"The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall. " – Che Guevara
You’ve got to hand it to the Israeli and pro-Israeli media; they certainly did conjure up a good excuse for the profuse number of Gazan deaths – 77% of which is civilian, according to the OCHA – that was calculated in the aftermath of this year’s Gaza conflict. The idea that Hamas had been forcing civilians to stay in buildings in which the terrorists had allegedly been storing rockets does absolve Israel from some of the responsibility for civilian deaths (although Howard Zinn provides a interesting argument against the morality of that idea).
After all, human shield use has been frequent in the history of military conflict, so to an extent it does seem feasible that a group of anti-Semitic jihadists would resort to that tactic in order to criminalise Israel as being genocidal. However, when we look at the investigations of numerous human rights organisations, there seems to be very little suggestion that Hamas have been coercing Gazans to act as a shield around their weapons storages, nor have these organisations found particularly much evidence that Hamas hide weapons in occupied public buildings at all. The use of human shields in Gaza has occurred on a systematic scale in the past, but Hamas are not the ones who’ve been doing it…
One piece of evidence pro-Israelis cite to justify human shied use is a MEMRI interview with Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri. Commenting on a video of Gazan civilians standing on their house roofs when Israeli warplanes are seen approaching, the reporter, Ayad Abu Rida, stated:
“[P]eople are still going to the Kawari family house, in order to prevent the Zionist occupation’s warplanes from targeting it.”
In response to the report on the civilians’ actions, Zuhri remarked,
“This attests to the character of our noble, Jihad-fighting people, who defend their rights and their homes with bare chests and blood.”
Pro-Israeli articles such as this one have cited the above interview, claiming that Zuhri is flagrantly confessing to civilians being coerced by Hamas to defend stashes of rockets in their homes as some act of strategical martyrdom.
But just as stereotypical propaganda-spewing media outlets like doing, Zuhri’s words have been taken out of context. In absolutely no part of that interview does he openly admit to civilians standing on rooftops with the specific aim to defend rocket stashes, much less that Hamas is forcing them to do so. Rather, Zuhri encourages civilians to stand on their roofs to protect nothing more than their “rights and their homed”. It would be was easy to argue that Zuhri confesses to civilians shielding storages of chocolate bars in their homes as it would be to argue them to be protecting rockets – either argument is a product of confirmation bias.
So there’s been no open confession of Hamas allegedly using human shields. But how do we know that Hamas aren’t keeping a dirty secret, and that there really are rockets in public buildings which Hamas are forcing civilians to shield? During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, Amnesty International published an investigative report into Israel’s human shield claims, which states:
“[C]ontrary to repeated allegations by Israeli officials of the use of “human shields”, Amnesty International found no evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks. It found no evidence that Hamas or other armed groups forced residents to stay in or around buildings used by fighters, nor that fighters prevented residents from leaving buildings or areas which had been commandeered by militants” p. 4
The claim of civilians being coerced to remain in their homes after Israeli warnings is refuted by a Gazan resident, in an interview with Russia Today, who said:
“There’s nowhere to go…It’s not them [Hamas] using human shields, it’s the fact that people don’t want to leave their homes…I got a phone call today from Israel, and I refused to answer, telling me that I have to leave my home and I have to evacuate; actually no, I don’t want to, because this is my home and I don’t want to leave it. And then what Israel does is uses that and says ‘See, Hamas is telling people to stay in their homes; they’re using them as human shields.’ But this is something that comes from the people – it’s their right to stay in their home.”
The resident also claims that whilst Israel does issue warning to residents, there is simply no other place in Gaza in which to seek refuge, which may well be the primary reason why civilians choose not to evacuate. In the words of John Stewart, “What are Gazans supposed to do? Evacuate to where? Have you fucking seen Gaza?”
A second human rights source which refutes the claims of weapons storage in homes and coerced civilian protection is the UN. The organisation’s 2009 Goldstone Report, which assessed claims made by both Israel and Hamas on the causes of civilian deaths, states:
“On the basis of the information gathered, the Mission found that Palestinian armed groups were present in urban areas during the military operations and launched rockets from urban areas. It may be that the Palestinian combatants did not at all times adequately distinguish themselves from the civilian population. The Mission found no evidence, however, to suggest that Palestinian armed groups either directed civilians to areas where attacks were being launched or that they forced civilians to remain within the vicinity of the attacks.” p. 18
A third source is a Human Rights Watch report, which documented Israel’s use of white phosphorous in Gaza (which, yeah, is illegal). The report states:
“In the cases documented in this report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of Hamas using human shields in the vicinity at the time of the attacks. In some areas Palestinian fighters appear to have been present, such as in Khuza’a and the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City, but this does not justify the indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in a populated area.” p. 5
White phosphorous – along with flechette shells, which Israel had also been using in Gaza – by its nature is an indiscriminate weapon assigned to create maximal casualties in an area. If Hamas had been hiding amongst the civilian population, using such weaponry to distinguish terrorists from innocents would be about as useful as a chocolate kettle.
