How Neve Gordon Identifies with Hamas


Editorial Note

Next week a Zoom lecture will be taking place with Prof. Neve Gordon, formerly of Ben Gurion University, now at Queen Mary University of London. Gordon, who published a call for the boycott of Israel on the Los Angeles Times pages in 2009, has recently published a book, together with Dr. Nicola Perugini, from the University of Edinburgh, titled Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire. Hence, the book is the topic of the Webinar.

The book begins with chapters dealing with human shields in the American Civil War, Franco-German War, South Africa, World War I, Sino-Japanese War, Italo-Ethiopian War, Nazis, Geneva Conventions, Vietnamese War, Environmental Human Shields.  

Chapter 11, titled “Resistance,” discusses human shields in Palestine.  It tells the story of Tom Hurdnall, who traveled to the “occupied Palestinian territories” amid the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, “against Israel’s military occupation.” Hurdnall joined the International Solidarity Movement to provide “assistance to the besieged Palestinian population through nonviolent protests and direct action such as voluntary shielding.” From the West Bank he traveled to Rafah in the Gaza Strip, trying to stop the demolition of houses along with other activists. In January 2004, “when a group of Palestinians came under heavy fire, Hurdnall noticed that three children were trapped in an area under attack. He picked up one little boy and brought him to safety. When he went back to shield the remaining two, he was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper.”

According to Gordon and Perugini, “Hurdnall was not the only human shield who was killed by the Israeli military.” A few months earlier, Rachel Corrie, a young American activist who had also joined the International Solidarity Movement, was run over in Rafah by an armored military bulldozer while shielding a Palestinian home demolition. Corrie had gone to demolition sites for weeks, “standing between the bulldozer and the Palestinian houses while wearing a fluorescent orange jacket and using a megaphone to call the bulldozer operator to stop his work. On March 16, 2003, she was crushed to death. The driver later insisted that he had not seen her.”

Chapter 15 discusses hospitals and the use of medical facilities as shields in Sri Lanka, Italians in Ethiopia, Libya, World War l, Britain, World War ll, America, and Vietnam. 

Then, “the 2014 Gaza War,” when “Israeli strikes destroyed or damaged seventeen hospitals, fifty-six primary healthcare facilities, and forty-five ambulances. To defend these attacks, Israel accused Hamas of using hospitals to store weapons and hide armed militants.”

Gordon and Perugini continue, “In an effort to legitimize its bombing of Palestinian medical facilities following the 2014 war on Gaza, Israel invoked both exceptions in a legal report. It accused ‘Hamas and other terrorist organizations’ of exploiting ‘hospitals and ambulances to conduct military operations, despite the special protection afforded these units and transports under customary international law.” According to Gordon and Perugini, Israel “claimed that hospitals were used both as ‘command and control centers, gunfire and missile launching sites, and covers for combat tunnels’ and also as proximate shields for Hamas militants who fired ‘multiple rockets and mortars within 25 meters of hospitals and health clinics.’ Sometimes Israel would call the hospital in advance, warning the staff that it was about to bomb their facility. This allowed the Israeli government to claim that it had provided due warning and reasonable time to evacuate the buildings before it launched a strike, and therefore had not violated international humanitarian law articles requiring belligerents to warn medical units before bombing them.”

In aprevious article on this issue in 2015, when Gordon and Perugini analyzed the wars between Hamas and Israel, they rejected Western war analysis concurring that while “Palestinian human shields are civilians, even though Israel has killed them, Israel is not responsible for their deaths.” For Gordon and Perugini, Hamas is blamed unfairly. It is wrong to accuse Hamas as if it “shoulders a double responsibility: for attacking Israeli civilians and for the deaths of Palestinian civilians it uses as shields.” For Gordon and Perugini, this “enables as well as justifies a higher degree of violence and ‘collateral’ damage during warfare… that shields the strong from potential accusations of having committed war crimes.” In other words, it is Israel, not Hamas, as the belligerent that attacks civilians.

Gordon is known for supporting the Palestinian agenda who views Israel as an apartheid state which wantonly kills Palestinians.  However, charging Israel in the human shield context is particularly egregious.   It is well known that Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad follow the tactics of “radical embedding” among civilian populations to shield their military assets and fighters.  For instance, Hezbollah stores weapons, ammunition, and command centers in many of the houses in the Shiite villages, as well as in public spaces like schools, mosques, and health clinics.  Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have followed the same tactics, with weapons being stored in public as well as private spaces.   It is well documented that the jihadist central command is located in the basement of the al Shifa Hospital in Gaza. These are not “Israeli accusations.” After the 2006 Second Lebanon war, the United Nations Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs chastised Hezbollah for hiding among civilians and causing women and children’s death, something that Gordon and Perugini fail to acknowledge. According to Gordon and Perugini, “accusations that Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups had used human shields served as one of Israel’s key arguments for deflecting accusations of having committed war crimes.”

