Israel’s Human Shields Defense: Shielding Israeli War Crimes

The Israeli-Palestinian confrontation has reached the phase where no one seems to care any longer about jus in bello (justice in the course of warfare), let alone reducing the levels of brutality. Restoring trust or fidelity between the belligerents seems irrelevant to the parties concerned—the most we can hope for is restoring sanity, especially with regard to mercy and sensitivity toward human life and suffering. However, such a process requires sincere and honest efforts currently unavailable, so it seems the only way to restore a semblance of restraint is to force both sides to follow the requirements of international law. In this category I include the Geneva Conventions (and their additional protocols), the Hague Conventions, and first and foremost, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

A man stands in front of his destroyed home in Gaza.

A man stands in front of his destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, a part of Gaza that Israel bombarded in summer 2014. The destruction left approximately 180,000 Gazans homeless. Credit: Muhammad Sabah / B'Tselem.

I concern myself here with one particular example of the aggression and brutality of the conflict: the Israeli accusation that Palestinians used civilians as human shields during “Operation Protective Edge,” the Israeli military’s code name for the confrontation that raged in the summer of 2014. This accusation, and the actions that the Israeli army attempted to justify with it, make clear the desperate need for belligerents in Israel/Palestine to abide by jus in bello as it is defined by international humanitarian law.

There is no doubt about the most conspicuous and disturbing characteristic of Operation Protective Edge: both sides totally ignored noncombatant immunity. There was, however, no symmetry, no moral equivalence. The Palestinians routinely lobbed mortar shells and primitive missiles toward Israeli towns, cities, and settlements. By way of stark contrast, Israelis used the latest fighter-bombers, assault helicopters, artillery, tanks, and gunboats against Palestinian targets. Both sides acted indiscriminately. However, Israeli citizens were somewhat protected by bomb shelters and other secure spaces. In addition, a very efficient antimissile system known as the “Iron Dome” intercepted over 90 percent of the primitive Palestinian weapons. Civilians in Gaza, on the other hand, were totally exposed to bombing and shooting.

Not surprisingly, the numbers and proportions of casualties sustained by each side are significantly different. According to the UN (BBC, September 1, 2014), seventy-two Israelis (sixty-six soldiers and six civilians) and one Thai citizen were killed. The UN also reported that at least 2,104 Palestinians died, including 1,462 civilians (among them 495 children and 253 women). Although an Israeli government official told the BBC that 1,000 “terrorists” were killed, the UN figures suggest that 69 percent of Palestinian deaths were of civilians.

People duck and cover.

Israeli civilians duck and cover to protect themselves from an incoming rocket. While the civilian casualties of Israel's wars with Hamas have been overwhelmingly Palestinian, the sense of danger and insecurity felt by Israelis continues to push Israeli voters to the right. Credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH 90.

In short, by ignoring noncombatant immunity, Israeli operations indiscriminately destroyed much of Gaza’s life-sustaining infrastructure. The UN estimates that around 18,000 housing units were destroyed or severely damaged, leaving 108,000 Palestinians homeless. These events merit a separate discussion, one devoted to determining the circumstances that compelled the Palestinian decision to attack civilian targets first (for example, the lack of discriminate or accurate weapons, particularly for long distances, or their complete military inferiority, which caused them to choose guerilla fighting tactics, etc.).

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