Issue 28 - Article 4

The search for truth: human rights documentation in the war of representation

November 18, 2004

The humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not a natural disaster. This crisis is very much man-made. Israel’s severe restrictions on Palestinian movement – whether inside the occupied territory (OPT), or between the OPT and Israel or other countries – is a primary cause of wide-scale Palestinian unemployment, poverty and hardship. Other Israeli policies exacerbate this hardship, including relaxed rules of engagement, which result in civilian deaths and injuries, and the mass demolition of Palestinian houses. In turn, attacks by Palestinian militants against Israeli civilians increase Israeli public support for these harsh responses.

In this environment, ensuring respect for human rights is crucial to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering. The work of humanitarian actors must be closely linked to a human rights agenda. Indeed, many humanitarian organisations working in the OPT have adopted a rights-based approach, advocating for respect for human rights in addition to providing direct assistance to those harmed by the violation of their rights.

For both human rights and humanitarian actors, an accurate analysis of the situation is the first step to formulating an effective strategy for positive change. Yet such an analysis is confounded by the climate of disinformation. In the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it is clear that Israel has military superiority. The question of who has rhetorical superiority is still undecided, and both sides invest significant resources in presenting reality in a manner that suits their interests. Facts are in fierce dispute, as both Israelis and Palestinians manipulate information in order to support their own agendas.

The Palestinian side is guilty of blatant hyperbole and distortion. Over the past four years, Palestinian spokespeople have portrayed armed fighters as non-violent demonstrators, and have tried to blame Israel for Palestinians killed in car crashes and other accidents. However, this article concentrates on Israeli actors in the war of representation, as B’Tselem is an Israeli organisation concerned primarily with holding its own government accountable.

Propaganda and the IDF

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Spokesperson’s Office is a central actor in the propaganda war, with an extensive website in English, updated almost hourly. In responding to allegations of harm to Palestinians, the response of the Spokesperson invariably begins with what it sees as the proper framing of the discussion: terrorist threats against Israelis and the country’s desperate efforts to protect its citizens from these barbarous attacks. This tactic is invoked regardless of the specific allegation.

In December 2003, B’Tselem published a report documenting cases of abuse by soldiers at a checkpoint outside the city of Nablus. Over the course of five days, nine Palestinians were beaten and abused by IDF soldiers at the checkpoint, and then released after several hours. As it does with every report it publishes, B’Tselem submitted this one to the IDF Spokesperson for its response. The response began: ‘The city of Nablus has, for the past few years, served as a primary source for the planning and execution of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens’. It continued in this vein for several paragraphs. Although there was no suggestion that, in this specific case, the victims of violence were involved in terrorism, the tactic of the IDF Spokesperson’s Office was to reassert the victim status of Israel as a way to deflect criticism from unjustifiable acts of violence.

The automatic invocation of security to justify all military and government policies is not unique to the IDF Spokesperson’s Office. All echelons of the military, the government, and society justify almost everything in the name of security. The effect is to shut down analysis, discussion, even rational thinking. Here are two examples chosen at random from B’Tselem’s work.

  1. In addition to its research and documentation, B’Tselem operates a mobile team to intervene in cases of human rights violations, particularly surrounding checkpoints in the West Bank. In the case mentioned above, B’Tselem notified the IDF’s Humanitarian Hotline to report the first incident of violence at the checkpoint. The initial explanation provided was that the Palestinian tried to grab the soldier’s gun. Yet the individual who apparently perpetrated such a serious offence was released without undergoing interrogation, or facing criminal charges (though the individual was severely beaten). Only after B’Tselem publicised the case to the press was a military police investigation opened.
  2. B’Tselem conducts an extensive correspondence with the Judge Advocate’s General Office in order to hold accountable individual soldiers suspected of human rights violations. Here too the Chief Military Prosecutor invariably claims that cases do not warrant military police investigation because soldiers are operating appropriately under the circumstances. In several cases, B’Tselem has managed to collect circumstantial evidence indicating severe wrongdoing. B’Tselem’s ability to conduct such investigations is much more limited than the IDF’s, given the lack of access to eye-witnesses who are soldiers, and the restrictions the IDF places on the organisation’s movements. Nevertheless, in many cases, a formal IDF investigation will only be opened in cases where B’Tselem or another NGO has succeeded in building a prima facie case.

Facts and fictions

One of B’Tselem’s primary roles is ensuring accountability – whether legal or political – for the individuals and institutions responsible for human rights violations. Here too documentation of the facts is crucial. Thus, the first task for B’Tselem is to weed out truth from fiction in the sea of mutual recriminations.

Many argue that the facts do not matter. Indeed, when confronted with an error in his reporting, one prominent Palestinian human rights activist responded that these were ‘merely details’. For this activist and those like him, who argue that the specific details are unimportant, the broad picture is clear: Israel’s policies in the Occupied territory are brutal and repressive. What does it matter if 2,200 Palestinians have been killed, or 3,100 Palestinians have been killed?

