While the truce in Gaza allows time for negotiations on a more lasting solution, the current signs emerging from the Israeli side are not encouraging. Gaza has been devastated. It has no functioning water supply or electricity system and many, many homes have been destroyed or seriously damaged. Yet the current Israeli negotiating position seems to be that permission to rebuild will depend on Hamas being disarmed. Once again it seems, civilians are being collectively punished to achieve a military end. Attaching such a condition to the rebuild would in itself be a violation of article 33 of the Geneva Conventions, which forbids collective punishment.
At last count, nearly 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in the recent violence, most of them civilians and many of them (at least 330 by last count) being children. On the Israeli side, four civilians have been killed, and about 60 of the IDF soldiers carrying out the offensive. One of the most disturbing “explanations” for this grotesque imbalance is that the Palestinians were being used as “human shields” by Hamas.
Before going into the detail of this charge, it has to be said that the claim about “human shields” has become a regular propaganda feature of modern warfare where (a) one side enjoys massive military superiority and (b) their enemies are embedded within a civilian population. When the US military attacked the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2004-05, it claimed the Sunni rebels were using the locals as human shields:
Marines, backed up by jet fighters, attack helicopters and an aerial gunship, fought furious battles yesterday with Fallujah terrorists – who used women and children as shields.
For their part, the Fallujah rebels claimed it was the US who were using local people as human shields by allegedly pushing them into the town in front of their tanks and armoured vehicles. Similarly in the recent fighting in the Ukraine, both sides have accused the other of using civilians as human shields.
As mentioned, the incidence of civilian casualties is becoming a feature of modern asymmetric warfare situations where populations are living under occupation. The deliberate use of human shields is prohibited by rule 97 of the customary international humanitarian law provisions of the Red Cross , and a discussion of the law against the use of human shields – in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, right back to the Nuremberg trials – is available here.
How valid is the “human shields” charge in Gaza? And even if Hamas did deploy it as a deliberate tactic as alleged, does that entirely exonerate the Israelis for proceeding to ignore it and inflicting such massive civilian casualties? In Gaza, over 1.8 million people have been packed into 223 square kilometres of land. Firing shells and missiles into such a densely populated area is almost guaranteed to result in high civilian casualties, regardless of where the weaponry of the resistance is being hidden.
Even a leafleted warning that an airstrike is imminent has little practical effect. There are no warning sirens to be triggered or bomb shelters to be hidden in, and it is impossible to leave Gaza to find refuge elsewhere. A barrier fence runs around the perimeter and Israel controls all access by air, and much of the land border. To the south of Gaza, Egypt has closed that border. Within Gaza, even UN sites – the nominal safe houses to which Gazans could supposedly find safety – were regularly bombed and shelled. In sum, the “human shield” argument seems superfluous in Gaza, given that the entire territory has been treated as a virtual free fire zone.
The basic logic of the claims about the deliberate use of “human shields” seems problematic. As is argued here:
This notion, that Palestinians sacrifice their children to be murdered… to elicit the sympathy of “Westerners”, is…..racist in the extreme.
In recent days however, much has been made of the fact that that the Israeli Defence Forces have found a Hamas military manual that supposedly condones the use of human shields. Assuming the document is genuine, what the wording of the manual says is that Israel will pay a propaganda price when it inflicts large numbers of civilian casualties:
“The destruction of civilian homes: This increases the hatred of the citizens toward the attackers and increases their gathering around [to support] the city defenders,” the manual said, according to the IDF. The manual, which came from the Shuja’iya Brigade of Hamas’ military wing, also explained how heavily populated urban areas — called “pockets of resistance” — make operations for the IDF difficult because Israeli soldiers try not to harm civilians. “The soldiers and [IDF] commanders must limit their use of weapons and tactics that lead to the harm and unnecessary loss of people and [destruction of] civilian facilities,” the manual said, according to the IDF. “It is difficult for them to get the most use out of their firearms, especially of supporting fire [e.g. artillery].”
While the manual certainly shows Hamas to be well aware of the potential public relations gains if Israel killed large numbers of Gazan civilians, it hardly exonerates Israel for then going ahead and doing so, anyway. The salient point is that if “human shields” were a tactic meant to deter Israel’s military actions in Gaza, it was a tactic that plainly didn’t work. Even if Hamas did deliberate store its rockets and arms near to civilian areas – and presuming it had the luxury of putting them anywhere else, which is debatable – it was still an entirely made-by-Israel decision to proceed, and to ignore the likelihood that large numbers of civilians would be killed. Ultimately, you can’t call someone a ‘shield’ after you’ve demonstrated a willingness to shoot straight through them.
The ethical arguments around human shields has been laid out by the theologian Professor Gary Burge, of Wheaton College, Chicago. We can readily grasp the logic involved, Burge says, in certain circumstances:
Using my best Socratic pedagogy, I’d present the class with a few scenarios: If a genuine terrorist were in the street, armed and lethal, and hiding behind two innocent civilians, would you consider shooting all three of them in order to save 25 bystanders? Would it be morally justified? I can imagine a long silence while the class anticipates a trap. Some would argue against the triple deaths; others would argue that it is expedient and necessary. I can hear it now: What if the man killed 25 people while you didn’t do anything? This is the ticking-time-bomb argument. You are justified in doing anything if it saves the greater number of people.
But then I’d like to press on: What if our terrorist were holding 15 people hostage and threatening to kill 25 bystanders? Do we kill all of them to save the 25? And on we go. I’m pressing the parameters of proportionality (a vital component in any just-war theory). But there is more: What if the terrorist were sleeping in bed with his wife, dreaming about whom he might kill tomorrow, and his 10 children were in his apartment with him? And what if there were 50 innocent neighbors on adjacent floors in his building?
This, as Burge says, was precisely the scenario that occurred in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. In fact, one of the ghastly features of the recent carnage in Gaza has been the way that so many extended families have been virtually wiped out – entailing, on several recorded occasions, the deaths of ten to twenty children, wives, cousins and grandparents- apparently because one militant relative might have been on the premises. As Burge continues:
“We are targeting Hamas militants,” Israel argued. But wait. Is it morally acceptable to also kill his 10 family members who do not participate in his work? Are we justified if we demolish his entire building? Two buildings? Six? May we kill 1,200 people in Gaza to protect 50 Israelis? Why not kill 5,000? Why not all of them? The argument “But they use human shields!” has now become a hollow justification for innocent casualties and atrocities in warfare (instead of an explanation), and while many of us suspect that Hamas may be guilty of this, Israel’s massive bombardments have now crossed some ethical line. Many of us know this.
Which finally, takes us back to where we started: to the conditions for a just, sustainable truce. As things stand, Israel appears reluctant to retreat from the logic and from the practices of collective punishment. Hamas must disarm, Israel is telling the people of Gaza, before we will allow you to recover from the last round of collective punishment: we need military gains, before we will allow you to rebuild your homes, or have access to electricity, and to drinkable water. According to CNN, it could take Gaza 30 years to repair the damage that has been done in the past month.
An alternative approach has been outlined by former President Jimmy Carter. It seems unlikely to be followed.