Apologists for Israel’s bombing spree of schools and hospitals in Gaza say Hamas is using the civilians there as “human shields.” But that justification makes no sense even if we accept the premise — in a hostage situation, you don’t just kill the hostage.

Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 20, 2023. (Said Khatib / AFP via Getty Images)

Progressive commentator Ana Kasparian recently appeared on the popular right-wing podcast PBD. The interview ranged over several subjects, but her most intense debate with the two hosts was about Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Kasparian expressed horror at the civilian death toll, which she compared to historical atrocities like the Armenian genocide during and after World War I. In response, one of the hosts accused her of falling for a liberal “media narrative.” The Israeli military didn’t want to kill civilians, he told her. The problem is that Hamas uses civilians as “human shields.”

In response, Kasparian asked him if he had any kids. When he said no, she switched examples:

OK, your mother. You talked about your mother. If an armed gunman grabbed your mother [and] had a gun to her head . . . and he is confronted by the authorities . . . they just decide, you know what? We’re not going to negotiate. We’re not going to do anything. We’re just going to shoot the hell out of both of them.

And then they come to you and say, well, your mother, sorry, was a human shield. Would you accept that argument?

The host refused to engage with what he called a “random story” about his mother. But Kasparian’s point was clear.

The problem with the “human shields” defense of Israel’s actions isn’t just that the factual premise is often dubious — although it is. It’s that even if that premise were completely correct, the use of the “human shields” dodge as a justification for bombing civilian targets would be absurd on its own terms.

Who Uses “Human Shields”— and How?

Hamas has done many indefensible things, things which I’ve condemned in no uncertain terms. But is the specific accusation that they use civilians in Gaza as “human shields” true?

Following past Israeli military operations in Gaza in 2009 and 2014, Amnesty International repeatedly investigated “human shields” accusations and, while it did accuse Hamas of other violations of international humanitarian law, it found no evidence to back up the specific accusation of “direct[ing] the movements of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.”

Perhaps investigations about events this year will shake out differently. Honestly, though, it seems unlikely that Hamas would see much point in doing so at this point considering that they have decades of evidence showing that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is more than willing to bomb civilian targets. Sometimes people suggest that they do it not to stay the IDF’s hand but simply because the sight of dead civilians will elicit international sympathy. But this seems hard to square with Hamas’s own willingness to target Israeli civilians with little regard for international reactions.

Interestingly enough, by contrast, there is extensive evidence of the IDF quite literally engaging in human shielding — forcing Palestinian civilians to approach houses for them because they’ll be less likely to be shot at than Israeli soldiers, for example. Israel’s High Court banned the practice in 2005, but Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reports that “soldiers continue to occasionally use Palestinians as human shields even after the court ruling, especially during military operations.”

When it comes to Hamas, accusations that they “use civilians as human shields” rarely seem to be meant quite so literally. More often, what the accusation amounts to is simply that Hamas fighters and military equipment — or sometimes even just people linked to Hamas’s political wing — tend to be located in areas with lots of civilians.

Here too the hypocrisy is jarring. Neither Israel nor the United States makes much effort to separate locations that would be considered “military targets” in a war from civilian areas. Military recruitment offices are a common sight in American shopping centers. I’ve personally seen residential homes literally lining the street dead-ending at the front gates of the US military base in Fort Benning, Georgia. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his wartime “security cabinet” at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv — which is surrounded by places civilians frequent.

A good friend who lived in Israel for many years tells me that the Kirya is surrounded by office buildings, apartments, and two different shopping centers. “At any given moment,” my friend emphasizes, “the Azrieli mall is filled with uniformed soldiers shopping and eating lunch.” The proximity prompted Israeli publication Haaretz to ask, “Does the Presence of the IDF’s HQ in Tel Aviv Endanger the City’s Population?”

All the main bus lines pass right by the Kirya. It’s all of three hundred meters from one of Tel Aviv’s biggest high schools. Ichilov Hospital is just north. That’s the main hospital in the city — and, by the way, is connected to the base by emergency tunnels.

Does this amount to Israel using its own civilians as human shields? And if not, what’s the difference?

