Editing UNRWA: The strange case of the ITIC report on Gaza summer camps

Posted: August 20, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, UNRWA
Tags: ,

On August 7 the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center—which is closely linked to the Israeli intelligence community, and indeed often serves as a conduit for getting material out into the public domain—published a report on the Hamas-UNRWA summer camps competition. The original version of this noted:

3. This year as well UNRWA operated an alternative summer camp system that hosted 250,000 Gaza Strip children (far more than the Hamas summer camps). The UNRWA summer camps emphasize social activity and promotion of such universal values as peace and coexistence, without the political-religious indoctrination and paramilitary training prevalent in Hamas’ camps. Consequently, these summer camps were once again harassed by radical Islamic elements that consider them competitors for the hearts and minds of the younger generation; also, UNRWA’s summer camps are accused of “corrupting” Palestinian children and adolescents.

13. In addition to Hamas’ summer camps, there is also an extensive alternative system of summer camps operated by UNRWA for the past several years. This year the six-week summer camps hosted about 250,000 children and adolescents, far more than those attending Hamas’ summer camps. The summer camps include sports and leisure activities and emphasize such universal messages as peace and coexistence, without the political- religious indoctrination and paramilitary training prevalent in Hamas’ camps. (my emphasis added)

All-in-all, a quite positive assessment of UNRWA’s role. Now, however, they’ve changed the report to read:

3. This year as well UNRWA operated an alternative summer camp system that hosted 250,000 Gaza Strip children (far more than the Hamas summer camps). Hamas claimed that The UNRWA summer camps emphasized social activity and promotion of such universal values as peace and coexistence, without the political-religious indoctrination and paramilitary training prevalent in Hamas’ camps. Consequently, these summer camps were once again harassed by radical Islamic elements that consider them competitors for the hearts and minds of the younger generation; also, UNRWA’s summer camps are accused of “corrupting” Palestinian children and adolescents.
13. In addition to Hamas’ summer camps, there is also an extensive alternative system of summer camps operated by UNRWA for the past several years. This year the six-week summer camps hosted about 250,000 children and adolescents, far more than those attending Hamas’ summer camps. Hamas claims that summer camps include sports and leisure activities and emphasize such universal messages as peace and coexistence, [without the political-religious indoctrination and paramilitary training prevalent in Hamas’ camps].

In other words, ITIC has apparently backed away from their earlier positive account of UNRWA activities, and instead now attributes its original assessment of UNRWA’s promotion of “such universal messages as peace and coexistence” to Hamas (“Hamas claims…”).

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that the original report misstated its analytical conclusions, and was revised to more accurately reflect the analyst’s intent. The second is that political pressure was brought to bear because the conclusions—while accurate—weren’t exactly the public message that higher-ups wished to see circulated. Is there any way to tell which? Having myself done some academic research in the past on language, process, production, and quality control in the intelligence community, it is a rather interesting puzzle to examine…

A few things stand out in the episode:
  • First, intel analysis are trained to only say what they mean, and to use language that will impart a clear and unambiguous understanding to those reading the report. After all, it could be disastrous if a report was misunderstood. This discipline is extends to the very estimative probability embedded in certain words. Moreover, assessments are reviewed and edited and reviewed and edited again, to make sure they clearly state the considered conclusions of an analyst, department, and agency. Mistaking “The UNRWA summer camps emphasize” with “Hamas claimed that The UNRWA summer camps emphasized” (notice too the awkward edit too) is a mistake that only a poorly-trained newbie intel analyst would make, since they are completely different in meaning.
  • Second, there is—or ought to be—a certain progression in analytical presentation and logic in the sequencing of paragraphs in an intel analysis. In the ITIC report, the original para #13 was clearly a descriptive statement of what the UNRWA camps are, while paras #14-15 were about why Hamas and other Islamist groups are critical of them. Neat, clean, and the way it should be done. In the revised version, however, Hamas’ alleged view of the camps is now inserted in para #13 as well. Not so clean and neat.
  • Third, there is the question of what, in the revised version, Hamas is allegedly accusing UNRWA of, namely “Hamas claims that summer camps include sports and leisure activities and emphasize such universal messages as peace and coexistence.” That, of course, is a silly statement. Hamas’ objections have nothing to do with “sports and leisure activities.” None of their criticisms of UNRWA have used language like “universal messages as peace and coexistence” which would be rather self-defeating. Instead, it is a simply a case of the words “Hamas claims” awkwardly being inserted into the sentence to try to change its meaning, even at the cost of making it clearly inaccurate.

Consequently, let’s return to those two possible competing hypotheses regarding the edits. Is it the case that the folks at ITIC have little experience in writing intelligence assessments, and had to rewrite this report to correct errors of interpretation in the first one (in a way, moreover, that made the report more awkward in terms of style and less accurate in terms of content)? Or is it that higher-ups or outside actors were upset at the analyst’s original conclusions, and asked that they be revised (regardless of whether or not they were accurate)?

Given the reputation of the Israeli intelligence community and the rather awkward editing that took place, the second explanation seems by far the most likely—that the report was tweaked because parts of the original assessment were inconvenient.

For those who are interested the original ITIC report can be found here, and the edited version is on the ITIC website here.

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