The claim that terrorist groups had been storing weaponry in public areas was also used by Israel during the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, but an investigative report by Human Rights Watch says otherwise:
“We did not find, for example, that Hezbollah routinely located its rockets inside or near civilian homes…Apart from its position near UN personnel, Human Rights Watch found only a handful of instances of possible shielding behind civilians, but nothing to suggest there was widespread commission of this humanitarian law violation or any Hezbollah policy encouraging such practices. These relatively few cases do not begin to account for the Lebanese civilians who died under Israeli attacks.” p.40
The veracity of these human rights reports can indeed be trusted – contrary to any idea that Hamas have been coercing Gazan civilians and human rights investigators to report misinformation, Amnesty International’s investigative report states:
“Amnesty International’s delegates who visited Gaza during and after Operation “Cast Lead”, as on many other occasions in recent years, were able to carry out their investigations unhindered and people often voiced criticisms of Hamas’ conduct, including rocket attacks.” p.4
What other pieces of evidence to the IDF possess that suggest the existence of human shields (other than those corny sketches on their Twitter feed)? The IDF’s blog reported the recovery of a supposed Hamas manual instructing operatives on how to store rockets in civilian buildings. This manual would uncontreveritbly be the Holy Grail of the pro-Israeli camp to prove the supposed protagonism of the IDF…if it weren’t for the fact that this ‘manual’ turned out to be a forgery. If you’re so confident that Hamas are indeed using human shields, why go to the lengths of fabricating a manual?
Now, there have indeed been reports by the UN that rockets have been planted in buildings by an unknown source. However, much to the ignorance of the pro-Israeli sources that have been citing these discoveries as evidence for human shield use, there is a catch here. UNRWA published a report documenting such rockets to have been found in a school, but it’s worth mentioning that the report states that the school was vacant, which is a far cry from the Israeli claims that civilians are being forced to stay to protect them, and judging by the conclusions put forward by human rights groups it is unlikely that they had ever been coerced to do so at any point prior to the discovery. The UNRWA issued a second report, which condemned the presence of rockets in another school. But again, the report states that the school was vacant.
Don’t get me wrong here – it was almost certainly Hamas who planted them there, and this action is a palpable war crime. However, the event of storing weapons in vacant buildings cannot be used to account for civilian deaths. If the schools are empty then there are simply no civilians to bomb. What can be used to account for such deaths, however, is Israel bombing UN schools that weren’t empty (they in fact had thousands of civilians inside in refuge), which, incidentally, is also a war crime!
A Human Rights Watch investigation examined the aftermath of the illegally shelled schools, and reported a cheesy attempt by the IDF to justify the action by invalidly wacking out the human shield card:
“In a briefing to media, the Israeli military showed photographs of what it said were rockets hidden in and fired from school compounds. None of the photographs were from the three UN-run schools that Human Rights Watch investigated where many civilians died.”
So again – if the IDF are so confident that Hamas are storing weapons in populated areas, why fabricate evidence? The IDF themselves have been forced to correct claims they had formerly made about Hamas fire supposedly being launched from occupied schools. It was initially claimed by the IDF that a mortar shell which killed a 4 year-old Gazan had been fired by Hamas from inside or near one of the UN schools that was later bombed, but IDF spokesperson Peter Lemer later – whether correcting this claim as an innocent error or forced to expose it as a lie – retracted this statement, stating that the mortar was launched from a separate Hamas bunker – not a UN school.
Storing weapons in vacant areas – contrary to IDF claims – was also used by Hezbollah in 2006, according to a Human Rights Watch report which states that Hezbollah “fired the majority of their rockets from pre-prepared positions in largely unpopulated valleys and fields outside villages.” (p. 40). Again, although it’s still a war crime to indiscriminately fire rockets into Israel, firing rockets from unpopulated areas holds little responsibility for the deaths of civilians in dense areas. But Israeli bombings most certainly do.
So then, can we all go home safe with the knowledge that innocent Gazans have not been used as human shields? Unfortunately not. Like I said in the introduction, Gazans have indeed been used as human shields, but this had been neither by Hamas nor Hezbollah. It’s actually been done by Israel!
In an interview with Fox News, Jewish-American human rights activist Anna Baltzer remarked,
“There is no evidence that Hamas used Palestinians human shields as defined by International Law. But if you would like to talk about human shields Israel routinely uses Palestinians human shields, I have witnessed it with my own two eyes.”