It is regrettable that Gordon, a full-time propagandist for Palestinian causes, has used his position first at BGU and now at Queen Mary University of London, to spread anti-Israel messages disguised as academic research.

Refugees as Human Shields: In Conversation with Neve Gordon

23 Nov Time:17:30 to 18:30 Speaker: Prof Neve Gordon (Professor of International Law and Human Rights, Queen Mary University of London)

From Hungary to the US-Mexico border all the way back to the Czech Republic, women-and-children seeking asylum have been cast as ‘human shields’. In this webinar, Neve Gordon will be talking with Anne Irfan about the history of human shielding, whilst highlighting the gendered and racial dimension of ‘refugee shielding.’ Why, Gordon will ask, has the figure of the human shield become so prominent in contemporary war zones throughout the Middle East? Why are asylum-seeking refugees suddenly cast as shields? And what does this figure tell us about the broader global history of political violence?

Neve Gordon teaches in the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London. Focusing on international humanitarian law, human rights, the ethics of violence, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gordon first book, Israel’s Occupation (2008), provided a structural history of Israel’s mechanisms of control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while his second book, The Human Right to Dominate (2015, with Nicola Perugini) examines how human rights, which are generally conceived as tools for advancing emancipation, can also be used to enhance subjugation and dispossession. In Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (2020 also with Perugini), Gordon follows the marginal and controversial figure of the human shield over a period of 150 years in order to interrogate the laws of war and how the ethics of humane violence is produced. Gordon has also edited two volumes, one on torture (with Ruchama Marton) and the other on marginalized perspectives on human rights. Over the years he has published scores of academic articles and book chapters and is currently working on a project that examines how new warfare technologies challenge the underlying framework of the laws of war. Gordon has been a member at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Brown University, the University of Michigan, and SOAS, and is currently a board member of the International State Crime Initiative.Oxford Department of International DevelopmentQueen Elizabeth House3 Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TBtel: +44 (0)1865 (2)81800



11. Resistance


Voluntary shields faced a completely different destiny in another area in the Middle East. One member of the Human Shield Action group, Tom Hurdnall, left Iraq at the end of the war but instead of returning home to Britain, he traveled to the occupied Palestinian territories. It was the midst of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel’s military occupation, which erupted in September 2000, and Hurdnall joined the International Solidarity Movement, created by Palestinians, Israelis, and foreigners to provide assistance to the besieged Palestinian population through nonviolent protests and direct action such as voluntary shielding. After a brief period in the West Bank, he travelled to Rafah, a city on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, where he and other activists tried to stop the demolition of houses.

In an interview, Hurdnall described how the Israelis “continually fired one- to two-second bursts from what I could see was a Bradley fighting vehicle. . . . It was strange that as we approached and the guns were firing, it sent shivers down my spine, but nothing more than that. We walked down the middle of the street, wearing bright orange, and one of us shouted through a loudspeaker, ‘We are international volunteers. Don’t shoot!’ That was followed by another volley of fire, though I can’t be sure where from.”

In January 2004, when a group of Palestinians came under heavy fire, Hurdnall noticed that three children were trapped in an area under attack. He picked up one little boy and brought him to safety. When he went back to shield the remaining two, he was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper.

Hurdnall was not the only human shield who was killed by the Israeli military. A few months earlier, Rachel Corrie, a twenty-three-year-old American activist who had also joined the International Solidarity Movement, was run over in Rafah by an armored military bulldozer while shielding a Palestinian home from demolition. For several weeks, Corrie had gone to the demolition site, standing between the bulldozer and the Palestinian houses while wearing an orange fluorescent jacket and using a megaphone to call to the bulldozer operator to stop his work (figure 17). On March 16, 2003, she was crushed to death. The driver later insisted that he had not seen her.

Like the activists of the Human Shields Action group, Corrie felt that participating in protests at home was not enough. In order to express her solidarity with the Palestinians resisting Israeli colonialism she also travelled to Rafah. She characterized her activity in the Gaza Strip as a form of “patriotic dissent.” “I am asking people who care about me—or just have some passing interest in me—to use my presence in occupied Palestine as a reason to actively search for information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of course particularly about the role of the United States in perpetuating it,” she wrote in her diary just a few days before being killed. Corrie was well aware of her “white-skin privilege” and noted that she was using it to protect nonwhite civilians and civilian infrastructures. But unlike the shields in Iraq, white privilege did not render her immune from lethal violence.