But the devil is in these details. Are people being killed in premeditated wilful killings, as Palestinians assert, or as the tragic but inevitable result of clashes with armed and dangerous terrorists, as Israel asserts? In fact, the answer is both and neither. On the one hand, there are gun battles between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians. At least 723 of the Palestinians killed in this intifada were armed and participating in hostilities when killed. On the other hand, Israel has killed at least 175 Palestinians in premeditated, targeted assassinations. An additional 105 Palestinian bystanders (29 of them children) were also killed in these assassinations.

But these two extremes represent the minority of casualties. Altogether, 2,854 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli security forces in the four years of the intifada (30 September 2000–30 September 2004). It is known that at least 1,586 of these took no part in hostilities. The majority of Palestinians killed were not intentionally targeted – contrary to the claims of Palestinian spokespeople, Israel is not perpetrating massacres. However, most of the Palestinians killed were unarmed civilians. The principal reason for these deaths is the Israeli policy of allowing lethal gunfire in situations where soldiers are not in danger. The relaxed rules of engagement and the lack of enforcement of these rules is one of B’Tselem’s primary areas of concern. This is however qualitatively different from wilful killing – and any serious effort to protect Palestinian lives must engage with the actual problem, rather than its rhetorical representation.

A central rhetorical battleground is the legal definition of the situation. For Palestinians, this is a military occupation of a civilian population, whereas Israel defines the current situation as an armed conflict, i.e. a war. The 11 September attacks in the US and the war in Iraq have strengthened Israel’s representations of this conflict as part of a larger ‘war on terror’.

While there are certainly isolated incidents that reach the level of an armed conflict, the entire situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip cannot be classified as a war. In many cases soldiers are performing standard policing functions, such as they did during the Oslo process and the first intifada. This includes staffing checkpoints, conducting house searches and arrests.

Two of the most contentious issues – and where the rhetorical debate is most fierce – concerns the movement of ambulances, and harm to children.


In January 2002, the IDF Spokesperson published a statement claiming that a Palestinian wanted for questioning was arrested inside an ambulance while disguised as a doctor. The Spokesperson concluded with the statement ‘The IDF sees severely any cynical or false use of humanitarian cases and medical emergencies’. In fact, the man arrested in the ambulance was a doctor, Dr Abd al-Karim Ali Abdallah, an anaesthesiologist at Rafidia hospital. Only after an appeal by B’Tselem did the IDF Spokesperson amend his announcement and admit that Dr Abdallah was indeed a physician.

This is only one of many cases in which the IDF dodges criticism of its siege policy by alleging the Palestinian abuse of ambulances. While B’Tselem has also criticised the abuse of ambulances by Palestinians – in at least one well-documented case an ambulance was used to smuggle explosives – this does not justify the collective harassment of ambulances and medical personnel.

Recently, Israel released aerial photos purportedly showing Palestinians using an UNRWA ambulance to transport Qassam rockets in the Gaza Strip. In this case, the war of representation was waged over the course of several days between UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen and the IDF before the IDF acknowledged that the photographs were not conclusive.

Harm to children

In the first months of this intifada, a leading Israeli publicist advocated a public relations strategy ‘to reduce the gap between the cold logic on Israel’s side and the bloody photograph giving Palestinians the edge … A planned and creative PR campaign would attack Arafat from an unexpected direction – that he sacrifices children … If all officials repeated this contention, some of those graphic photos would work against Arafat’.

The Israeli media – and Israel’s supporters worldwide – adopted this strategy. Newspapers tell of mothers who raise their children to be martyrs. Mass e-mails repeat this allegation, or assert that Palestinian gunmen are using children as human shields, shifting the discourse from the soldiers who kill children to a critique of Palestinian society, a ‘pagan’ society (according to one controversial article) that practices child sacrifice.

This year, there were two highly publicised cases of children from Nablus being recruited to aid or even carry out suicide attacks. The press is right to focus on these cases, which constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Palestinian society – and all of us – must be extremely concerned about armed groups exploiting children in this way. But these cases cannot be used to deflect attention away from Israeli actions and policies that result in severe harm to children.


Ironically, the intensity of the rhetorical war increases the power of human rights organisations. B’Tselem’s Public Shaming efforts are more effective because Israel assigns so much importance to the way it is perceived. This opens up additional channels through which human rights advocates can act and exert influence.

The importance Israel attaches to public relations also increases the viciousness of the attacks against human rights organisations – though here too it is important to emphasise that these are so far only verbal attacks, at least in regard to Israeli organisations. Human rights organisations are rightly perceived as undermining the propaganda efforts of Israel abroad. It is a testament to their effectiveness that they engender such condemnation.

The strength of human rights advocacy rests on the accuracy of the information and analysis. But information by itself is not enough; even when people know the facts about human-rights abuses, they argue about their interpretation, or contend that these actions are justified. But reliable, accurate information is the first step to engaging with the interpretations and justifications for human rights abuses, and for formulating effective strategies to end these abuses.

Jessica Montellis Executive Director of B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Her email address is


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