in media accounts and by policy makers, including UN officials such as the Secretary General. As a result, major errors in these publications have significant consequences.

“..the NGO’s in OCHA’s “Protection Cluster” as well as OCHA itself are largely dependent on the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas. As a result, any claims to independent analysis are highly problematic.”

This caution about the bias of B’Tselem representatives in the territories cannot be ignored. In October 2014, when shown that one of its staffers, research associate Atef Abu-Alrub called the Holocaust “a lie,” B’Tselem continued for weeks to stand by the employee and strongly deny the charge.

Later, when a video proved that Abu-Alrub did deny the Holocaust, B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli could no longer deny it and wrote an apology in an email to the Washington Free Beacon. She added that Abu-Alrub is still employed by B’Tselem and the group has yet to decide whether it will take disciplinary action or conduct a review of his research.

In distinguishing between combatants and civilians, B’Tselem based its determination on a new approach of the ICRC whereby according to B’Tselem even trainers of combatants are not legitimate targets:

“..persons who continuously accompany or support an organized armed group but whose function does not involve direct participation in hostilities maintain their status as civilians and are not legitimate objects of attack. Thus, recruiters, trainers, and funders may contribute to the general war effort, but as long as they do not directly participate in hostilities, they are not a legitimate object of attack.”

Thus by B’Tselem’s standards a householder who permits Hamas to fire missiles from his house or to create an entrance to a tunnel in the house is not a legitimate target.

B’Tselem confirms its bias by stating on its web site

“Wherever there is a doubt regarding the actions of a person, the doubt works in the individual’s favor, and it is forbidden to target the person for attack.”

By the above criteria it is unsurprising that B’Tselem’s statistics contain so few combatant casualties.

With regard to proportionality an attack is considered as indiscriminate if it may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or injury to civilians which would be excessive in relation to the direct military advantage anticipated. The all important question is who is capable of judging these subjective criteria. And who can estimate with any degree of certainty the anticipated military advantage especially when the decision must be made immediately in the fog of war?

The experiences of NATO demonstrate unequivocally that despite the best intentions and laudable precautions, it is impossible to avoid serious civilian damage even in the most justifiable war.

In Kosovo, according to HRW, despite all precautions thousands of civilians were killed and more than 6,000 seriously injured with children making up 30% of all casualties as well as 40% of the total number injured. Significantly, legitimate targets included military-industrial infrastructure, news media, and other targets considered to be of a strategic nature. More than 1,000 combat aircraft and 206 helicopters were engaged in over 35,000 combat missions in which more than 20,000 guided weapons were launched and over 79,000 tons of explosives were dropped, including 35,450 cluster bombs, thermo-visual and graphite bombs.

NATO admitted that on May 20,1999 one of its laser-guided bombs overshot its target and hit the “Dragisa Misovic” hospital completely destroying the neurological, gynecological and children’s wards..

When the Chinese Embassy Building was hit by mistake, half the building was destroyed, four Chinese citizens were killed and 20 were injured. If NATO cannot avoid this type of mistake the question must be asked why B’Tseelem won’t accept that, in the heat of battle, there are occasions when Israel too, makes genuine mistakes.

In Libya HRW researchers found the remnants of a laser-guided missile in the ruins of the Jfara family compound, where five were killed. NATO’s justification was that the house was a “major command and control node”. In referring to similar Israeli strikes on residential buildings used for military purposes, B’Tselem describes them as “particularly appalling”. (Significantly it avoids adjectives when referring to Hamas crimes).

With no evidence at all to substantiate his claim, one must ask B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad to verify his assumed “authoritative” opinion

There is no question in our minds that this is not the outcome of a low-level decision, but rather a matter of policy, a policy that in some cases has violated international humanitarian law.”

About the Author
Maurice Ostroff is a founder member of the international Coalition of Hasbara Volunteers, better known by its acronym CoHaV, (star in Hebrew), a world-wide umbrella organization of volunteers active in combating anti-Israel media and political bias and in promoting the positive side of Israel His web site is at