The proceedings of the civil suit initiated by Corrie’s family reveal the peculiar way in which the Israeli lawyers defending the military framed the presence of foreign human shields who had travelled to support the Palestinian struggle for liberation. In a sense, the defense lawyers became prosecutors and transformed the civil suit into a trial against Corrie and the shielding practices adopted by the International Solidarity Movement. In the defense they wrote:

It was proven beyond reasonable doubt, that the ISM, among whose ranks was the deceased and the plaintiff’s witnesses, is an anti-Israeli organization that carries out violent illegal acts, including barricading themselves in terrorist homes to prevent their demolition, harboring terrorists and terror activists, taking part in confrontations with IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers, and even standing as human shields for “wanted people” or houses of Palestinians. The organization’s activists, under the organization’s umbrella, are aware of the many risks that exist in the places they are active, but they are willing to endanger their lives for the agenda they wish to advance.

The lawyers claimed that Corrie and other International Solidarity Movement activists were protecting legitimate military targets rather than civilians. In another passage, the lawyers depicted Corrie as “suicidal,” since she and her fellow activists directly confronted “war machinery” and “went to firing zones where life-threatening live ammunition is fired.” Within the Israeli context—particularly during the second Palestinian uprising, known as the Second Intifada, when suicide bombers killed civilians in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other Israeli cities—the lawyers’ decision to characterize Corrie as a person who was carrying out a suicidal act was not coincidental. She, the lawyers intimated, was not really different from those who explode themselves in public buses and restaurants. The fact that Corrie was committed to nonviolent protection as a form of resistance rather than attack was beside the point. The rhetoric of the war on terror could transform any civilian into a terrorist, even a privileged one who had decided to embrace an active form of internationalist citizenship in solidarity with oppressed civilians.

In 2012, the Haifa district court accepted the Israeli military’s interpretation of Corrie’s actions and dismissed the civil lawsuit brought by Corrie’s family. Her death, the judges ruled, was an “accident.” Three years later, after the family filed an appeal, Israel’s High Court of Justice upheld the Haifa verdict and reiterated the claim that the state is not responsible to compensate civilians injured or killed in a combat zone.31 In this way the court effectively shielded the state and its executive arm from any charges filed by either international or local activists who shield Palestinian civilians. Unlike US courts, Israel’s courts consider nonviolent direct action aimed at protecting civilians from a military occupation as part of combat.

16. Proximity

Israeli citizens in Tel Aviv are not classified as shields when Hamas launches rockets towards the Israel Defense Forces military command headquarters located in the city center. By sharp contrast, Palestinian civilians are cast as human shields when Israel bombs Hamas command centers and military infrastructures in Gaza. In other words, if Hamas kills Israeli civilians, it is to blame, and if Israel kills Palestinian civilians, then Hamas is also to blame, since, at least ostensibly, it is Hamas that has deployed these civilians as shields. This kind of comparison reveals how the irregular continues to pose a threat to the international legal order.
Notwithstanding the common assumption that decolonization has led to the creation of a universal humanity in which all people are acknowledged as humans who are entitled to equal rights, proximate shielding reveals that assumptions about who is considered an equal human being retains traces of the colonial past. In the cases of the 2016 operation to recapture Mosul and Israel’s wars in Gaza—in which the human shield argument was mobilized against entire populations—the figures of the colonized subject and of the civilian transformed into a proximate human shield coincide.33 Whereas it would be difficult to imagine entire populations being transformed into proximate shields in Western cities—unless perhaps they are racialized minorities—from Mosul to Gaza, we see how the colonial subject is still very much alive.

17. Info-War

IN JULY 2014, AROUND THE SAME TIME that ISIS first captured Mosul from the hands of the Iraqi army, Israel launched its third war on the Gaza Strip in six years, dubbing the campaign Operation Protective Edge.1 Not unlike the previous campaigns, Protective Edge produced extensive damage to this densely populated swath of Palestinian land. Ten days before Israel withdrew its ground forces, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution accusing Israel of collective punishment and urging all parties to respect the law. “The deliberate targeting of civilians and other protected persons and the perpetration of systematic, flagrant and widespread violations of applicable international humanitarian law and international human rights law in situations of armed conflict constitute grave breaches and a threat to international peace and security,” the resolution declared.2

Correspondingly, accusations that Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups had used human shields served as one of Israel’s key arguments for deflecting accusations of having committed war crimes. During an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly not long after Protective Edge, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exhibited a picture of children playing in the vicinity of a rocket launcher (figure 22). “Hamas,” he averred, “deliberately placed its rockets where Palestinian children live and play.”3 Explaining that Israel was facing an enemy who constantly weaponizes vulnerable human bodies, Netanyahu concluded his address by claiming that the United Nations Human Rights Council was a “Terrorist Rights Council” that grants legitimacy to the mobilization and deployment of human shields.4

