On ‘Human Shielding’ in Gaza

The Israeli army has tried to justify striking civilian areas

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All fighting within cities and all bombardments of urban spaces, even the most "precise and surgical", is a potential death trap for civilians. Consequently, the permeation of war into cities inevitably transforms their inhabitants into potential human shields.

For Palestinians living in Gaza today, simply spending time in their own homes, frequenting a mosque, going to a hospital or to school has become a dangerous enterprise since any one of these architectural edifices can become at any moment a target. One can no longer safely assume that the existence of masses of human bodies – even the bodies of children – in civilian spaces can serve as defense of the weak against the lethal capacity of the hi-tech states.

But since hi-tech states can and do kill hundreds or thousands of civilians, they have to provide moral justification for their action in order to preserve their standing in the international arena; they have to demonstrate that they are protecting the principles of liberal democracy. It is precisely within this context that we should understand the series of posters recently disseminated by the Israeli military through its Twitter account, Facebook and blogs.

The poster "Where do Gaza Terrorists Hide Their Weapons" is a paradigmatic example, where the subtext does the speaking: Houses, mosques, schools, and hospitals are legitimate targets because they are presumed to be weapon depositories.

This is also the message in "When Is A House a Home?" which simply zooms in on one of the images in the previous poster, showing how Palestinians presumably hide rockets in civilian homes.

The logic is straightforward: insofar as Hamas hides weapons in houses (illegitimate), Israel can bomb them as if they were military targets (legitimate). Within this framework, a single function (hiding weapons) out of many existing functions (home, shelter, intimacy, etc) determines the status of an urban site (in our case the house), so that the edifice's form loses its traditional signification.

The question "when does it become a legitimate military target?" is merely rhetorical. Its real meaning is: "All houses in Gaza are legitimate targets" since all houses are potentially non-homes.

Not unlike colonial as well as other vastly asymmetrical wars, Israel's legitimization for its indiscriminate bombing is premised upon a profound moral disjuncture between Israelis and Palestinians. In the poster "Israel uses weapon to protect its civilians. Hamas uses civilians to protect its weapons", Palestinians are depicted as barbarians who ignore the elementary grammar of international law.

Israel's warfare is, however, not only about the re-signification of architectural structures, but also about the transformation of human beings into collateral damage, subjects who can be killed without violating international law. This is the subtext of the poster featuring Israel's Chief of Staff saying: "Even as we carry out strikes, we remember that there are civilians in Gaza. Hamas has turned them into hostages."

Again, the logic is clear. All civilians in Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas, which is considered a war crime and a gross violation of international law governing armed conflict. This, then, provides legal and moral justification against the accusation that Israel is the one killing civilians. Presumed human rights violations carried out by Palestinians against Palestinians – taking hostages and human shielding – thus become the legitimization of lethal and indiscriminate violence on the part of the occupying force.

Hence, the use of human shields is not only a violation. In contemporary asymmetric urban wars, accusing the enemy of using human shields helps validate the claim that the death of "untargeted civilians" is merely collateral damage. When all civilians are potential human shields, when each and every civilian can become a hostage of the enemy, then all enemy civilians become killable.

In order for all this to be convincing, the Israeli military depicts the asymmetric context in which it unleashes its violence against a whole population as symmetric. This is carried out, for instance, through the poster "Some bomb shelters shelter people, some shelter bombs". Here a radically disproportionate situation is presented as if it were balanced.

The residents of Gaza are bombed by cutting edge F-16 fighter jets and drones, yet they do not have bomb shelters, and they have nowhere to flee. Israel's residents are bombed mostly by makeshift rockets, many of which have been intercepted by Iron Dome missiles. The majority of the population in Israel has access to shelters and can flee out of the rocket's range.

These powerful images, spread by the Israeli military through social media, attempt to transform the very presence of civilians as suspect in the areas it bombards, regardless of the fact that the areas it bombs are urban centers.

The crux of the matter is that in the context of contemporary asymmetric warfare, the weak do not have many options. When there are no bomb shelters, people remain at home during extensive bombardment. And if, like in the case of the Palestinians in Gaza, fleeing is not an option – because all exits from the strip have been closed, or because the neighbour's house is under the exact same threat as one's own, or because one is already a refugee and does not want to become a refugee anew – staying put, which the high-tech states term "illegal human shields," constitutes a form of resistance.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation.

26 thoughts on “On ‘Human Shielding’ in Gaza”

  1. I just wish Israel would quit with the hypocrisy and call the attack what it is- vengeance for the slain teenagers. Both the US and Israel call civilian casualties they inflict- collateral damage. If other side causes civilian deaths then it's terrorism.

  2. John: "Vengeance for the slain teenagers" is merely Israel's pitiful attempt at "justifying" their massacre.

  3. Israel has told the U.S. State Dept. that it had NO evidence that Hamas kidnapped the teens…indeed, if it actually happened at all. (Israel's really good at false-flag operations, and Ukraine is learning quickly…)

  4. “… Presumed human rights violations carried out by Palestinians against Palestinians – taking hostages and human shielding …”

    In the Western city where live we have two major military bases, and one substantial logistics and deployment facility. All of which are primary military targets for any attacker. And all of which are intimately situated among well-established and densely populated suburbs, full of women and children and busy streets.