I’d be genuinely fascinated to know how defenders of the bombardment of Gaza would answer that question. It seems to me that, if anything, the comparison would make the United States and Israel look worse. Gaza is tiny. It’s all of twenty-five miles long and six miles wide — and three times as densely populated as Los Angeles. Hamas has less ability to move its military infrastructure far away from civilians than the IDF — never mind a vast and sprawling country like the United States.

But this also isn’t the most important problem with the “human shields” defense of Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza.

Is Your Life Forfeit If You’re Being Used as a “Human Shield”?

Let’s just accept for the sake of argument that Hamas is guilty not just of reckless disregard for the lives of Gazan civilians but of consciously and deliberately getting as close as it can to them — and that this is close enough to what someone might do in a hostage situation (or what the Israeli military itself has a long history of doing) that the phrase “human shields” can be fairly used to describe it.

What would follow?

Kasparian’s point on PBD is the crucial one whatever is true here. There’s a reason why the direct use of human shields in TV shows and Hollywood movies is always portrayed as creating an agonizing moral dilemma for any even remotely sympathetic protagonist. We’d hardly cheer for a protagonist indiscriminately spraying bullets not just at the villain but at the innocents he’d hid among to try to save himself.

Imagine a mass shooter trying to escape from the scene of his crime and racing into a day care center full of children. He grabs one child in each arm. If a policeman responded by simply firing wildly in his general direction, knowing exactly what would result, does anyone think that the excuse “Well, I had no choice, he was using them as human shields” would or should pass muster at the hearing when he was fired — never mind the subsequent trial?

Israel has killed thousands of children in its indiscriminate campaign of bombing apartment buildings, hospitals, ambulances, mosques, churches, and refugee camps in Gaza. Justifying that on grounds we wouldn’t accept for killing a single child in a scenario like the one I just described is an obscenity.

“The Noncombatant Population of Gaza Is a Nonexistent Term”

A more revealing justification was offered a few days ago by a former Israeli intelligence chief being interviewed by Anderson Cooper. “The noncombatant population in the Gaza strip is really a nonexistent term,” he told Cooper, “because all of the Gazans voted for Hamas, and as we have seen on seventh of October, most of the population in the Gaza strip are Hamas.” He followed this up with a supremely unconvincing reassurance that the IDF was treating Gazan civilians as if they were real civilians anyway, but the transparent purpose of his statement was to justify killing them.

As a matter of fact, Hamas’s political wing never won a majority of the vote. They won a plurality in an election held eighteen years ago — before most of the current population of Gaza had even been born — and they haven’t allowed another one since. It makes less sense to use this as a reason to think there aren’t any “real” civilians in Gaza than it would to say there aren’t any “real” civilians in Israel, where Netanyahu’s rickety far-right coalition has survived multiple elections, never mind the United States — where Joe Biden, who’s provided military aid for grave war crimes in Gaza, won an outright majority of the vote.

If you’d reject that as a justifications for 10/7- or 9/11-style attack on Israelis or Americans — as you certainly should — you should equally reject it as a justification for the IDF’s massacre in Gaza. Human lives are human lives. But at least current and former Israeli officials who talk like that are being honest about their motives. They regard the entire civilian population as their enemy and thus as legitimate targets.

As the occupying and besieging power, Israel has had more power than any other party to resolve the conflict. It could either give equal rights to everyone who lives in its current territory or unilaterally withdraw to its pre-1967 borders and allow Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to form an independent state. Both of these options have always been open to them, and all the current bloodshed in Gaza is downstream of its long-term failure to do either one.

But even if we ignore these painfully obvious facts and monomaniacally focusing on the October 7 atrocities as if they were the beginning of the conflict and not one more grim entry in a long list of attacks and counterattacks, massacres and counter-massacres, “we have to attack Hamas” and “Hamas uses Gazan civilians as human shields” have never added up to a convincing or even internally coherent defense of the IDF’s massacre of thirteen thousand Gazan civilians and counting. Both premises could be true and, applying any remotely normal moral standards, the conclusion would continue to be absurd.

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