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.

A plastic rose lies in rubble in Gaza. Photo: Getty
A plastic rose lies in rubble in Gaza. Photo: Getty

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