The truth about Gazans as human shields –you’ll be surprised

The truth about Gazans as human shields –you’ll be surprised May 19, 2024

We think we know the deal with Hamas and human shields – we think we know all there is to know about Hamas. Where did we get this information? Are we sure it is true?

Because Hamas has been labeled a “terrorist organization,” it’s easy to believe that they are monsters, capable of doing all kinds of horrible things.

We were told very early in the conflict that Hamas members had baked babies in ovens, cut open pregnant women, and raped everyone. When these stories turned out to be false, it was hard to let go of them. “Ok, I guess they’re false, but they just ring true.”

Urban legend has it that Hamas members set up launch sites in the middle of crowded markets and kindergartens, and build tunnels under people’s homes – forcing civilians to be human shields. It’s a dastardly plan made by monsters who care nothing for the people they govern.

When large numbers of these poor civilians die at the hands of “the most moral army in the world” (that would be Israel’s army),  Hamas fighters probably high-five each other – “Yessssss! The more corpses, the better. Now all the world will feel sorry for Palestinians and Israel will look like the bad guy.”

(Alleged) moral of the story: Hamas is putting civilians at risk. Hamas is at fault for civilian deaths. Those who think Israel is “the bad guy” are wrong.

There is a problem, however, with this narrative. It’s false.

We need to stop believing these cartoonish stereotypes and oversimplified good-vs-evil paradigms, and take the time to get informed of actual facts. Actual facts like these:

What is Hamas?

Actual fact: Hamas is not just a military group. It is also political – it’s the government of Gaza. Any government worker – garbage collector, street cleaner, bus driver, librarian, mail carrier –  works for Hamas. Anyone working at a public hospital or clinic, a public school or utility – works for Hamas.

Some of these people may align themselves politically with Hamas (for added job security, perhaps), but have no affiliation with the military wing of the group. Others are merely employed by the Hamas government and have zero connection with Hamas beyond their paycheck. Some may also moonlight as fighters. Is it reasonable to consider all of them the enemy?

Blanket statements like, “Hamas is a terrorist* organization” do not differentiate between combatants and non-aligned civilians.

Let’s employ some nuance in our thinking.

*NOTE: The use of the word “terrorist” for a group that resists occupation and oppression is a political, not fact-based choice. In reality, international law supports the efforts of resistance groups against an occupying power, even to the point of armed resistance. Hamas has clearly and openly stated that its enemy is not the Jewish people, but the racist ideology of Zionism – the ideology under which Israel dispossessed 750,000 Palestinian people and exiled them to Gaza and other locations. 

Kill lists

Actual fact: Israel finds targets and creates “kill lists” in Gaza using Artificial Intelligence – like the system “Lavender.”

During the early stages of the war, the [Israeli] army gave sweeping approval for officers to adopt Lavender’s kill lists, with no requirement to thoroughly check why the machine made those choices or to examine the raw intelligence data on which they were based.

One source stated that human personnel often served only as a “rubber stamp” for the machine’s decisions, adding that, normally, they would personally devote only about “20 seconds” to each target before authorizing a bombing — just to make sure the Lavender-marked target is male.

This was despite knowing that the system makes what are regarded as “errors” in approximately 10 percent of cases, and is known to occasionally mark individuals who have merely a loose connection to militant groups, or no connection at all.

Another AI system that the Israeli military relies on is called “Where’s Daddy?”

The Israeli army systematically attacked the targeted individuals while they were in their homes — usually at night while their whole families were present — rather than during the course of military activity.

According to the sources, this was because, from what they regarded as an intelligence standpoint, it was easier to locate the individuals in their private houses.

Additional automated systems, including one called “Where’s Daddy?” also revealed here for the first time, were used specifically to track the targeted individuals and carry out bombings when they had entered their family’s residences.

Read that first bit again:

The Israeli army systematically attacked the targeted individuals while they were in their homes — usually at night while their whole families were present — rather than during the course of military activity.

Palestinians tend to have large families, and often live with extended family in the same building. So when Israel targets one alleged Hamas fighter, twenty or thirty civilians – many of them children – may be killed with him. Israel calls them human shields, when they are nothing of the sort. They are a family gathering together and being massacred.

