On human shields (and Human Rights Watch)

posted by Helena Cobban


I've been having a bit of an email exchange today with Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle east Division of Human Rights Watch, over their decision, yesterday, to rush out a press release criticising the Gazans' latest use of nonviolent mass action to halt israel's resumed practice of punitive home demolitions in Gaza.


The text of the HRW press release is now available on-line (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/11/22/isrlpa14652.htm). It is titled OPT: Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes against Military Attacks.


In Sarah Leah's emails to me she has stressed two points: (1) The point, also made in the press release, that "“Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.” And (2) that for Palestinian military commanders, in particular, to ask civilians to act as "human shields" in this way represented an unlawful attempt to put civilians at potential risk.


I have pointed out to her that by these lights, for Mandela (who was a military commander, much more than Ismail Haniyeh-- who was quoted in the HRW release-- ever was) to call for South Africa's non-whites to engage in nonviolent mass actions against the apartheid regime, which were often very risky indeed, would also likewise have been considered "unlawful" or even-- as HRW grandiosely terms the situation in Gaza "a war crime."


I pointed out that many other people, in addition to alleged "military commanders" also joined the mobilization effort in Gaza. I pointed out that there has been no suggestion of any coercion being applied on anyone to participate in this quite voluntary human-shielding action. (This is, of course, the most marked difference with the situation when Israel-- in the past, and reportedly as recently as last July-- has forced Palestinians at gunpoint to act as human shields during its actions in the OPTs. This issue of the presence or absence of coercion is surely a very important one indeed.)

I also wish I'd pointed out more forcefully than I did that-- contrary to what SL said both in the press release and to me-- it does make a significant difference whether the threatened target of Israel's violent action was a "legitimate military target", or not...


So the conversation will doubtless continue. I still strongly question why Sarah Leah and the rest of HRW's very comfortably paid apparatchiks rushed to get this very definitive and accusatory press release out so very quickly. Especially given that-- as I'd noted here yesterday-- over the past four months HRW had said not one word about Israel's horrible, very harmful resumption, back in July, of the practice of demolishing large numbers family homes in the Gaza Strip for purely punitive purposes.


It was that practice that the latest "human shields" operation was trying to prevent... and thus far, successfully so...


HRW did have the grace—finally!—in yesterday's press release to mention the fact and scale of Israel's resumption of undertaking punitive home demolitions min Gaza... But that very salient fact was buried ways down toward the end of their press release. And notably, the text completely fails to call on Israel to cease this extremely harmful and violent practice, which—in the absence of any evidence at all that the homes in question were used to store weapons—is a quite evident and serious infraction of the Geneva Conventions.


I note, however, that the Israelis must have been very peeved at the success of the latest human shield operation because earlier today they sent ground force (tank and sniper) units into northern Gaza, installing some of these units in Palestinian homes as a way of thereby "converting" them into military positions (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061122/ap_on_re_mi_ea/israel_palestinians). Given that the population density in Gaza is such that people usually live in all these houses, this almost immediately turns these individuals-- whom the IOF usually keeps through coercive means as prisoners in one or more rooms of their own homes-- into coerced human shields. What they are "shielding" there is of course the IOF's aggressive and violent presence in and atop their home.

(Sarah Leah, where's the outrage?)


One of the homes taken over today was that of female Hamas legislator Jameela al-Shanti, one of the main organizers of the recent civilian mass actions.

Here's that AP account linked to above:

Troops also took over the home of a Hamas legislator who earlier in the month helped to organize a women's demonstration that let dozens of militants escape an Israeli siege on a Beit Hanoun mosque, the lawmaker, Jamila Shanti, told The Associated Press.

She was not in the house at the time...


A bulldozer chipped away at the walls of the two-story structure so troops could enter, relatives inside the house and neighbors told her, she said. Once inside, they locked about 15 members of her family, including five children, into a single room and threw furniture and clothes out of windows, she said.


"They are only making us more stubborn," she said. "We will resist with our last drop of blood."


Bulldozers, skirting regular roads where mines could be planted, also created new routes of access by knocking down greenhouses in Jebaliya, Beit Hanoun and neighboring Beit Lahiya, and two small farmers' houses.


The army confirmed it was operating in the area as part of its ongoing offensive against Gaza rocket squads, but gave no other details.


Poor Ms. Shanti. Just a couple of weeks ago the IOF's artillery shelled her house, killing her sister-in-law Nahla, and terrifying all the children who live there. Can you imagine how the children felt during today's ghastly, inhumane action?


In what possible way was the house a legitimate military target for the IOF?


...And finally, one last note on HRW's application of what seem like evidently biased double standards regarding the whole "human shields" issue. You probably recall the furore back in July when a bunch of Israeli parents apparently took their "cute" little girl-children to visit a nearby and quite active artillery position in northern Israel, during the war with Hizbullah... and the girls all got to write little messages with felt-tip markers onto the large and very destructive artillery shells that were standing around there...(http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1153291980307) And the whole scene was photographed and quite widely discussed in some parts of the blogosphere (including here, by Scott: http://justworldnews.org/archives/002074.html.)


This looks much more serious as an instance of "human shielding" than anything that happened in Gaza this week. The IDF artillery position was clearly itself a "legitimate military target", and the commanders seem not to have tried to shoo the Israeli families away from the place. But can you only imagine the uproar if Hizbullah had targeted the position and hit it with its rockets-- and 10 or 12 Israeli children had been blown up while they were there drawing their little designs and messages on the IDF's artillery shells?


And Human Rights Watch said what about that incident??? As far as I can figure out, absolutely nothing.


But when the Palestinians of Gaza try to undertake an unarmed action of social defense of homes unjustifiably targeted for punitive demolition, HRW can't hurry fast enough to issue its denunciation.

Truly, as I told Sarah Leah, I don't understand what they're thinking.