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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Someone else crunching the PCHR numbers

It looks like there are other people besides our team who are debunking the PCHR death count. From The New Republic:
If the IDF's alternate numbers are accurate, they paint a very different picture in terms of the toll on civilian life. How is there such a big disparity between the two sets of numbers? Though the IDF has refused to elaborate in any detail on how it obtained its figures, insight into its methods can be gained in the cluttered basement home office in Toronto of retired Israeli intelligence officer Jonathan Dahoah Halevi. "PCHR's list is inaccurate," he asserts. "I get the impression they intentionally tried to inflate the civilian numbers."

He begins to rattle off indictments. "Why is Said Siyam"—the de facto defense minister of Hamas—"listed as a civilian?" he asks. "Muhammad Dasouki Dasliye. Do you know who he is?" Halevi says that Dasliye was a Palestinian Resistance Committee operative and suspect in the terrorist attack against three American security guards in Gaza in October 2003. "Nizar Rayan," Halevi chuckles. "He's a civilian?" In fact, news reports describe Rayan as a militant cleric who mentored suicide bombers and sent his own son on a suicide mission in 2001, killing two Israelis.

Halevi, a pugnacious father of two, is an insider, a former IDF analyst who works days as a counterterrorism consultant but counts Gaza fatalities in his free time. "It's an intellectual challenge," says the dark-haired, 44-year old, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Yemen. It will take him six months to research all 1,400 of PCHR's names, comparing them to a database of thousands of terrorist operatives he has compiled, as well as whatever he finds on the Internet.

As of last month, Halevi has a list of 171 people the PCHR defines as civilians that he claims he can prove are actually combatants affiliated with Hamas or other terrorist groups. His contention is based on a simple principle: When fighters die, they don't just leave behind a body, a family, and eyewitnesses—they leave a paper trail. Martyrdom posters, photographs of funerals, articles celebrating heroes' exploits, lists of payments to families—these sources help Halevi disprove that a particular fatality was a civilian as opposed to a fighter. Intelligence analysts around the world are following this paper trail, and they don't just work for the Shin Bet or CIA. In fact, in the era of the Internet, vast amounts of intelligence are available to anyone with fluent Arabic, a little training, and a lot of time and patience.

Halevi's macabre hobby began during Israel's 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli incursion into six West Bank cities that targeted Hamas and other terrorist cells responsible for a number of recent suicide bombings. Halevi was perplexed. "It made no sense that on the one hand, Palestinians claimed their fighters were performing valiantly, but at the same time they said they were being massacred." So the dogged and methodical Halevi compiled his own list of fatalities in the Jenin refugee camp. "I read everything I could get my hands on—militant web sites, articles, books of fighters' memories. I found that 65 percent of [Palestinians] killed in the Jenin refugee camp were terror operatives, including some children," he says gravely. The Palestinians later independently reduced their fatality number from an estimated 500 to 56.

It was addictive. Soon Halevi found himself spending all his free time cross-checking Palestinian fatality lists. In his opinion, the best and most trusted lists belonged to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem and PCHR. "These data banks have an enormous influence," he says. "I found PCHR statistics in UN reports...The UN relies on them." So Halevi published dozens of articles on a popular Hebrew news sites, reporting his findings, always precise, never overstating his claim, but scathing nevertheless. Soon he found himself in a war of words with a B'stelem's spokeswoman, who wrote on Israel's News1 web site, "Halevi is exploiting a Palestinian family's tragedy for political gain" and "he dances on Palestinian blood." For his part, Halevi says both organizations are frequently inaccurate, and attributes their contortions to their political motives: "The former chairperson of the board of B'Tselem said in an interview that the organization's goal is a one-state solution. PCHR has the same goal. They reject Israel's existence as a Jewish state."

Halevi is already knee-deep in PCHR's latest list from Cast Lead. He has produced a spreadsheet with the names of 230 police fatalities cited by both the Gaza police department and PCHR. For 171 of these, he provides the name of the faction they fought for as well as brief biographies, such as "a munitions expert" or "arrested by Israel in 1993 for weapons acquisitions for suicide missions." Most of the 171 moonlighting policemen are listed as operatives in the Qassam Brigades, with others belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Resistance Committee.

"This information wasn't hard to find," Halevi says. Type one of the names into a Google search and up pops a web site with photos showing the Gaza cop sporting a martyr's headband and M-16. Halevi grants that many of these policemen did actually perform police duties like patrolling streets or directing traffic. "But then they get a call from their friend who says, 'Come on, it's time for a mission,'" Halevi says. "One of the police casualties was even affiliated with al-Qaeda."

Shaheen [of the PCHR] stands by his numbers. "The police force is totally civilian," he insists. While ten of the fighters on PCHR's list are described as policemen, more than 250 of those described as policemen are labeled civilians. Many Gazans enter the police force because they are poor and need the money, he explains. "I can assure you that all these people were working in police traffic or as guards."

Many of the disparities between the PCHR and IDF numbers seem to be definitional. The IDF has repeatedly stated that any member of Hamas security forces—armed or unarmed—is fair game. Shaheen has a much narrower definition of an uninvolved civilian: "According to international humanitarian law, all armed people are classified as militants and all the people who are unarmed [are civilians]," he says. So if the person was armed at the time of death—which he or his fieldworkers determine by investigating the bodies as they arrive at the hospital—he'll count them as a militant. If the person is not armed, his team will check with family members, neighbors, political parties and Palestinian armed factions to determine the deceased's status as a militant or a civilian. He also checks press releases issues by armed factions. "[The IDF] can say whatever they want," he says. "I mean, [these are] facts on the ground."

But even facts can be subjective. For example, Halevi accuses Shaheen's organization of mislabeling Hamas cleric Nizar Rayan as a civilian. Shaheen explains that Rayan was killed in an Israeli airstrike on his home. There are jihadist posters of Rayan all over Gaza, and yet, "I cannot count him as a militant or fighter," Shaheen says. Rayan was unarmed with his wives and children when he was killed, Shaheen explains. "I cannot count this case as a fighter because he didn't participate as a fighter in the offensive. He was a civilian the whole time—going to the mosque, praying, coming back to his house."

Both agree, however, that the war does not end when the fighting stops. "In every war there are two components," says Halevi. "The first is the battle itself, defeating the other side, and the second is presenting the facts of what happened." If a country is not vigilant, he warns, "The other side will rewrite your history."

If anything, the PCHR's researcher is proving himself a liar. If he says that he is only counting militants who were carrying guns at the time, then why does he check websites and interview family members to see if they were militants? And if he did, why wouldn't he count them?

I pointed out as early as January 7 that the PCHR would count people on video who are launching mortars at Israel, in civilian clothing, as "civilians" if the IDF kills them while they are running away, unarmed. The Hamas strategy was specifically to make their people look like civilians, and the PCHR played along dutifully.

Now, how can I get a hold of Halevi?