As Ryan Grim of The Intercept wrote,

Israel’s argument that they kill so many civilians because Hamas uses ‘human shields’ is torn apart by the revelation that the IDF prefers to attack its ‘targets’ when they are at home with their families. It is not Hamas using human shields, it is Israel deliberately hunting families…

Israel deliberately maximizes the number of civilians it can kill by waiting until a target is with his entire family. Palestinians are not shields to Israel, they are all targets.

So when Where’s Daddy? mis-identifies a public high school janitor as a Hamas operative, waits for him to go home after work, and bombs his home, killing him and his entire family – Israel will falsely blame the janitor for killing his family.

Even an actual Hamas operative, at home with his family, is not considered a combatant, and should not be targeted.

Kill zones

Actual fact: Israel boasts that it goes to amazing lengths to warn Gazans about upcoming attacks, giving civilians an opportunity to evacuate before the fighting heats up.

But sending text messages, or dropping millions of flyers on a city, demanding that 1.1 million people make themselves scarce, does not absolve a warring party of all responsibility toward civilians.

This is nothing but a performance, so that Israel and its supporters can say, “my God, what a moral army! What other army would give its enemy a chance to escape?”

But there is no such thing as 1.1 million people evacuating safely from anywhere – especially in Gaza.

The population of the Gaza Strip is 2.3 million, about the same as Houston, TX. But if 1.1 million residents of Houston were evacuated, they can spread out all over Texas or all over the United States if they like. The population of Houston has plenty of cars, buses, trains, and airports. Interstate highways with air conditioned rest stops and restaurants and convenience stores.

The entire Gaza Strip is just 17 square miles – about the size of Philadelphia. It is completely surrounded by security fences and walls. The people can not get out – Israel controls all border crossings. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world.

If half the population of the most densely populated region in the world is told to evacuate, the only place they can go is into the other half of the tiny region, making it twice as populated as before. That’s not safe. It’s especially dangerous when Israeli soldiers are sniping and dropping bombs on the people as they evacuate and when they arrive en masse at their destination.

So don’t be fooled by the flyers and text messages.

Another actual fact: When Israel called for the evacuation of the entire northern half of Gaza, hundreds of thousands of Gazans stayed put. They had many reasons: disability, no transportation to the south, no money to pay for transportation, no idea where to go – not to mention the fear of looting by Israeli soldiers, or worse, another Nakba (the permanent loss of their homes, just like what happened in 1948).

Israel made it clear that anyone who stayed in the north would be considered a combatant, and their safety could not be guaranteed. “We gave them a chance to leave. It’s their own fault for staying.” In reality, civilians are not obligated to leave their homes under evacuation orders. Those who do leave must be provided for, and then allowed to return – Israel has violated every one of these obligations.

Israel claimed, without offering any proof, that Hamas forced civilians to stay in northern Gaza. In other words, everyone who stayed was (because Israel said so) a human shield. This “human shield” designation is a figment of Israel’s imagination – just like the idea that evacuation orders would free Israel from responsibility.

Israeli officers themselves explain the topsy-turvy thinking that is part of military operations:

In practice, a terrorist is anyone the IDF has killed in the areas in which its forces operate…

In every combat zone, commanders define such kill zones…

As soon as people enter it, mainly adult males, orders are to shoot and kill, even if that person is unarmed.

That is to say, if you are killed inside a kill zone – and only Israeli forces know the boundaries of these zones – you are (posthumously) labeled a terrorist. You deserved to die because you crossed a secret, invisible line.

That’s exactly what happened to the three Israeli hostages – they escaped from their captivity, but walked into a kill zone.

And that’s what happened to these four Palestinians who were walking in Khan Younis in March. What’s unusual about this case is that Israel got caught.

Power targets

This war has seen the Israeli army bombing many more non-military targets than in past conflicts, including homes and high-rises. The Israeli military calls them “power targets.”

These targets are reportedly intended to “shock” civilians, and cause them to “put pressure on Hamas.”