And the IDF’s systematic use of human shields is well-documented. Israeli news source Ynet reported a documentation from the Israeli Supreme Court of around 1,200 uses (yep!) of the IDF using Palestinians as human shields over the past 5 years. What’s interesting about this story is that Shaul Mofaz, Israeli Defence Minister, actually demanded the Supreme Court reconsider their intent to declare the IDF’s human shield use as illegal.
Former IDF soldiers have testified to Israel’s wide us of human shields. Breaking the Silence has documented the testimony of several ex-IDF operatives describing how human shields were used, one such example being when IDF soldiers coerced civilians to disarm a Hamas explosive, or the example of how IDF soldiers routinely tell civilians to enter a neighbouring house first in order to scout for the presence of Hamas operatives.
While finding no evidence of Hamas using human shields, the very same human rights organisations record such tactics being employed by the IDF. The investigative report from Amnesty International states:
“In several cases Israeli soldiers also used civilians, including children, as “human shields”, endangering their lives by forcing them to remain in or near houses which they took over and used as military positions. Some were forced to carry out dangerous tasks such as inspecting properties or objects suspected of being booby-trapped.” p. 3
The UN 2009 Goldstone report additionally documents the IDF’s systematic human shielding:
“The Mission investigated four incidents in which the Israeli armed forces coerced Palestinian civilian men at gunpoint to take part in house searches during the military operations (chap. XIV). The men were blindfolded and handcuffed as they were forced to enter houses ahead of the Israeli soldiers. In one of the incidents, Israeli soldiers repeatedly forced a man to enter a house in which Palestinian combatants were hiding. Published testimonies of Israeli soldiers who took part in the military operations confirm the continuation of this practice, despite clear orders from Israel’s High Court to the armed forces to put an end to it and repeated public assurances from the armed forces that the practice had been discontinued. The Mission concludes that this practice amounts to the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields and is therefore prohibited by international humanitarian law.” p. 22-23
The intriguing aspect of this report is that it was published after the Israeli High Court (finally) outlawed the use of human shield. Nevertheless, as the above excerpt states, Israeli soldiers persisted in using them. A separate UN report documents use of Palestinian children as human shields, also following the High Court’s illegalisation:
“On 15 January, in Tal al-Hawa, south-west of Gaza City, an 11-year-old boy was made to accompany IDF for a number of hours during a period of intense operations. As the soldiers entered the Palestinian Red Crescent Society building, the boy was made to enter first, in front of the soldiers. While moving through the town the boy was made to walk in front of the group, even when the IDF soldiers met with resistance and were fired upon. On arrival at Al-Quds Hospital, the boy remained in front of the soldiers, but then was subsequently released. This appears to be in direct contravention of a 2005 Israeli High Court ruling on the illegality of the use of human shields.” no. 88
Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem has also documented testimony from Palestinian civilians on Israel’s human shied use. One such civilian, Khaled Kamil, recalled:
“The commander pulled me back and said: “We want you to go inside, call Iyad and tell him that he’s better off coming out, because if he doesn’t, we’ll destroy his house and the houses nearby.” I walked two or three meters past the wall and asked the commander what to say and who to call. I spoke out loud deliberately, because I wanted to make sure that whoever was in the alcove would not shoot me. I walked in and stood at the opening of the alcove. It was dark and I couldn’t see inside. One of the soldiers was standing by the ruined wall pointing his gun at me.”
So then, it looks like we know who the real human shield users are. Claims, such as that by Benjamin Netanyahu, that terrorist groups are encouraging Arab civilian deaths in order to antagonise Israel are nothing more than speculation. There is simply no evidence to suggest that either Hamas or Hezbollah have been hiding weapons in populated buildings and forcing their inhabitants to stay when they are bombed. On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence indicating that the IDF have been using civilians as shields.
An interesting tweet made by Monique Bunker reads, “By falsely associating itself with Judaism, Zionism uses Jews everywhere as human shields.” Unlike Hamas, Zionist settler-colonialism has most certainly put innocent civilians on the front lines of conflict. In spite of international criticism towards Israel for their Jerusalem settlement expansion in September this year, plans went ahead nevertheless. But new Israeli settlers have paid the price for this expansion, in the form of the recent killing of israeli citizens by car or the drive-by shooting, both of which took place in the close approximation of new settler homes in East Jerusalem. Had Netanyahu complied with international warnings by cancelling settlement expansion plans and by leaving the Al-Aqsa Mosque under Muslim control, these civilians would still be alive. But as long as a colonialist state positions its civilians near the homes of the occupied natives, innocent civilians will always be the ones who will suffer the consequences.