17. Info-War

A few months later, Israel released a report providing legal defense of the 2014 Gaza invasion.5 The report analyzes a variety of materials as it accuses the different Palestinian resistance groups of having drawn “the fighting into the urban terrain,” where they “unlawfully intertwined their military operations with the civilian environment.”6 Adopting language strikingly similar to the arguments used by the Italian government during the 1935–36 war in Ethiopia and by the American administration during the Vietnam War, the document blames Palestinians for using tactics that violate the customary prohibition against perfidy under international humanitarian law. The report concludes that Hamas deployed defenseless Palestinian civilians as human shields and resorted to other unlawful practices—such as the use of combatants disguised as civilians—with the hope of obfuscating the distinction between civilians and combatants and “deliberately distort[ing] assessments of the legality of Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF) activity in the Gaza Strip.”7

The narrative and key arguments for the governmental report were developed by the IDF on its social media sites during the fight itself. In fact, while it was attacking the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military waged another kind of war, this one on social media with the aim of defending the military campaign by legitimizing the killing of Palestinian civilians. It produced a series of sophisticated YouTube videos and infographics in which the legal figure of the human shield was mobilized to justify lethal force and disseminated them widely through its Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts.8

By introducing human shielding to these social media platforms, the IDF helped popularize the figure of the human shield while transforming the cyberworld into a site of semiotic warfare.9 The goal was to shape the visual perception of the battlespace by portraying the Palestinians as morally inferior and Israel as the humane actor.10 Indeed, one should understand the dissemination of images of human shielding on social media as part of an info-war: a media campaign whose role is to provide ethical legitimacy to the deployment of lethal violence against civilians.


According to data gathered by the United Nations, at least 2,251 Palestinians were killed during Operation Protective Edge. Of the verified cases, 1,462 were believed to be civilians. Many of these fatalities involved multiple family members, with at least 142 Palestinian families having three or more relatives killed in the same incident, for a total of 739 deaths. In addition, approximately 18,000 housing units were either destroyed or severely damaged, leaving approximately 108,000 people homeless. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed during the war: 67 combatants and 6 civilians.11 The discrepancy with respect to the number and proportion of civilian deaths—65 percent of all those killed by Israel were civilians compared to the 8 percent of civilians killed by Palestinians—created a legal problem, since according to these figures it appears that in its assault on Gaza, Israel did indeed commit egregious war crimes.

It is precisely in this context that one needs to understand Israel’s extensive use of social media during and after the 2014 Gaza War to defend the level of violence it wielded against Palestinians. One of the first images the IDF circulated sets the stage for the Gaza War by portraying Israel’s assault as an attempt to defend the very essence of liberalism. It shows rockets with bloody smoke heading towards the Statue of Liberty, one of liberal democracy’s icons, and asks the Western public, “What would you do?” (figure 23). In this way, Israel both positioned itself as a liberal democracy and drew an analogy between the Gaza War and America’s post-9/11 concerns about terrorist attacks against the United States. The war on Gaza was, according to the infographic, part of the war on terror.

Most of the infographics produced during Protective Edge were, however, dedicated to human shielding. One of the themes of Israel’s claims about the Palestinians’ use of human shields is the depiction of the asymmetric context in which the Gaza War took place as if it were symmetric. “Some bomb shelters shelter people. Some shelter bombs” (figure 24) is just one of numerous infographics where the radically disproportionate power differential and spatial disparity between a besieged population confined to an enclave (Palestinians) and its besiegers (Israelis) are depicted as if the two were equal. The assumption of equality not only elides the reality on the ground but is necessary for Israel to be able to justify—through the human shielding argument—its destruction of Gaza.

17. Info-War

In this and several other infographics Israel accuses the Palestinians of illegally using civilian spaces for shielding purposes. By depicting Palestinians as hiding rockets in their homes, the IDF intimates that a single function (hiding weapons) overrides existing functions (home, shelter, intimacy, etc.) so that the meaning usually associated with homes, including their attribute as a space of protection, is compromised. Legally speaking, this is the “dual-use” doctrine, whereby an object serves both civilian and military purposes.

While dual use is not explicitly part of international humanitarian law,12 Marco Sassòli from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights stresses that “an attack on a dual-use object is in any event unlawful if the effect on the civilian aspect is intended,” but he adds that “respect of that particular rule is impossible to assess in the heat of the battle.”13 Therefore, in instances where a house that shelters civilians is simultaneously used as an arms depot or a militant hideout, which is illegal, belligerents can legitimately attack it and claim that its military function was a threat, and consequently the attack was necessary.14 Accordingly, legal experts have noted that the dual-use doctrine ultimately enables “extraordinarily permissive” use of lethal force, allowing belligerents to sway the proportionality between civilian immunity and military necessity in their favor.15