Several sources spoke anonymously about power targets to the team of Palestinian and Israeli journalists that publish +972 Magazine:

[The sources] confirmed that the Israeli army has files on the vast majority of potential targets in Gaza — including homes — which stipulate the number of civilians who are likely to be killed in an attack on a particular target. This number is calculated and known in advance to the army’s intelligence units, who also know shortly before carrying out an attack roughly how many civilians are certain to be killed.

“Nothing happens by accident,” said another source. “When a 3-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target… Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.”

“We are asked to look for high-rise buildings with half a floor that can be attributed to Hamas. Sometimes it is a militant group’s spokesperson’s office, or a point where operatives meet. I understood that the floor is an excuse that allows the army to cause a lot of destruction in Gaza. That is what they told us.

“We were not interested in killing [Hamas] operatives only when they were in a military building or engaged in a military activity…On the contrary, the IDF bombed them in homes without hesitation, as a first option. It’s much easier to bomb a family’s home. The system is built to look for them in these situations.

One of the cases these sources discussed occurred on October 31. An Israeli strike in the densely populated Jabaliya refugee camp killed at least 126 civilians – 69 of them children – and injured 280. The target was a single Hamas military commander.

Usually, the Israeli military would consider “dozens of civilian deaths” permissible – but in this case, they knew up to hundreds might be killed. They did not have a problem with that.

Knowing that hundreds of innocent bystanders will be killed, and going ahead with the attack anyway, doesn’t make those bystanders human shields. It makes the attacker cruel and inhumane.

Perhaps the greatest “power target” in this war was the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Israeli spokespersons promised there was a massive command center underneath the hospital – making the entire hospital staff and patients human shields. No less than the Washington Post found the evidence underwhelming.

This of course did not bring back to life the “human shields” (including premature babies) that had been killed as Israeli forces raided and ransacked the hospital.

Nor did Israel’s failure stop it from destroying other hospitals in Gaza.

Bottom line

Journalist Caitlin Johnstone said it succinctly in “The ‘Human Shields’ Lie Has Been Conclusively, Irrefutably Debunked“:

The “human shields” narrative that’s become so popular in Israel apologia insists that the reason the IDF kills so many civilians in its attacks on Gaza is because Hamas intentionally surrounds itself with noncombatants as a strategy to make the innocent Israelis reluctant to drop bombs on them. But as The Intercept’s Ryan Grim recently observed on Twitter, this is soundly refuted by the revelation that Israel has been intentionally waiting to target suspected Hamas members when it knows they’ll be surrounded by civilians.

Civilians aren’t getting killed because Hamas hides behind them, civilians are getting killed because the IDF waits until suspected Hamas members are around civilians to target them with high-powered military explosives.

To read firsthand accounts of Israel’s use of Palestinians as human shields, read this, this, this, and this.

As I recently wrote, I have for the time being washed my hands of Christians who refuse to engage with the issue of Palestine, and for now (at least until the end of this horrific war) I will be writing about the significance of what is going on “over there” from a global and historic perspective.

I’m here for anyone who cares to have an intelligent conversation about reality, instead of living in a silo of confirmation bias.

I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter. I write about the Palestine-Israel issue regularly, and other issues relevant to progressives or those considering becoming progressive. If you would like to comment on this post, please pop over to my Facebook page. All of my posts are there and open to constructive comment. I welcome your thoughts.

If you are interested, here are some of my earlier posts on the Palestine issue:

Posts about my Gazan family (in chronological order):

Further reading on the Palestine-Israel issue:

FEATURED IMAGE: by Luis Villasmil, via Unsplash

About Kathryn Shihadah
I was raised as a conservative Christian, and was perfectly content to stay that way – until the day my stable, predictable world was rocked. A curtain was pulled back on conservative Christianity, and instead of ignoring the ugliness I saw, I confronted it. I began to ask questions I never thought I’d ask, and found answers I’d never expected. Old things began to fall away, and – behold! – the new me has come. What a gift to be a new, still-evolving creation. I found out that it’s better to look at the world through Progressive Lenses, with Grace-Colored Glasses. You can read more about the author here.

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