A plastic rose lies in rubble in Gaza. Photo: Getty
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What Israel means when it talks about “human shields”

In Gaza, this approach of punishing civilians in the hope that they will turn against their Hamas leaders has been employed by the Israelis since Hamas first came to power in 2006.

One of the Israeli mantras in the Gaza war is that Hamas deliberately hides behind Palestinian civilians, using them as human shields. Therefore, Israel claims, Hamas bears responsibility for the deaths of more than 1,850 Gazans, including many civilians, and the destruction of large sections of the Gaza Strip in Israeli raids targeting the Islamist group.

Hamas indeed launches its war against Israel from inside urban areas. The geography and demography of the Gaza Strip force it to do so. Gaza is roughly a quarter the size of London and home to 1.8 million people, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. For Hamas to locate empty pockets in the Strip from where to conduct a so-called clean war against the Israeli army while not “hiding behind civilians” is practically impossible.

Likewise, Benjamin Netanyahu and his military command do not conduct their war against Hamas from a tent in the desert but from the general staff headquarters, which are located in central Tel Aviv. So it can be argued that they, too, “hide behind civilians” – the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is Israel’s most densely populated region.

One of the undeclared yet important tenets of Israel’s way of fighting its enemies is the manipulation of civilian populations. The state has long used innocent civilians to help it achieve its war aims. This method originates in Israel’s Lebanon wars; as a former artillery officer serving there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I witnessed at first hand how this strategy was developed and implemented.

What we used to do was fire artillery shells packed with leaflets into villages in southern Lebanon, calling on the villagers to leave their homes “for your own safety”. We then bombed their houses to the ground in our fight against the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and later Hezbollah, as the latter were “hiding in the villages, using the villagers as human shields”.

It was important to make the populations leave to avoid innocent civilian casualties and the condemnation of the international community, but the principal reason for displacing the local people was to make their lives hell; to cause them to walk for hours in the dark, carrying their meagre possessions. Often they lost their houses. Israel’s assumption was that rather than blaming it for the disasters, Lebanese villagers would put the blame on the PLO and Hezbollah.

Similarly, in Gaza, this approach of punishing civilians in the hope that they will turn against their Hamas leaders has been employed by the Israelis since Hamas first came to power in 2006. This explains the economic blockade of Gaza, which stifled its economy. The Israeli effort to undermine support for Hamas is even harsher now, with aeroplanes dropping leaflets advising the Gazans to leave their homes before the pilots drop explosives, many of which land on houses of those who have nothing to do with Hamas.

This cruel method of playing Arabs against their leaders has never worked. It didn’t work in Lebanon and it won’t in Gaza. All it does is increase the hatred and anger of civilians, which they direct not so much against their leaders – the PLO, Hezbollah and now Hamas – but against the Israelis, making any future peace between Israel and its neighbours even more difficult to achieve.

Ahron Bregman is the author of “Cursed Victory: a History of Israel and the Occupied Territories” (Allen Lane, £25)

Donald Macintyre, page 22

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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This is a refugee crisis, and it has always been a refugee crisis

If your country is in flames and your life is at risk, boarding a rickety, dangerous boat is a rational decision. We need to provide safer choices and better routes.

Even those of us all too familiar with the human cost of the present refugee crisis were stopped in our tracks by the profoundly disturbing images of the dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach. Whatever our personal view about the ethics of displaying the photographs, one thing is clear: the refugee crisis on our doorstep can no longer be denied or ignored.

For far too long the political conversation in the UK has avoided facing up to the obvious conclusion that the UK must provide protection to more refugees in this country. Ministers have responded to calls to do more by talking about the aid we are providing to help refugees in the region, by blaming other European Governments who are hosting more refugees than we are, and also accusing refugees themselves by claiming the desperate people forced into boarding unsafe boats in the Mediterranean were chancers and adventurers, out for an easier life.

These latest images have blown all that away and revealed the shaming truth. This is a refugee crisis and has always been a refugee crisis. When the Refugee Council wrote to the prime minister in 2013 to call for the UK to lead on resettling Syrian refugees displaced by a war that was already two years old, it was a refugee crisis in the making.

Many people struggle to comprehend why refugees would pay smugglers large sums of money to be piled into a rickety boat in the hope of reaching the shores in Europe. The simple answer is that for these individuals, there is no other choice. If your country is in flames and your life is at risk, boarding that boat is a rational decision. There has been much vitriol aimed at smugglers who are trading in human misery, but European governments could put them out of business if they created alternative, legal routes for refugees to reach our shores.

There are clear steps that European governments, including our own, can take to help prevent people having to risk their lives. We need to offer more resettlement places so that people can be brought directly to countries of safety. We also need to make it easier for refugees to reunite with their relatives already living in safety in the UK. Under current rules, refugees are only allowed to bring their husband or wife and dependant children under the age of 18. Those that do qualify for family reunion often face long delays living apart, with usually the women and children surviving in desperate conditions while they wait for a decision on their application. Sometimes they are refused because they cannot provide the right documentation. If you had bombs raining down on your house, would you think to pick up your marriage certificate?

The time to act is well overdue, but the tide of public opinion seems to be turning – especially since the release of the photographs. We urgently need David Cameron to show political leadership and help us live up to the proud tradition of protecting refugees that he often refers to. That tradition is meaningless if people cannot reach us, if they are dying in the attempt. It is a shame that it had to take such a tragic image to shake people into calling for action, but for many it means that the crisis is no longer out of sight and out of mind.

Maurice Wren is the chief executive of the Refugee Council