    So is my State’s military deliberately using us as human shields then?

    Of course it is not, the military is present to defend the city. It’s also mobile, it can move, but it’s bases are inside the city, because it is the city that needs to be defended, and the soldiers and air force need to live here as well.

    Just look at the basing locations of any western military in any western country, and it is the same as that everywhere. The military bases are almost always surrounded by suburbs or within or deep inside city limits.

    So the entire “human-shield” mantra and excuse as repeatedly used by the Israelis, Washington and European states, as an excuse to attack (!!) is a complete hypocrisy.

    It has always been a case of the pot calling the kettle black for every State situates its military forces in and immediately around its most densely populated cities and capitals. It has always been this way. And if it came to a war to defend that city, a US or UK or French military would indeed be fighting within and immediately around that city.

    So just take note that every time you hear this ridiculous ‘human-shield’ term being bandied about, it is always being using as a propaganda canard to justify a pending attack. The very thing they accuse of, is the very thing they intend to do!

    So the entire argument, when put, should be mercilessly debunked and shoved aside as nonsense.

    If there are cases of human shielding actually being used, it would seem that it’s rare. It also is an ineffective strategy in most kidnapping instances (except the recent kidnapping of school girls instance where it probably worked).

    In the case of Gaza if this were what Hamas was specifically doing (as opposed to incidentally and indirectly doing, as an inescapable side-effect of the imperative to resist and fight back with kinetic effects against high-tech aggression) then it clearly doesn’t work – does it?!

    So human-shielding does not work in war and it probably never has worked effectively in war. It did not work in Stalingrad, it did not work in Tokyo, it did not work in Berlin, it did not work in London and it doesn’t work in Gaza, and it should not be surprising that it won’t work in Tel Aviv either.

    But more fundamentally, the whole concept presumes and also requires that the attacked believes its attacker is somehow more moral and thus inhibited and constrained from mass killing of innocent civilians without due cause. And as we can overwhelmingly see with stark clarity, this is anything but the case with regard to the barking dogs of ‘war’ within the IDF and Knesset.

    So this entire assert Israeli conception of Gaza’s non-State military deliberately using human-shield practices as a routine tactical concept fails the most basic reality checking and test of logical and tactical veracity.

    The appeal to the Human-Shield concept is always used by the aggressor, not by the defender, to feign a ‘rationale’ for the aggressors intent to attack and mass-murder the defender’s civilians.

    That’s the actual significance and meaning of what’s being prepared for whenever we hear some aggressive State trawling up this lame human-shield excuse and ‘logic’ for why they are bombarding civilian homes.

  5. Nice try, Israeli Offensive Forces. You're out of your league once you stray away from your Faux News and Christian Zionist dupes.

  6. There is a problem with this article. The IDF forces are going in with video cameras, and they are taking footage of the houses they enter. On Israeli national television, there are clear images of Gazan houses, just as shown in the diagramme above, with tunnels and weapons. There is simply no way the videos can be forged. The houses are huge, three-story stone structures, typical of the Middle East where stone is in abundance, and structures such as shown in the videos, with reinforced tunnels in the basement, and weapon caches, simply could not be thrown up in a night. Unfortunately, there is much basis in fact for what is alleged by the Israeli propaganda above. Some propaganda can be true! It is important to sift the true from the false.

    I am in Jerusalem as a Bible scholar on a long term assignment, and I bear witness to the reality of the Hamas rocket attacks. Whatever injustices have been committed, Hamas policy of inciting war and hitting Israeli civilians with rockets will certainly avail nothing. Israel can only respond militarily. For one who lives here, it is clear that this is Hamas' intent: to provoke war.

    If one really wants peace in Gaza and in the Israel, it is judicious and important that public calls be made upon Hamas to stop hiding weapons in the homes of civilians, in hospitals, and in mosques. Regrettably, there is now hundreds of minutes of documenting video footage which is proving at least a number of the Israeli claims to be correct. Hamas also needs to stop shooting rockets at Israeli citizens. Fatah is not doing that from the West Bank! Why can't Hamas emulate Fatah, in seeking a diplomatic/political solution?

    The real problem is that not only Israel, but also Egypt, are blockading Hamas, because of its massive importation of dangerous weapons. Hamas is a close ally of Muslim Brotherhood, another group responsible for much bloodshed in the country of Egypt. While Egypt publicly makes pronouncements against Israel's invasion of Gaza, unfortunately, they secretly applaud the Israeli invasion. Why? Because Hamas sponsors violence in Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula.

    Again: Fatah does not incite violence in the area: why should Hamas? It is important to hold those responsible for inciting violence to account for their misdeeds. Calls should be made praising the restraint of Abu Mazen, while denouncing the violence of Hamas.


