newsIsrael at War

UN: Funding, word count limits kept Hamas human shields off blacklist

António Guterres put the Israeli security forces on the annual "list of shame."

A Palestinian boy wearing a Hamas headband aims a toy gun during a rally after prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 28, 2014. Photo by Sliman Khader/Flash90.
A Palestinian boy wearing a Hamas headband aims a toy gun during a rally after prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 28, 2014. Photo by Sliman Khader/Flash90.

The United Nations’ point person on a report blacklisting Israeli forces’ treatment of Palestinian children says the decision to minimize Hamas’s use of human shields is partially a result of low funding and allowable word counts.

Virginia Gamba, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s special representative for children and armed conflict, addressed the media on Thursday, as the 2023 so-called “list of shame” was made public.

The annual Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) report is intended to embarrass those designated on the list into performing corrective action with regards to their alleged violations against children, including killing, maiming, recruitment, abduction, sexual violence, denial of humanitarian assistance and attacks against schools and hospitals.

Guterres blacklisted the Israeli security forces, Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades and affiliated factions and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades. It is Israel’s first time on the blacklist.

The European Union jointly condemned Hamas’s use of human shields in a November statement. So did Guterres. But, the CAAC report includes only one sentence on Hamas’s utilization of the tactic, which is central to the terrorist group’s military strategy and to understanding the casualty toll among Gazan children in the current Israel-Hamas war.

“If we put everything in the annual report on every situation, it will have at least a thousand pages. So, we have to choose very carefully what makes it to the report or not, if the figures must go there, as much context as possible,” Gamba told JNS in response to a query on the startling omission.

“But we have always been deterred from putting into context each one of these paragraphs because of word count,” she said. “Perhaps by saying it here, I will be heard.”

Gamba asserted she has asked for waivers on the word count for her annual report, which is dictated by U.N. Security Council resolutions and other restrictions, and which she called “inappropriate.”

She also said, “It is mostly a financial issue and an issue of a standard across the U.N. system. I’m not saying that if I had more room, you would have more answers.”

Reports of human shields

Gamba explained that, unlike other U.N. data that relies on Hamas figures, her office will place in the annual CAAC report only statistics that her office verifies.

Those “verified” numbers differ greatly from the more-publicized and referenced Gazan casualty figures disseminated by the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs.

That often means, she said, that many reports of the use of human shields by Hamas, especially with the onslaught of incidents during the war in the final quarter of the year, could not be investigated and verified in time for the report, which only covers activity through Dec. 31.

But, Gamba said, any “late verification” would be included in future reports.

Critics have disputed OCHA’s numbers, which rely on Hamas data, and have said many of the figures provided by Hamas are mathematically impossible. However, international media continue to use them. Those numbers also are cited as evidence against Israel for the purposes of international judicial prosecutions and proposed boycotts and arms embargoes.

A senior U.N. official told JNS last week that the numbers used by Gamba’s office in the CAAC report “cannot be verified by the press or the government cannot give a figure,” claiming that Gamba’s office doesn’t take figures from governments as part of its verification process.

Gamba told JNS, “I think when we talk about late recognition by the United Nations that children have been used as human shields, and that this recognition will lead, for verification purposes and monitoring purposes, to late verifications, I think we possibly might be able to see more information on this specific attribution on who specifically was using children as human shields in the next annual report.”

Unique standards

Meanwhile, JNS queried Gamba on the inclusion of other peculiar information in this year’s CAAC report.

The report claimed that Israeli armed and security forces were responsible for the maiming of 1,975 Palestinian children in 2023. However, 1,187 of those cases—63%—were a result of tear gas inhalation.

Israel is the only country in the report which was tagged for a violation for using tear gas—a common riot dispersal tactic throughout the world. 

Additionally, Gamba’s office defines the maiming of a child as “any action that causes a serious, permanent or disabling injury or scarring or mutilation.”

There are no reports JNS could find of any such injuries to Palestinian children as a result of tear gas inhalation, and Gamba did not dispute this. 

Further, JNS asked Gamba three times why her office would publish data on the maiming of children that did not fall within its own definitions, given the damage it does in the public sphere to Israel.

Gamba would not directly answer that question.

Instead, she explained that there are co-chairs of the working group or task force assigned to each country on CAAC matters, and it is ultimately up to them to report violations to her, using what she admitted are outdated guidelines from 2005.

“The way it is interpreted in the field depends on each violation in each situation, because they are unique,” said Gamba. “The expression of violence against children is expressed differently in different situations.”

Gamba said that she agrees “entirely” that the working group of U.N. staff dealing with Israel is “the only situation that has been informing us of tear gas inhalation under the rubric of maiming. Is this correct or not correct? All I can tell you is it’s not for me to decide what is correct or not. It is the MRM [monitoring and reporting mechanism] guidelines that allow that type of broad interpretation.”

While Gamba insisted that Guterres was aware of the anomaly and did not use the tear gas inhalation data in his decision to blacklist Israel this year, it appears to be an example of what the Israeli government says are unique and double standards held against it throughout the CAAC report.

A senior U.N. official told JNS earlier in the week that how violations are sometimes interpreted on the ground “is a problem” and “a work in progress.”

Gamba insisted on Thursday that she is working to update the reporting mechanisms in order to end such anomalies.

Better than some U.S. medical plans

JNS also queried Gamba about why the CAAC report flagged Israel for violations of denial of medical care to Palestinian children.

The report claimed that of 20,920 applications for medical care in Israel for Palestinian children, 15% (3,227) were denied or not approved in time for scheduled appointments.

That proportion of denial of care is lower than some U.S. government-backed medical plans for children of poor families, according to a U.S. inspector general report, again showing a lack of context the Israeli government has complained about in the data gathering of Gamba’s office.

CAAC guidelines also state that a denial of medical care violation must be for care “indispensable to children’s survival.”

And among the relatively small proportion of denials, the CAAC report gives no indication about why that care was denied—for example whether there was a lack of a verified doctor’s appointment paperwork or a technical issue with paperwork, or whether those appointments were later rescheduled.

There also seemed to be no verification that those cases were life-threatening in nature. The Israeli government says it was not asked by Gamba’s office about any of those purported violations so that it could review the details with Gamba’s staff.

Again, Gamba insisted that Guterres did not factor the denial of care violations into his decision to blacklist Israel.

Instead, she said, she has been working with the Israeli government since December 2002 to speed up permits for medical care for Palestinian children and the process resulted in higher approval rates than indicated in the report, until Oct. 7.

Gamba added that she has “ordered denial of humanitarian access technical guidelines that will indicate clearly to monitors when there is a real denial of humanitarian access as a violation of CAAC,” as opposed to a technical issue or a non-life-threatening situation. 

“So we hear you,” she said. “There is a need to better understand this.”

She said she has been working on this particular issue with Israel since December 2022 to see how permits could be sped up.

“Ultimately, this worked,” she said, as denial of care rates were lower until Oct. 7.

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