Gaza: Human Shields, Race, and the Legal Architecture of Contemporary Liberal Wars


In international humanitarian law (IHL), the term civilian is one of the key concepts that determines the legitimacy and illegitimacy of violence. Humanitarian conventions stipulate that militaries should refrain from injuring and killing civilians. Indeed, the principle of distinction between combatant and non-combatant, arguably the bedrock of IHL, serves to safeguard civilian lives.

During colonialism, the status of civilian was couched along racial lines and only citizens of colonial powers were recognized as civilians. Colonial armies traced a civilizational and racial divide between colonizer and colonized, and rarely offered the indigenous peoples any of the protections guaranteed by IHL, whether they were combatants or noncombatants. Since colonial subjects were considered outside IHL’s sphere of application, when colonial armies killed the colonized they did not violate international law. Only following the process of decolonization, the categories of combatant and civilian were extended to the ex-colonized peoples, who then became protected subjects under international law.

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Housing building destroyed during the 2014 war on Gaza / Photograph by SLuis Astudillo C. for Andes (September 2014)

The universalization of civilianhood within the post-colonial context did not, however, fully erase the racial underpinnings of international law. A new tension rapidly emerged between, on the one hand, the desire of liberal states to frame their postcolonial wars and violence as ethical (i.e., within the framework of what is permissible according to international law) and, on the other hand, the wide scale killing of civilians within modern wars, especially in the former colonies. This, we maintain, is exactly why the concept human shield — a key legal phrase deployed by liberal states in contemporary wars — is becoming increasingly important and why its critique is urgent.

Human Shields ///

Human shielding generally refers to the use of persons protected by international law, such as prisoners of war or civilians, to deter attacks on combatants or military sites. The appearance of the human shield as a legal figure in IHL followed WWI and was continuously institutionalized throughout the 20th century. While scholars have claimed that its introduction was a reaction to the increasing “weaponization” of human bodies in contemporary warfare, we contend that the legal figure human shield has other functions as well — it takes on the role of the racialized colonial subject prior to the universalization of civilianhood.

At first glance, the phrase human shield does not seem to rationalize violence, but rather to prohibit an unethical form of warfare and render it illegitimate. Placing civilians on train tracks, in airports or in any site that is considered to be a legitimate military target of the enemy army in order to prevent the latter from striking is illegal according to IHL. Along similar lines, carrying out military operations from within civilian spaces, particularly schools, hospitals, religious sites, civilian neighborhoods and even industrial areas is illegal due to the potential use of human shields. Yet the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Four Geneva Conventions instructs militaries to treat human shields in the following manner:

The presence or movement 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, favor or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not 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.

Accordingly, IHL does two things: It forbids transforming civilians into human shields, and permits military forces to attack targets that are protected by human shields. Not by chance, US Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap argues that human shielding clauses in IHL relax the actual test of excessive injury to civilians in order to prohibit the weaponization of civilian bodies as shields. According to the logic of this argument, if liberal armies do not allow their militaries to use lethal force against civilians in situations of human shielding, their enemies will only increase their deployment of shields. This will encourage them to blackmail liberal armies through illegal forms of warfare and ultimately result in even greater civilian loss. Others contend that human shielding is technique of resistance: a tactic that weak non-state actors can use as a last resort against strong militaries (and police forces) in so-called asymmetric conflicts. According to Banu Bargu and Judith Butler, the human shield is a weapon of the weak: a viable option the weak has to expose the immorality of its opponent in a context of asymmetric and disproportionate warfare.

We maintain that the use of the legal phrase “human shields” should be understood differently. Taking into account that that vast majority of human shields involves civilians living in the midst of fighting, people who by simply continuing to inhabit their homes, schools, or workplace are transformed into or framed as shields unwittingly, human shielding should be also considered as part of a broader necro-technology deployed by liberal armies to justify the killing of civilians. It does so by recasting civilians as shields, and thus both alters their civilian status and transforms them into legitimate targets of lethal violence. More precisely, we should understand the human shield as a threshold figure in international law: human shields are civilians who even without becoming fully combatants, can be killed without violating the law.

The significance of human shield clauses in international law cannot be overstated considering that urban settings are rapidly becoming exceptionally prominent battlefields. The dramatic increase in urban warfare entails that civilians inevitably occupy the front lines of the fighting. Insofar as this is the case, then practically all fighting within cities involves warfare practices that, according to IHL, can be said to include the use of human shields. So while there is a clear spatial dimension to current manifestations of human shielding, as Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza suggests the accusation of human shielding is also implicated in racial politics.

Gaza 2014 and Child Sacrifices ///

According to data gathered by the United Nations, 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. Many fatalities involved multiple family members, with at least 142 Palestinian families having three or more relatives killed in the same incident. In addition, approximately 18,000 housing units have been either destroyed or severely damaged, leaving approximately 108,000 people homeless. 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.

One of the prominent claims repeated by the Israeli government and military throughout the offensive is that Hamas deliberately used human shields as a warfare technique, and therefore it bears responsibility for the extensive killing of civilians and destruction of civilian buildings and infrastructures carried out by the Israeli army during the military campaign. The legal phrase “human shield” became one of the central tropes propagated by Israel during and after the Gaza war precisely 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.

In his first appearance at the UN General Assembly after Protective Edge, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated the human shields mantra. Showing his international audience a picture of children playing in the vicinity of a rocket launcher, he averred that “Hamas deliberately placed its rockets where Palestinian children live and play.”

