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See the authors' contribution to Society & Space here: The politics of human shielding: On the resignification of space and the constitution of civilians as shields in liberal wars
Urban areas, as Stephen Graham once put it, “have become the lightning conductors for our planet's political violence," while "warfare strongly shapes quotidian urban life” (Graham 2011). As cities are increasingly becoming primary theatres of warfare, they are not simply the site in which contemporary conflicts take place, but are also, as Eyal Weizman (2006) cogently observes, a medium of violence. Accordingly, it is not only true that within urban warfare civilians inevitably occupy the front lines of the fighting and that noncombatants and combatants as well as civilian and military edifices overlap, but also that civilians are progressively becoming a technology of warfare. This is clearly seen through the mounting news reports about human shields coming from Lugansk in East Ukraine, Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq, Kobane in Syria, Gombe in Nigeria to Gaza City, cities where civilians are increasingly being used as an instrument of protection, coercion or deterrence.
International humanitarian law (IHL) prohibits the use of civilians “to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations.” Accordingly, parties to a conflict are not allowed to “direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations” (Protocol I 1977). By couching human shielding in this way, IHL effectively does two things: on the one hand, it prohibits the transformation of civilians into human shields, while, on the other, it allows military forces to attack targets that are protected by human shields (provided they abide by the principle of proportionality), thus combining the prohibition of using human shields with the legality of killing them.
Human shields in Israel/Palestine
One of the double unit armored railcars built to combat terrorism during the revolt. "Two Arabs are being taken for an uncomfortable ride on the pony truck extension." Photo Haganah Museum.
Civilians have often been at the forefront of violence in Israel/Palestine. One of the first instances of the use of human shields occurred during the 1936-39 Arab revolt in mandatory Palestine, when Palestinians carried out frequent acts of anti-colonial sabotage against British installations, including railway lines and trains. Initially, the lines were patrolled on foot and by reinforcing the train cabs with armor and mounting them with soldiers and machineguns. This did not seem to work, since the "trolleys were derailed and fired at on numerous occasions." The British accordingly equipped the train with a "pony truck," a contraption connected to the front of the train with a long extension whose function was to deflect the explosion of mines. As a report about the railways points out, “The pony trucks had a flat sheet built over the single axle on which, it was discovered, hostages could be made to sit” (Figure 1) (Cotterell 1986). Hence, Palestinian bodies became a warfare technology, used as human shields against insurgency attacks and as “human mine sweepers.”
While human shields were used sporadically in Israel/Palestine over the next seven decades, it was only in the midst of the Second Intifada (which erupted in September 2000) that the legal category human shield was invoked with certain frequency. As several human rights organizations have noted, during the 2002 military operation “Defensive Shield,” Israeli soldiers would randomly take Palestinian civilians and force them to enter buildings suspected of being booby-trapped, made them remove suspicious objects from roads, stand inside houses where soldiers had set up military positions, and walk in front of soldiers to shield them from gunfire.
Gaza 2014: Operation “Protective Edge”
Ten years after the Second Intifada, human shields came to occupy an even more central place in the debate about the relationship between legitimate violence and armed resistance in Israel/Palestine. According to data gathered by the UN, at least 2,133 Palestinians were killed during Israel’s 2014 military campaign “Protective Edge” in Gaza. Of the initially verified cases, 1,489 are believed to be civilians, including 500 children. On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed during the war, 67 combatants and 5 civilians. These figures already point to a clear discrepancy with respect to the number and proportion of civilian deaths: 70 percent of all those killed by Israel were civilians compared to the 7.5 percent of civilians killed by Palestinians.
The legal phrase human shield became one of the central tropes promulgated by Israel during the Gaza war, because, on the one hand, the categorization of civilians as human shields helps conceal the fact that "pin point strikes" and "surgical capabilities" can neither predict nor guarantee discrimination, while on the other hand, it helps Israel justify the large proportion of civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian spaces in Gaza.
An analysis of the infographics disseminated during “Protective Edge” by the Israeli military through social media provides an unparalleled illustration of how Israel strived to provide legal and moral justification for killing hundreds of civilians. One of the first infographics circulated by the military sets the stage for the Gaza war by portraying Israel’s assault as an attempt to defend the very essence of the liberal ideal. Using one of liberal democracy’s iconic symbols, it shows rockets with bloody smoke heading towards the Statue of Liberty and asks the Western public: “What would you do?” (Figure 2) In this way, Israel both positions itself as a liberal democracy and draws an analogy between the Gaza war and post 9/11 preoccupations of terrorist attacks against the United States.
The theme that appears in most the infographics dealing with human shields is the depiction of the asymmetric context in which the Gaza war took place as if it were symmetric. This symmetric representation is carried out in “Some bomb shelters shelter people, some shelter bombs” (Figure 3) as well as in numerous other infographics, where the radically disproportionate power differential and spatial disparity between a besieged population confined to an enclave and its besiegers is depicted as if the two camps were equal and enjoyed the same military and spatial capabilities. The assumption of equality not only elides the reality on the ground, but is necessary for Israel to justify—through the human shielding argument—its destruction of Gaza within a liberal imagination. In Figure 3, liberal Israel shields humans, whereas illiberal Hamas shields bombs.
In “Where do Gaza Terrorists Hide Their Weapons?” (Figure 4) the subtext does the speaking: houses, mosques, schools, and hospitals are legitimate targets because they are presumed to be weapon depositories. The logic is straightforward: insofar as Hamas hides weapons in houses or hospitals (illegitimate), Israel can bomb them as if they were (legitimate) military targets. A single function (hiding weapons) out of many existing functions (home, shelter, intimacy, etc.) determines the status of a civilian urban site, so that the edifice's form loses its traditional signification.
The mobilization of the human shield category as a humanitarian shield permitting the legitimate use of lethal force in accordance with international law is particularly clear in one of the infographics featuring Israel’s Chief of Staff as saying:
“Even as we carry out strikes, we remember that there are civilians in Gaza. Hamas has turned them into hostages” (Figure 5).
The logic is clear. Practically 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.
These and numerous other 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 these areas are urban centers. For Palestinians living in Gaza, simply spending time in their own homes, frequenting a mosque, going to a hospital or to school became a dangerous enterprise since any one of these architectural edifices could become a target at any moment. One can no longer safely assume that the existence of masses of human bodies in civilian spaces can serve as defense against the lethal capacity of liberal hi-tech states. Thus, in Israel, the deployment of the legal concept human shield helps the liberal state authorize and legitimize its extensive civilian killings and in this way to preserve its place among “civilized nations.”