In such circumstances, a house can no longer be a refuge, even when the majority of the people in the targeted area are, in fact, refugees, as in Gaza.16 The space’s resignification from a space of life to a space of death is crucial, since it allows the IDF to transform the meaning ascribed to the people within this space and to the violence that it deploys. Put differently, Israel’s “moral cartography,” to borrow political geographer Derek Gregory’s phrase describing how morally acceptable violence relates to space, is acutely apparent here: the way a place is defined can facilitate the killing of civilians without it being a crime.17 The inevitable overlapping of civilian and military functions in urban warfare creates new challenges for international law and the articulation of the ethics of violence. In its info-war, Israel tried to turn that challenge into a legal argument in its favor and portrayed Palestinian homes as well as the people inhabiting them as part of Hamas’s military defense system.18

In the same infographic, Israel also accuses Palestinians of perfidy, which in customary international law is defined as “acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law.”19 The charge is that Palestinians are deceptive, using civilian spaces for military purposes, thereby legitimating attacks on those homes.

It is, nonetheless, highly unlikely that Palestinians were shielding weapons in all eighteen thousand homes that, according to the United Nations, were either destroyed or severely damaged during the war. Hence, one of the objectives of categorizing civilian homes as shields is to help conceal the fact that Israel’s “pinpoint strikes” and “surgical capabilities” were often not precise and could neither predict nor guarantee discrimination between civilian sites and military targets. Another objective was to help Israel justify the high percentage of civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian spaces in Gaza.


This mobilization of dual use and perfidy in the Israeli info-war on Gaza is not an isolated case but reflects a major discussion in international humanitarian law on the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians. In addition to changing the traditional meaning of civilian spaces and criticizing Palestinians for not distinguishing between combatants and civilians, the Israeli infographics also accuse Hamas of transforming civilians into weapons, as shown in the IDF ad “Human Shields Are Hamas’ Strategy” (figure 25). This infographic includes a photograph of Palestinians standing on top of a building, and underneath is a drawing of a home with warheads in it and people standing on the roof. The caption reads: “Hamas uses civilians to protect its weapons & its terrorists,” while the image presents Hamas as transforming the civilian population into threshold beings—half human, half weapon.

17. Info-War

The infographic portrays human shields as simultaneously both protected persons and nonprotected persons—a condition of in-betweenness that anthropologist Victor Turner defines as liminality.20 For Turner the liminal figure occupies a temporal in-betweenness while transitioning from one social or political category to another; however, the human shield does not pass from the status of civilian to combatant but remains trapped in its liminal status. Precisely because the human shield is neither combatant nor noncombatant, he or she loses the traditional protections offered to civilians. Hence, Israel’s mobilization of the figure of the human shield on social media is manipulative, since it avows the civilian status of these civilians while using the legal figure of the shield to justify why so many Palestinian civilians were killed.


The IDF’s info-war suggests that the struggle over the interpretation of violence can be as important as the violence itself. States and militaries invest considerable resources in framing acts of war for public consumption in order to demonstrate that violence was deployed in accordance with the law; in the wake of the new millennium, many of these resources focus on social media. States and militaries know that the morality of the event is determined in the public arena often through the circulation of images and that most people access images through their cell phones, tablets, and computers.

The info-war ultimately aims to frame the enemy as the guilty actor,21 as in a video clip released by the IDF during the 2012 Operation Pillar of Cloud that depicts an incident when the Israeli military “tapped” on the roof of a Palestinian apartment building. Tapping is used by the IDF to alert civilian populations that it has marked a building as a target and intends to destroy it within minutes. In the clip, one sees an aerial image of an apartment building in Gaza. The moment the roof is “tapped” by a small bomb—a warning technology that does not kill—civilians are shown running outside the building. Suddenly some civilians change course and run back inside, climbing onto the roof. By so doing they blur the threshold between civilian and combatant and position themselves as human shields. The clip’s message is straightforward: while the IDF wants to observe the principle of distinction by allowing time for civilians to leave a designated military target, Palestinians violate that distinction by refusing to leave the building.

The clip underscores that the principle of distinction is not merely a descriptive force differentiating among numerous actors who are already in the field; it also has a capacity to produce different legal figures.22 It is the tapping that turns these Palestinians into figures who occupy the threshold between civilian and combatant, while it is the law that gives them the status of human shields; the naming—“they are human shields”—confers on these civilians a new legal and political reality.23 The irony of this clip is that while the tapping is meant to ensure the distinction between civilian and combatant, it is at least partially responsible for producing a legal figure that represents the blurring of that distinction.

