Becca Wertman
Canadian-Israeli living in Jerusalem.

The UN-NGO Methodological Mess

On February 28, 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held a press conference, releasing an “advanced version” of its Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on the 2018 Gaza riots.

While the UN refers to them as protests, the events along the Israel-Gaza border in fact represent an 11-month long (and continuing) organized operation intended to attack Israeli military installations; abduct IDF soldiers; and terrorize, cause destruction, and inflict harm to Israeli civilians. So-called “protestors” have used guns, Molotov cocktails, stones, burning tires, incendiary kites, and IEDs, and have exploited children to perpetrate these attacks.

As is the norm for UN reports on Israel, the COI findings whitewash the above. Many have noted that Hamas’ and the UN’s messaging on the subject are eerily similar. Hamas sources, such as the Gaza Ministry of Health, are pointedly cited by the UN.

Additionally, and again in keeping in line with past UN investigations, the COI appears to rely on self-proclaimed human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A number of significant concerns stem from this dependence.

Although, the UN does not provide proper citations in this advanced version of the report – presumably the full report will do a better job of this – by analyzing NGO and UN reports side-by-side it is apparent where information came from. Publications by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, the Palestinian NGO Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P), and the British group Palestine Return Centre (PRC) – are indicative of this.

Relying on NGOs reporting on conflict zones should not be done without careful scrutiny of their claims, as their reports often exhibit significant methodological errors.

Many NGOs utilize “testimonies” provided by “witnesses” in their production of original reports. Unlike scholars conducting field research that must adhere to stringent methodological practices in order to not introduce bias into their analysis, NGOs, in most cases, simply collect whatever “data” matches their predetermined conclusions. In Gaza, the result is that NGOs consistently fail to identify whether or not their interviewees are affiliated with Hamas or any other armed groups, or whether civilians have been pressured by armed groups to respond to NGOs in a particular way. Often, the NGOs are not based in Gaza and it is unclear who is actually conducting the research, what their training is, and what sort of affiliations they themselves have. Without carefully addressing these issues, the NGOs are bound to introduce significant bias into their reports.

B’Tselem’s November 22, 2018 report exemplifies the methodological flaws found in NGO publications on Gaza. The NGO explains that “B’Tselem field researchers in the Gaza Strip have conducted an extensive survey…The survey is not a representative sample…An attempt was made to incorporate various protests sites and dates in order to achieve as diverse, comprehensive and reliable a picture as possible…”

On one hand, B’Tselem claims that it conducted an “extensive” survey. On the other, it states that its survey is by no means representative of the total events that took place. Furthermore, a researcher should not “attempt” to incorporate, in this case, various protest sites and dates. It must do this if the results are to be at all reliable.

Making the report even more questionable, B’Tselem does not indicate how it selected individual participants for its survey nor does it provide the questions it asked to the readers. Were participants randomly selected? Were the questions “leading” and meant to elicit a particular response? We simply do not know, and neither does the COI.

Another favorite UN-NGO partner is DCI-P. All names of Palestinian children killed match a submission to the COI from DCI-P. DCI-P is in and of itself an unsuitable source for the UN, given that the organization has close links to the Palestinian terror group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a group that participated in the violence along the Israel-Gaza border. Not only that, but DCI-P actually admits that it relied on an investigation by Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades to claim that an attack on Israeli forces was “animpromtu (sic) attack that was not otherwise planned by the armed group.” DCI-P adds that Al-Qassam did not “claim children as participants in the attack” and the COI similarly notes that a minor was killed in the incident. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, however, notes that the individual was affiliated with the terror group.

PRC, a group labeled as having ties to Hamas, also submitted information to the COI, making NGOs with ties to at least two of the parties to the conflict in Gaza sources of information for the UN report against Israel.

The UN reliance on NGO reports ensures that bias found in B’Tselem’s, DCI-P’s, and PRC’s, among others’ analyses, is simply repeated. Unless the UN properly vets NGO reports, which it cannot and does not do, they should not be cited. At the very least, if utilizing such sources, the UN has an obligation to note the potential bias it is introducing to its investigation. If not, then the eight-month-long nearly $1.5 million investigation is simply a total waste of time and resources.

About the Author
Becca Wertman-Traub is the Director of Research at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada. currently works as chief of staff for a Canadian venture capital firm in Israel. She previously worked for Member of Knesset Michal Cotler-Wunsh as her Political Aide in Knesset and formerly served as managing editor and was responsible for the Canada portfolio at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute. Born in Vancouver, Canada, Becca earned her BA in international relations from the University of Southern California and her MA in political science from Columbia University. Her articles have appeared in The Hill Times, The Province, The Georgia Straight, The Post Millennial, The Jerusalem Post, Canadian Jewish News, Algemeiner, and The Tower.
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