    Albert Hembd

  7. The Israeli invasion of Gaza has nothing to do with revenge for the slain teens, it has nothing to do with Hamas rocket attacks, and it has nothing to do with tunnels used to supply Hamas. BUT it has everything to do with ethnic cleansing- thinning out the herd, if you will- and if by some chance the Israelis have to take control of the coast (and the oil and gas reserves that just happen to be there) that's just an extra added bonus, right?

    If Israel was serious about cleaning out Hamas, they'd do it old-school and clear each square mile of Gaza with boots on the ground- inspect houses, block roads and quarantine villages and neighborhoods- all that good stuff. Destroy the launchers when they find them, arrest known Hamas members when they are located. With their indiscriminate bombing and designating the entirety of Gaza as free-fire zone, they not only guarantee their own failure but set the stage for the next flashpoint. Certainly, Hamas may stop their rocket attacks- but given how pitifully inaccurate and ineffective those rockets are, how much more success would Hamas have sending strike teams into Israel itself? How many more Israelis would die with larger, more devastating attacks delivered right to their doorstep? Despite the pounding the IDF is giving Gaza right now, all they are doing is making the future more dangerous for themselves and the Israeli citizens they're supposed to be 'protecting'.

    (As an added thought, if the IDF is classifying pretty much any structure and individual as a legitimate military target, can Hamas make the claim that since pretty much all Israeli citizens are subject to call-up for military service, they too are legitimate military targets?)

  8. Very good article. The only problem is that it attempts to to use fancy rhetoric to whitewash the facts about Gaza. The IDF does not target just any house, mosque, school etc. The IDF targets pinpoint locations where there is solid intel of hostile activities, like launchers, weapons depots, terrorist operatives etc. The IDF often warns the occupants of a building before striking it, via phone call or "knock on roof", often at the risk of jeoprodizing the successful acquisition of the target. So why don't they leave? Because Hamas orders the civilians to stay put, with harsh reprocussions, it often calls in more civilians tp guard the target. If that is not Human Shielding, then what is?
    The IDF is not attacking all of the Gaza strip, only specific targets in specific areas such as Sagaeea east of Gaza city. IDF notified the population to move from the designated areas days beforehand, and they definitely could have done so, even if they cannot exit the Gaza strip they can move out of the specific neighborhood. So why didn't they? Because Hamas ordered them to stay put. And why did Hamas do that? Because Hamas (a) estimates, from experience, that the IDF will often abort military targets if civilians are spotted there, and (b) Hamas wants the population to die, wants many children to be ripped to bloody shreds so it can go on the media and yell massacre with bloody pictures to show for it. But it is Hamas who prevented them from evacuating or worse yet deliberately placed them there. So the posters are quite accurate, Hamas is using the population to defend military targets.
    The article makes it appear as if IDF is carpet bombing the entire Gaza strip and civilians have nowhere to flee, but this is entirely false. IDF is targeting launchers, weapons depots and military personnel that are responsible for the thousands of rockets Hamas has launched INDISCRIMINANTLY at Israeli towns, with no object other than to terrorize Israeli civilians. Gathering the targets is done using precise intel from drone and satellite footage, or from eye-witnesses. When Hamas does its terrorizing while cowering among the population in one of the densest areas in the world, IDF has no choice but to come after Hamas and risk civilian casualties, but IDF does the most that is humanly possible to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas regards civilian casualties in Gaza as an asset to further its cause.

  9. Hmmm

    This is a terrible article. It is a clear example of a pro Israeli article disguising itself as neutral.

    The common practice is called the "neighbor procedure" Israel developed it, and uses it. One general was caught so the Israeli Supreme Court made them "change it" so they renamed it the "the prior warning procedure" We are supposed to believe that the neighbors now consent to having IDF soldiers with guns at their back as they lead the raid on the "neighbors" Good grief what utter hypocrisy and lies. This means in effect that the use of human shields (as long as they are not Jewish of course) is codified in Israeli law.

    You cannot expect to get an honest , legitimate perspective on any issue when one or more of the authors is so directly involved. And this load of bull is a great example.

    And given these facts: the Palestinians have every right to fire rockets at any target in israel where they suspect the Israeli military is hiding behind civilians. Oh and under international law the as an occupied country the people of Palestine have a legal and moral right to resist the illegal occupying military force by any and all means up to and including firing rockets. However as the illegal occupying force israel HAS NOT LEGAL RIGHT TO FIRE ON THE PALESTINIANS. As to the "right of self defense and the right to exist the indigenous population has equal rights with any other country including israel. Israel's claim does not superseded Palestinians. And the Palestinian people did not force the Jewish israeli population off their lands by force of arms and put them in an open air prison.

  10. The Palestinians are the beggars of the Arab world. This is the way they get their economy. Yasser Arafat became a multi millionaire by begging. They need Israel to kill them so they can keep begging. The rest of the world gives the Palestinians more money after every war. At the beginning of this war Secretary Kerry pledged forty seven million dollars more to the Palestinian beggars. This is in addition to the one and a half billion per year they already get for dying for their homeland. You can say they make a living off of dying. They are not good at fighting but they are very successful at dying. For every one of those bottle rockets they fire off they know Israel will fire back. Chaching.

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