In fact, the clip can also lend itself to a very different interpretation than the one intended by the Israeli military. After all, when the camera first focuses on the apartment building, there are no human shields inside. Only when the apartment building is designated as a target through the act of tapping do the civilians who remain within the building, climbing up to its roof, become human shields. The tapping dictates a course of action, and those who refuse to follow its fiat—namely, flee the building—become human shields and thus abdicate their status as civilians. Distinction, as the tapping example reveals, can at times be a force used to undermine distinction itself.

In the clip, which was disseminated widely by the Israeli military as a visual weapon, the pilot decides to abort the attack—a decision that assumes a humanitarian motive precisely because the Palestinians who were spared have been framed as human shields rather than civilians. According to this legal-military frame, the Palestinians intentionally blurred the distinction between combatants and civilians, while the Israeli military reveals its ethical superiority by upholding the distinction. Even though human shields are legally killable, the pilot decided to show mercy, reiterating yet again the ethical incommensurability between Israel and the colonized Palestinians.  22. Protest

Many progressive organizers around the world are acutely familiar with this paradox. The Palestinian popular committees that for over a decade organized weekly protests in West Bank villages such as Bil’in and Nabi Saleh invited both international and Israeli activists to join them, recognizing that the presence of white Westerners might lower the levels of violence exerted by the Israeli military forces confronting them. The non-Palestinians were asked to join the protests and, if need be, serve as shields, on the condition that they follow their hosts’ instructions. Frequently, whole villages would take part in the protests, with Israeli and foreign activists serving as human shields.


Unlike the Native Americans in Standing Rock and Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip cannot invite foreign citizens to join their weekly demonstrations because Israel keeps the Strip under a state of siege that restricts the entry of non-Gazans into the area. Moreover, in Gaza, no one has enough privilege to serve as a shield. Even so, the figure of the human shield is often invoked by the Israeli military to frame demonstrators taking part in civil protests.

In March 2018, thousands of Palestinian civilians began marching every Friday towards the militarized fence surrounding the Gaza Strip. They called the protests the Great March of Return, alluding to their right to return to the lands from which their families were expelled in 1948; simultaneously, they were protesting their incarceration in the world’s largest open-air prison.29 Week in and week out, they marched towards the fence in the hope that people around the world would heed their call and exhibit solidarity.

As thousands strode towards the fence in what became a weekly ritual, Israeli snipers ended up killing hundreds and wounding thousands of unarmed protestors. On numerous occasions, not long after the week’s protest, the military spokesperson unit disseminated images and videos depicting young children intermingling with the demonstrators through its Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts. Similar to the info-war waged during its 2014 war on Gaza, this time the Israeli military also blamed the Palestinians for deploying human shields, even though the accusation came in a context of civil protest. The goal was to stir moral indignation against Palestinians while also providing a legal defense for the snipers lined up at the border.

One short video clip plays a lullaby interspersed with the sound of gunfire and rhetorically asks, “Where are the children of Gaza today?” After showing children amid the protestors, it then displays the word “HERE” in large letters across the screen (figure 36). Such montages are used as proof that Palestinians are using children as human shields.30 Morally, the charge intimates that the Palestinians are savages, that they have no problem sending their young sons and daughters to the front lines. As with the infographics that were disseminated during the Gaza War, the subtext is that civilized people protect their children whereas Palestinians sacrifice them.

22. Protest

This is precisely the message Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, conveyed in a letter he sent to the Security Council. “Hamas is committing grave violations of international law” during the weekly protests, he declared, adding that “their terrorists continue to hide behind innocent children to ensure their own survival.”31 By portraying the protestors as Hamas terrorists hiding behind shields, Danon, in effect, categorizes any Palestinian from Gaza who participates in civil protests as a terrorist who is consequently killable.

The fact that Israel has employed the same accusation of human shielding in order to justify its indiscriminate killing of civilians both in situations of war, such as the 2014 aggression, and in civil protests, such as the Great March of Return, suggests that in Israel’s eyes, the notion of civilianhood for Palestinians has disappeared.32


The framing of the Palestinian civilians taking part in the protests as human shields intimates that all of the protestors are legitimate targets; therefore, the Israeli military cannot be accused of perpetrating crimes against civilians for the simple reason that there are no civilians among the protestors in Gaza.33 This is the argument Israel has constructed to justify the deployment of lethal violence against Gaza’s civilian population. Like in many colonies of old, in which colonial armies disregarded the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, Israel refuses to differentiate between the military and civil spheres in the Gaza Strip.

However, in this case the way Israel invokes the figure of the human shield also exposes an inherent relationship between civilianhood and citizenship. For the stateless Palestinians trapped in Gaza, the right to enjoy the protections offered to civilians by international law is intertwined with the right to liberate themselves from colonial occupation and achieve the status of citizens within a state of their own. In Gaza, the protections offered by international law and the right to self-determination and citizenship are simultaneously denied.