The claim that Hamas uses children as shields was reiterated by Elie Wiesel, who during Protective Edge published — in collaboration with the US based “This World: The Values Network” — an advertisement in The Guardian entitled “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas, turn.” The thinly veiled racist statement included an analogy between Hamas and the SS brigades: “In my own lifetime,” Weisel wrote, “I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields.”

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1: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showing a photograph of Palestinian children playing near a rocket launcher during his speech at the United Nations on September 29, 2014 2: Fragment of Eli Wiesel’s ad published in The Guardian during the 2014 Israeli military operation “Protective Edge” 3: Israel Defence Forces’ infographic depicting civilians as supposedly Hamas’ weapon (source IDF blog) 4: The re-signification of civilian spaces into military targets (source IDF blog) 5: IDF YouTube video depicting the logic of distinction (source IDF blog)

The equation between Palestinians and Nazis is explicit as is the racial and civilizational divide between Jews and Arab-Muslims. The claim that Hamas sacrifices civilians is expressed even more blatantly in an infographic distributed by the IDF where a Palestinian home is portrayed as the warhead of a Hamas rocket. The idea, of course, is that the people living in this home (children, women, and the elderly) are the human weapon Hamas uses against Israel. In the context of our discussion, this infographic also intimates how architectural edifices that are considered civilian sites of protections are transformed into weapons. The subtext is that Hamas does not understand the ethical and normative distinction between civilian and combatant and transforms the whole population into combatants, rendering them killable.

The construction of the human shielding trope in Gaza through the representation of Palestinians as inherently incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants, and as using their civilians as shields, started before the 2014 operation Protective Edge. Already during the 2012 military campaign “Pillar of Cloud,” one of Israel’s crucial semiotic operations consisted in tracing the racial-civilizational divide with Palestinians by showing how the IDF abides by international law and does its best to discriminate between civilians and combatants while the “uncivilized enemy” strategically blurs this distinction by shielding behind its own population. A video disseminated by the IDF’s Film Unit during Pillar of Cloud in order to explain the legal architecture of the attack — “How Does the IDF Minimize Harm to Palestinian Civilians in Gaza?” — provides a clear example of the rationale behind the legitimization of Israel’s violence.

As one can see from this video, the visual-ethical capacity to discriminate is claimed through the composition of a very sterile setting, similar to television advertisements selling a new medicine that claims to attack the bad germs without harming the good bacteria. The medical-like visual framing is accompanied by an authoritative voice that repeatedly tells the viewers that “the IDF has consistently taken measures to minimize casualties to innocent bystanders.” Israel abides by the principle of discrimination through the use of a series of early warning technologies and “weapon systems with pin point accuracy,” while it cancels operations when the chance of “collateral damage” is too high. The audience is censored from seeing images from the warfront, and lethal force is rendered invisible by reducing the war to a struggle between the Israel’s civilized forces of distinction and the Palestinian inherent uncivilized drive toward indistinction.

An infographic disseminated by the IDF during the 2014 war in order to support the claim that the entire population of Gaza was used as a human shield, shows even more clearly the relationship between race, architecture and the liberal ethics of violence. “When is a House a Home?” shows how Palestinians presumably hide rockets in civilian homes. The logic is straightforward: insofar as Hamas hides weapons in homes (illegitimate), Israel can bomb them as if they were (legitimate) military targets. Within this semiotic warfare about the meaning of architectural structures, a single function (hiding weapons) out of many existing functions (home, shelter, intimacy, etc.) determines the status of an urban site (in our case a home), so that the edifice’s form loses its traditional social signification, including its attribute as a space of protection. The transformation of the space’s signification is crucial, since it also transforms the legal categorization and meaning ascribed to the humans who occupy that space. Unlike for the rest of humanity, for Palestinians a house is not home. It is by inscribing this racial-civilizational divide in the international law clauses on human shielding, and thus shrinking even the possibility of civilian spaces, that Israeli and other liberal armies are trying to rationalize their neo-colonial violence.

Civilianization of Armed Conflicts ///

The way in which the human shielding trope has been mobilized by Israel in Gaza reflects broader changes relating to the increasing “civilianization of armed conflicts,” whereby civilians and civilian objects become an integral part of the fighting. The civilianization of conflicts is an outcome of the dismantlement or partial dismantlement of states leading to territorial changes and the emergence of new armed groups; the urbanization of warfare with the increasing transformation of many cities and towns into battlefields; and the vast military asymmetry of many current conflicts as well as the global economic asymmetry.

Consequently, prominent legal-military scholars argue that the old notion of battlefield is becoming obsolete, and needs to be substituted by battlespace. Battlespace might seem very similar to battlefield, but it is used, as Charles Garraway explains, to describe situations where “regular armed forces seem to be a minority” and “there are many different actors” among whom it becomes extremely complex to draw a distinctive line according to international law’s axiomatic classes of civilian and combatant. Thus, the notion of battlespace highlights the inaccuracy of presenting the space where hostilities are taking place according to the old schemes of modern warfare, as if clearly defined borders circumscribed it.

And yet, so far this transformation from battlefield to battlespace has been applied only to military interventions taking place in certain regions and among certain populations — mainly in the still colonized or ex-colonized world, and thus along the old racial lines. It is not a global phenomenon, but rather a way of recasting civilians as legitimate military targets only in specific areas of the earth. For the millions of non-white people who reside within battlespaces, the distinction between civilian and combatant is constantly undermined, and so like the people of Gaza, they too live under threat of being killed as shields.