That ‘human shields’ propaganda
Residents of Beit Hanoun carry a dead ‘human shield’, one of 85 killed by Israeli airstrikes, removed during the ceasefire on Saturday July 26th. Photo by Reuters.
The BBC’s Middle East editor reports from Gaza.
[Followed by Neve Gordon & Nocola Perugini On ‘Human Shielding’ in Gaza]
By Jeremy Bowen, New Statesman
July 22, 2014
Trouble has been brewing between Israel and Hamas for months. The signs were there before the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, and before Israel’s crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank. It’s all horribly familiar. Missiles, rockets and threats, and another Israeli prime minister saying that this time military action would make his people safer.
History shows that military action merely deepens the conflict. Only a proper peace deal will make Palestinians and Israelis safer. There is no chance of one right now, which means more small wars, which will eventually become much bigger ones.
Palestinians who live in Gaza often call it the world’s biggest prison. They mean that about 1.8 million people live in a small strip of land, and most of them are not allowed out by Israel and Egypt, which control the border crossings. In Gaza, the human spirit is strong and it can be a surprisingly cheerful prison, but not now, of course.
The main route into Gaza for a journalist is through the Erez checkpoint from Israel. Erez looks a shiny airport terminal, empty and echoing except for the security guards with automatic weapons, and bored young women in the glass passport booths checking their mobiles. To cross, you need a foreign passport and an Israeli press card.
After a series of corridors and steel turnstiles is a concrete wall with a steel door. It slides open, controlled by a distant Israeli at the other end of the CCTV, and Gaza is on the other side. Next comes a kilometre-long wired-in walkway. If you’re lucky, a few Palestinians granted permission by Israel to approach the gate will be waiting. They run a shuttle service that links up with taxis that take you to the Hamas checkpoint. Israel destroyed their small terminal when the current war started. Now they’re back to noting down passport numbers in a ledger on a table under the shade of a tree.
It wasn’t always like that. When I started visiting Gaza in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed Erez every day to get to work. Paul Adams, my BBC colleague, told me that when he first went to Gaza, teaching on a gap year in 1980, he took a party of Palestinian children on a public bus from the West Bank for a day at the seaside.
Now, anyone who could negotiate a public bus service from the West Bank to Gaza would at the very least get a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The diplomat who found a way to stop the killing on Gaza’s beaches and streets would deserve much more than that.
I saw Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, giving an interview to the BBC after Israel had killed more than 60 people in the Gaza district of Shejaiya. He said he regretted the civilian casualties in Gaza but they were the fault of Hamas. Netanyahu said Israel had warned people to get out. Some had taken the advice; others had been prevented from leaving by Hamas.
I was back in London for my son’s 11th birthday party by the time all those people were killed in Shejaiya. But my impression of Hamas is different from Netanyahu’s. I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields. I saw men from Hamas on street corners, keeping an eye on what was happening. They were local people and everyone knew them, even the young boys. Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, told me that Hamas, whatever you think of it, is part of the Palestinian DNA.
I met Sourani first when he was condemning abuses by Yasser Arafat’s men. He has taken an equally tough stance on Hamas. Now he says Israel is violating the laws of war by ignoring its legal duty to treat Palestinian civilians as protected non-combatants.
Hamas, human rights groups say, also violates the laws of war by firing missiles at civilians. I used to be very cynical about international humanitarian law. When I heard, some time around the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, that the UN was setting up a tribunal to prosecute war criminals in the former Yugoslavia I thought it was a bad joke. I feel differently now, especially after testifying four times at the tribunal. I don’t think anything similar is coming for the Israelis and Palestinians. But the laws of war are the best way we have to measure the degrees of horror that human beings inflict on each other.
When I left Gaza, Palestinian rockets were landing uncomfortably close to Erez crossing. When the alert sounded, our Israeli driver leapt out, leaving the engine running, and took cover behind a wall. It is very frightening to be caught up in a rocket attack like that. Israeli civilians have been protected by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, by a big investment in civil defence (in the border town of Sderot, even the bus stops double as bomb shelters) and because their people are trained from childhood about how to take cover.
But it is wrong to suggest that Israeli civilians near Gaza suffer as much as Palestinians. It is much, much worse in Gaza. I defy anyone with an ounce of human feeling not to feel the same after ten minutes in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital with wounded and dying civilians. In the mortuary, it’s so overcrowded that the bodies of two children are crammed on to a single shelf. One day, they had only found enough of the remains of six women and children to fill a single stretcher.
Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus. The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out.
All fighting within cities and all bombardments of urban spaces, even the most “precise and surgical”, is a potential death trap for civilians. Consequently, the permeation of war into cities inevitably transforms their inhabitants into potential human shields.
For Palestinians living in Gaza today, simply spending time in their own homes, frequenting a mosque, going to a hospital or to school has become a dangerous enterprise since any one of these architectural edifices can become at any moment a target. One can no longer safely assume that the existence of masses of human bodies – even the bodies of children – in civilian spaces can serve as defence of the weak against the lethal capacity of the hi-tech states.
But since hi-tech states can and do kill hundreds or thousands of civilians, they have to provide moral justification for their action in order to preserve their standing in the international arena; they have to demonstrate that they are protecting the principles of liberal democracy. It is precisely within this context that we should understand the series of posters recently disseminated by the Israeli military through its Twitter account, Facebook and blogs.
The poster “Where do Gaza Terrorists Hide Their Weapons” is a paradigmatic example, where the subtext does the speaking: Houses, mosques, schools, and hospitals are legitimate targets because they are presumed to be weapon depositories.
This is also the message in “When Is A House a Home?” which simply zooms in on one of the images in the previous poster, showing how Palestinians presumably hide rockets in civilian homes.
The logic is straightforward: insofar as Hamas hides weapons in houses (illegitimate), Israel can bomb them as if they were military targets (legitimate). Within this framework, a single function (hiding weapons) out of many existing functions (home, shelter, intimacy, etc) determines the status of an urban site (in our case the house), so that the edifice’s form loses its traditional signification.
The question “when does it become a legitimate military target?” is merely rhetorical. Its real meaning is: “All houses in Gaza are legitimate targets” since all houses are potentially non-homes.
Not unlike colonial as well as other vastly asymmetrical wars, Israel’s legitimisation for its indiscriminate bombing is premised upon a profound moral disjuncture between Israelis and Palestinians. In the poster “Israel uses weapon to protect its civilians. Hamas uses civilians to protect its weapons”, Palestinians are depicted as barbarians who ignore the elementary grammar of international law.
Israel’s warfare is, however, not only about the re-signification of architectural structures, but also about the transformation of human beings into collateral damage, subjects who can be killed without violating international law. This is the subtext of the poster featuring Israel’s Chief of Staff saying: “Even as we carry out strikes, we remember that there are civilians in Gaza. Hamas has turned them into hostages.”
Again, the logic is clear. All civilians in Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas, which is considered a war crime and a gross violation of international law governing armed conflict. This, then, provides legal and moral justification against the accusation that Israel is the one killing civilians. Presumed human rights violations carried out by Palestinians against Palestinians – taking hostages and human shielding – thus become the legitimisation of lethal and indiscriminate violence on the part of the occupying force.
Hence, the use of human shields is not only a violation. In contemporary asymmetric urban wars, accusing the enemy of using human shields helps validate the claim that the death of ”untargeted civilians” is merely collateral damage. When all civilians are potential human shields, when each and every civilian can become a hostage of the enemy, then all enemy civilians become killable.
In order for all this to be convincing, the Israeli military depicts the asymmetric context in which it unleashes its violence against a whole population as symmetric. This is carried out, for instance, through the poster “Some bomb shelters shelter people, some shelter bombs”. Here a radically disproportionate situation is presented as if it were balanced.
The residents of Gaza are bombed by cutting edge F-16 fighter jets and drones, yet they do not have bomb shelters, and they have nowhere to flee. Israel’s residents are bombed mostly by makeshift rockets, many of which have been intercepted by Iron Dome missiles. The majority of the population in Israel has access to shelters and can flee out of the rocket’s range.
These powerful images, spread by the Israeli military through social media, attempt to transform the very presence of civilians as suspect in the areas it bombards, regardless of the fact that the areas it bombs are urban centres.
The crux of the matter is that in the context of contemporary asymmetric warfare, the weak do not have many options. When there are no bomb shelters, people remain at home during extensive bombardment. And if, like in the case of the Palestinians in Gaza, fleeing is not an option – because all exits from the strip have been closed, or because the neighbour’s house is under the exact same threat as one’s own, or because one is already a refugee and does not want to become a refugee anew – staying put, which the high-tech states term “illegal human shields,” constitutes a form of resistance.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation.
Nicola Perugini is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Italian Studies and Middle East Studies at Brown University. His forthcoming book is entitled The Human Right to Dominate.