Arguably, in many ways the situation in Palestine may also very well be predicting our future. Israel’s treatment of Gaza’s civilian population is undoubtedly extreme, but the logic driving Israel’s security forces is not that different from the logic informing security forces in other areas of the world that cast their own citizenry, especially marginalized groups, as security threats, as the protests from Standing Rock to Kashmir and back to Ferguson reveal. The threat of using lethal violence against demonstrators is dangerous not only because of the harm it inflicts, but also because it frames civil protestors as enemies who can be confronted with military force.34 It is precisely in this sense that Gaza becomes a terrifying prophecy, exposing how the denial of civilian protections in war zones is informing attacks on citizens participating in protests from the Americas to Europe and the Middle East and all the way to Asia and Australia. The almost complete erosion of the civilian in Gaza is an omen, a sign of the increasing precarity of citizenship and the protections that it promises.


Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (New Texts Out Now)

By : Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon

Oct 6, 2020  

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (University of California Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini (NG & NP): While working on our previous book, The Human Right to Dominate, we repeatedly encountered Israel’s accusation that Palestinians use human shields as a warfare strategy in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s argument was straightforward: Since Palestinian armed groups deploy civilians as human shields, placing them in front of legitimate military targets, Israel is not responsible for civilian casualties. We also realized that this line of reasoning was common in other theaters of political violence, from the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, to the wars in Yemen and Syria. The fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians across the globe were suddenly being cast as human shields seemed odd and prompted us to ask a series of questions: Why has the figure of the human shield become so prominent in contemporary war zones throughout the Middle East? What does this figure tell us about the broader global history of political violence? And why are some people used as human shields while others are not? 

We quickly understood that the human shield is a peculiar figure that is simultaneously both a human and a weapon, and as such it destabilizes fundamental legal and ethical categories and assumptions. Indeed, as we began reading about the history of human shielding, from the American Civil War until today, we were intrigued by how a relatively marginal and controversial figure produces a series of moral and legal quandaries and how these quandaries provide insight into who is considered fully human, how the laws of war operate, and how the ethics of violence have developed over time. We thought that grappling with these issues would be fascinating, and so we decided to write a second book.

J: We noticed that the book adopts an uncommon style and format. Can you say a few words about how you wrote it?

NG & NP: Shortly after we began working on the book, we made the decision to abandon the standard format of academic writing, with ten-thousand-word chapters that are often written for an expert audience. We were convinced that an analysis of human shielding sheds light on a number of urgent issues, and we thus wanted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. We then adopted a number of general guidelines. We would begin each chapter with a vignette of human shielding, refrain from using jargon, and limit the length of each chapter to about 3,500 words. Our goal was that the chapters would read almost like magazine articles. Overall, the book has twenty-two chapters, covering over 150 years of wars, environmental struggles, political protests, and even computer games. 

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NG & NP: Human shielding is essentially a politics of vulnerability, where human frailty is weaponized and then used to achieve a range of political, military, and legal goals. Yet, deterrence is successful only when the attacking party values the shield’s humanity and feels morally compelled to stop the attack in order not to harm the person who is serving as a shield. Therefore, the story of human shields is also the story of those who have been included as well as those who have been excluded from the fold of humanity, revealing that humanity is politically variable rather than a universal and neutral category. We noticed, for instance, that “women-and-children” could not serve as shields during the American Civil War but have over time become the primary protagonists in shielding accusations, especially since the Vietnam War. In a similar vein, non-white people also could not serve as human shields in colonial wars, but are currently cast as shields in numerous Middle East conflicts. A different kind of puzzle emerged when we began examining eco-shielding. We found, for example, that environmental activists who use their bodies to protect whales or stop nuclear testing have been more effective than human shields in war zones. 

In order to make sense of these and other historical changes, while also trying to understand their significance, we naturally read the work of our colleagues working on colonialism and post-colonialism as well as those who have contributed to critical race, legal, and war studies. But we were also interested in other literatures. For the chapter on shielding during the Italian attempt to colonize Ethiopia in the mid-1930s, we read, for example, the memoir of Benito Mussolini’s son, Vittorio, who served as a pilot during the war. His memoir helped us better understand how the Italian fascists rationalized and justified the bombing of civilian sites in Ethiopia. Reading pamphlets and sermons written in the 1920s and 1930s by Maude Royden, the first female preacher in the United Kingdom and a leading pacifist activist, helped us trace the emergence of voluntary shielding as a strategy to prevent war. Along similar lines, we read Mao Tse-tung and the Vietnamese General Giap, alongside military policymakers in the United States, to understand why and how the latter framed people’s wars waged by the Viet Cong as a form of terrorist use of human shields. We read the diaries of members from the 2003 Iraq Human Shield Action group and Rachel Corrie in order to understand how they conceived the deployment of their privilege in the midst of war. It was an exhausting but extremely fascinating process.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NG & NP: Without The Human Right to Dominate it is difficult to imagine Human Shields. In our first book, we showed and analyzed how the discourse of human rights, which is commonly perceived as emancipatory, is frequently used to enhance domination. Focusing on Israel’s settler colonial project, we outlined how acts of domination and dispossession are often framed by Israel and its international allies as protecting the human rights of Jews who had been subjected to egregious abuse in Europe. In Human Shields we engage with another paradox, this time related to what we refer to as the ethics of humane violence. We interrogate how international law, specifically the laws of war that aim to protect civilians during armed conflict and military occupation, are being used to justify the deployment of violence against civilian populations and how this violence gets cast as humane. 

