A plastic rose lies in rubble in Gaza. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

There are moral and practical reasons why using force to stop a far-right march is justified.

It says a great deal about Donald Trump that for the second time under his Presidency we are having to ask the question: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

More specifically, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we must ask: is it OK to turn up to a legal march, by permit-possessing white supremacists, and physically stop that march from taking place through the use of force if necessary?

The US president has been widely criticised for indicating that he thought the assortment of anti-semites, KKK members and self-professed Nazis were no worse than the anti-fascist counter demonstrators. So for him, the answer is presumably no, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi in this situation.

For others such as Melanie Phillips in the Times, or Telegraph writer Martin Daubney, the left have seemingly become the real fascists.

The argument goes that both sides are extremists and thus both must be condemned equally for violence (skipping over the fact that one of the counter-protesters was killed by a member of the far right, who drove his car into a crowd).

This argument – by focusing on the ideologies of the two groups – distracts from the more relevant issue of why both sides were in Charlottesville in the first place.

The Nazis and white supremacists were marching there because they hate minorities and want them to be oppressed, deported or worse. That is not just a democratic expression of opinion. Its intent is to suppress the ability of others to live their lives and express themselves, and to encourage violence and intimidation.

The counter-protesters were there to oppose and disrupt that march in defence of those minorities. Yes, some may have held extreme left-wing views, but they were in Charlottesville to stop the far-right trying to impose its ideology on others, not impose their own.

So far, the two sides are not equally culpable.

Beyond the ethical debate, there is also the fundamental question of whether it is simply counterproductive to use physical force against a far-right march.

The protesters could, of course, have all just held their banners and chanted back. They could also have laid down in front of the march and dared the “Unite the Right” march to walk over or around them.

Instead the anti-fascists kicked, maced and punched back. That was what allowed Trump to even think of making his attempt to blame both sides at Charlottesville.

On a pragmatic level, there is plenty of evidence from history to suggest that non-violent protest has had a greater impact. From Gandhi in to the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-violence has often been the most effective tool of political movements fighting oppression, achieving political goals and forcing change.

But the success of those protests was largely built on their ability to embarrass the governments they were arrayed against. For democratic states in particular, non-violent protest can be effective because the government risks its legitimacy if it is seen violently attacking people peacefully expressing a democratic opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to embarrass a Nazi. They don't have legitimacy to lose. In fact they gain legitimacy by marching unopposed, as if their swastikas and burning crosses were just another example of political free expression.

By contrast, the far right do find being physically attacked embarrassing. Their movement is based on the glorification of victory, of white supremacy, of masculine and racial superiority, and scenes of white supremacists looking anything but superior undermines their claims.

And when it comes to Nazis marching on the streets, the lessons from history show that physically opposing them has worked. The most famous example is the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which a march by thousands of Hitler-era Nazis was stopped parading through East End by a coalition of its Jewish Community, dockworkers, other assorted locals, trade unionists and Communists.

There was also the Battle of Lewisham in the late 70s when anti-fascist protesters took on the National Front. Both these battles, and that’s what they were, helped neuter burgeoning movements of fascist, racist far right thugs who hated minorities.

None of this is to say that punching a Nazi is always either right, or indeed a good idea. The last time this debate came up was during Trump’s inauguration when "Alt Right" leader Richard Spencer was punched while giving a TV interview. Despite the many, many entertaining memes made from the footage, what casual viewers saw was a reasonable-looking man being hit unawares. He could claim to be a victim.

Charlottesville was different. When 1,000 Nazis come marching through a town trying to impose their vision of the world on it and everywhere else, they don't have any claim to be victims.