On ‘Human Shielding’ in Gaza: Israeli Army Tried to Justify Striking Civilian Areas

Israeli army social media propaganda. (Twitter)

By  Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini

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 legitimization 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. And 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. Follow Nicola on Twitter: @PeruginiNic.

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  1. A little too complicated for my state of mind now.
    Israel is blown away by two simple questions that can be and are asked by any Palestinian.
    First is, Wouldn’t you?
    Second is, Didn’t you?
    And they did this to create what we know as Israel. And so Israel is a madhouse.
    The other question is, will we have to live with Israel? This is a practical question. Jews have to answer this very soon for if they do not they will lose all validity. After all Judaism is a supreme tradition of humanity. Israel is stripping it of its humanity.

  2. The majority of Palestinians are civilians. In fact, I’d say all Gazans are civilians, as there is no military in Gaza. However, the same cannot be said of Israel.
    Each person in Israel has been or is conscripted into the IDF (the isreali Oppression and Occupation forces), and if they live at home with their families, their homes would be more, “legitimate targets”, than would be any of Gaza’s homes (houses, tents, lean-tos, etc..)

    Bibi’s idea that every house is not a home, in Gaza, absolutely fails the test of warring. Yet, again, every house in Israel is not only (or even) a home, as each would qualify as a, “bunker”. Therefore, each IOF home is a reasoned target.

  3. Israel and Palestinians have lived together for centuries. The large number of Israelis came and went with various battles over the centuries. Under the Ottoman Empire and with Sulieman in charge beforehand, all religious groups there were welcomed and lived mostly in peace. Though Israel says they were first, if they checked–or you, also–the fifth Book of the Bible Deuteronomy each would find that there were many Arab tribes. Moses told them which to attack and which to avoid and they did. Those tribes that were not destroyed completely are the ancestors of today’s Palestinians. Israel and Abbas with Hamas must sit down, negotiate and compromise. Each will have to give up some.

  4. Nice story Trish but not factual. The Arabs of today have no proven connection to the tribes that inhabited Israel before Joshua took the promised land. The Arabs of today came from Arabia. Most are relatively recent arrivals in the land of Israel.

    • Who “promised” the land to Joshua? And in any case why is that relevant?

  5. I would just like to say for those of you who are actually trying to justify the killing of CHILDREN make me sick and it shows how you have bought into the mass media bias in the west due to their support of Israel. More than 600 dead mostly children. Gaza is already an open prison. Israeli/Zionists who are ethnicly cleansing Palestine. Israel is mass murdering and getting away with it.
    @ Hans luner – Study history more in depth please
    @Anne neck 58 – Hit the nail on the head, Good on you

    • there can never be justification for killing children ,but can you explain to me, why the thousands of Syrian children, are not worth the same as the children of Gaza? and what about the children in Irack and Pakistan ???
      i feel that the west looks at the people of the middle east ,and weeps !!.if you kill your own lightly and do not respect human rights in your country,what do you expect from strangers that you attack?

  6. Listen,
    Been there,done that for 800 years here in Ireland. Friends were shot,tortured by britiish soldiers, some blew themselves up, some died on hunger strike, friends shot and blew up eachother and the British soldiers occupying our lands.
    Sound familiar!!!
    It was all a load of shite, killing for a religion, for a flag, for a piece of dirt….bullshit and shame on all your leaders for passing this idealogy to your children.
    Finally, we got peace here, (thanks to some truly great men like John Hume)
    Guess what , I’m still a republican but wish my British loving neighbours nothing but goodwill and we will share our lands and history together.
    Grow up middle east and give your kids a life!

  7. .Some say , israel are ethnic cleansing, Gaza people are living in a prison, Palestinians have no life (all true just like here!).Then we will have each saying they are only defending their people and they are not the aggressor…
    Where do u stop the blame game, Moses, Mohammed, Abraham, ??
    The ans.is simple and we have shown d way..
    Ceasefire and it matters not who stops first.
    Agree to respect eachother and their idealogy but agree that same will never happen without the consent of majority in each others lands.
    Get all sides to sign up by vote and free all prisoners.
    Takes ten years to complete and twenty years to cement. Next generation will wonder what it was all about.

  8. So basically anti-Israel radical bigots Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini claim to day that because the Arab “alestiniaans” have sophisticated weapons its OK then to use their own children as shields?
    As to “unleashing” on Gaza…the goliath is clearly on the Arab side as humane IDF cares about collateral damage. Otherwise you would have literally thousands dead by mighty weapons. It’s this humanity which the Arab side abuses.

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