On Human Shields

Neve Gordon

In the early 1990s I worked at Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. Not long after the Oslo Accords were signed we moved from offices on Gordon Street in Tel Aviv to larger premises on Allenby Street, not far from the Great Synagogue. Walking home from work one day, I noticed a small plaque near the synagogue’s entrance. Written in Hebrew and English, it says: ‘The Lehi used the basement and attic of this synagogue as a secret arms cache. It was discovered by the British during the “great curfew” imposed in July 1946, and the weapons were confiscated.’

Lehi was a Zionist paramilitary organisation that operated primarily against the British forces in Mandatory Palestine, but it was also among the groups that carried out the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre, killing at least 107 Palestinians. Four years earlier, the group had assassinated Walter Guinness, also known as Lord Moyne, the British minister resident in the Middle East. Later terrorist attacks included the assassination in 1948 of the Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations mediator between Israel and Arab countries.

The first provisional government of Israel declared Lehi a terrorist organisation and arrested more than two hundred members, but offered them a general amnesty before the first elections in January 1949. Thirty years later, Israel introduced the Lehi ribbon, honoring the militant group’s ‘activity in the struggle for the establishment of Israel’ and in 1983 a former leader of the organisation, Yitzhak Shamir, became prime minister. It was around this time that the plaque was placed in front of the Great Synagogue commemorating its role in the Zionist struggle for liberation – namely, hiding arms deployed in Lehi’s terrorist attacks.

A few kilometres from the Great Synagogue, in Ramat Gan, the first elementary school in the city was used for similar purposes. Its plaque says that the place was used by the Etzel during the 1930s and 1940s for weapons training and as a secret arms cache.

Etzel, a Hebrew acronym for Irgun Zvai Leumi (the National Military Organisation), is the group that bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, killing 91 people and injuring scores of others. Led at one stage by Menachem Begin, the paramilitary group also participated in the Deir Yassin massacre and several other terrorist attacks before morphing into the ‘Freedom Party’ (Tnuat Herut). A letter to the New York Times in December 1948, signed by Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and others, described the party as ‘closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties’. In 1977, it became the major partner of the newly formed Likud, which has been ruling Israel on and off ever since.

Synagogues and schools were not the only places Zionist paramilitary groups used to hide fighters and equipment. The Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) station in Netanya has a plaque which says that ‘the medical centre was used to cover and camouflage the operations of Haganah’s command centre in Netanya – the military arm of the state to come.’ This plaque also suggests that the pre-state use of civilian sites as a cover for military purposes is something that Israelis today should be proud of.

The use of civilian sites by paramilitary groups was in no way unique to Mandatory Palestine. When the Prussians occupied France in 1870, the French francs-tireurs or free shooters were ‘farmers by day and fighters by night’. From the American Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento to anti-colonial struggles in Malaya, India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam as well as Algeria, Angola and Palestine, militants have hidden among civilians in what we now call people’s wars. Given the asymmetry of power between non-state paramilitary groups and national armies, the ability to blend into the civilian population was necessary for military survival. Today, hi-tech state militaries deploy new surveillance technologies and enhanced weapon systems to find and kill militants much more easily, driving paramilitary groups across the globe to move into densely populated urban settings where they can conceal themselves more easily. Hamas, in this sense, is no outlier.

It has consequently been accused by Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesperson, of using human shields. ‘Our war,’ Hagari said, ‘is against Hamas, not against the people in Gaza. Especially not the sick, the women, or the children. Our war is against Hamas who uses them as human shields.’

Hagari was referring not to the remaining Israeli hostages held by Hamas in secret locations across the Gaza Strip, but to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians who were unwilling or unable to flee when Israel instructed them to. Many of them have been taking refuge in hospitals, schools and mosques. They are cast as shields because Hamas has built what are believed to be hundreds of kilometres of underground tunnels beneath Gaza and the people above are in the way of Israel’s ability to destroy the tunnels. An IDF spokesperson said last week that ‘Hamas has been systematically using hospitals in Gaza to run its terror machine. Hamas built tunnels underneath hospitals … using the protected status of hospitals as a shield.’

Hagari’s claim that Hamas uses human shields should be understood as a pre-emptive legal defence against accusations that Israel is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza. The Geneva Conventions prohibit the use of human shields: ‘The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations.’ In other words, it’s legal to bomb a site protected by human shields (provided legal principles, such as proportionality, are followed). The subtext of Hagari’s accusation, then, is that Hamas is to blame when Israel kills civilians or destroys hospitals because Hamas has used them to ‘shield’ its tunnels.

In recent years the ‘human shield’ accusation has been adopted by several state militaries trying to justify the killing of civilians in Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria and elsewhere. This justification, however, functions only in one direction. When state actors kill civilians, it’s become standard to describe them as human shields. But when non-state actors attack military targets in urban settings, the civilians they kill are still recognised as civilians.

When Islamic State captured Mosul in 2014, for example, there were no human shields in the city, but two years later, when the American-led coalition was preparing to retake it, headlines across the world warned readers that the jihadist militants were using 100,000 civilians as human shields. Israeli citizens living next to the military command headquarters in central Tel Aviv have never been cast as human shields, even though Hamas has targeted it. This is not to condone the brutality of IS or Hamas, who have frequently targeted civilians, but to show how state militaries exculpate themselves from the killing of civilians.

Besides the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, the primary school in Ramat Gan and the medical facility in Netanya, there are more than fifty other buildings in Israeli cities that have plaques commemorating how they were used to hide combatants and weapons before 1948. The British armed forces sent infantry troops to raid civilian sites that they suspected of being put to military use. In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli armed forces have sent in ground troops only after bombing.

Thirty thousand tons of bombs have so far been dropped on Gaza, and more than two hundred mosques, two hundred schools and over forty hospitals and other medical facilities have been damaged or destroyed. More than five thousand children and around ten thousand adults have been killed. Most of them were civilians. The attempt by the Israeli authorities to justify their carpet bombing and blame Palestinians for bringing disaster on themselves through the use of ‘human shields’ is not only political sophistry, but forgetful of Israel’s own history.