Israel-Palestine remained important for Human Shields, and the 2014 Gaza war was a revelatory moment for both of us. But in this book, we zoom out and dramatically expand our purview both historically and geographically. As mentioned, we begin the book with the American Civil War and we end it in Gaza, 2020. This is a 150-year history. We examine several other conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond, chronicling the role human shields have come to play in numerous conflicts. We were also interested in the way activists have adopted human shielding as a form of resistance and were intrigued by the ways they differ from human rights practitioners, not least because they willingly use their own body to protect the lives of others. 

As the research advanced, we increasingly felt that the figure of the human shield allowed us to grapple with a broader set of questions than the ones we examined in The Human Right to DominateHuman Shields is in this sense more ambitious methodologically, theoretically, historically, and geographically. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NG & NP: Niels Hooper, our editor at the University of California Press, thinks everybody should read this book! Given the different lines of investigation and the stories that emerge, people interested in political violence and resistance, ethics, the laws of war, military studies and, more generally, in global histories will, we hope, find the book interesting. We also believe that policy-oriented think-tanks, military officers, and everyone working for international humanitarian and human rights organizations will find it useful. Since we tried to “de-academicize” the book, we really hope it reaches as broad an audience as possible. 

As to impact, we are a bit suspicious of the term not least due to the way it is currently used in certain academic circles. We obviously hope that we have written a rigorous and compelling history. And good history is always also a history of the present. It is, however, important to keep in mind that even though human shields are the book’s main protagonists, the production of humane violence is its plot. So, broadly speaking, if people interested in the different ways violence has been produced as humane in numerous historical events, as well as in a variety of contemporary sites—from the “war on terror” and Black Lives Matter protests to computer games—find this book useful, then we will be extremely pleased! 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

NG & NP: We are both taking our time to think carefully about future projects.

Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 11, pp. 109-113)


Antimilitary Activism in Iraq and Palestine 

[…] Following the First Gulf War, the United Nations Security Council imposed a series of harsh economic sanctions on Iraq with the aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The measures remained in place for over a decade, and, in spite of numerous claims that the sanctions did not affect key humanitarian supplies, a leading medical journal characterized them as a “weapon of mass destruction” that caused the death of about 1.5 million people. In 2002, the United States finally admitted that the sanctions had not undermined Saddam Hussein’s regime and decided to launch a new military campaign. The attack was justified as part of the war on terror by highlighting Iraq’s presumed links with the 9/11 terrorist attacks alongside the accusation that the regime was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Concerned about the terrible humanitarian and political repercussions such a war would likely have for the entire region, citizens across the globe organized popular protests in an attempt to prevent the imminent invasion of a country already devastated by years of economic sanctions. Moreover, as it became clear that the United States intended to attack without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, international solidarity activists concluded that any attempt to resist the war on terror necessitated direct action rather than traditional forms of democratic mobilization.

At the end of 2002, US military veteran Kenneth O’Keefe implored various activist groups to join forces in an effort to stop the war through pacifist intervention “from below.” Scores of people heeded his call and formed the Human Shield Action group. They bought three double-decker buses in London and drove across Europe and through Turkey and Syria all the way to Baghdad. Meanwhile, groups ready to join the movement and serve as voluntary human shields in Iraq began mushrooming in Australia, India, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Korea, and Japan. At its peak, the movement numbered five hundred activists.

Among those who reached Iraq was the former director of Greenpeace Turkey, who in her memoir recounts that the volunteers came from different walks of life and included Buddhists, Islamists, Christian socialists, anarchists, social democrats, monarchists, and conscientious objectors. Their commitment to human life united them, as well as their willingness to act in solidarity with those who were being put in danger’s way. Ultimately, they believed that risking their lives was the best way to prevent the Western aerial bombing campaign and predictable civilian deaths. Thus, resistance through human shielding became the glue uniting activists from radically different political, ideological, and spiritual backgrounds.

Humanitarian shielding action

Determined to reach the battlefield, the Human Shield Action group coordinated their entry into Iraq with Saddam Hussein’s government—they had no other option if they wanted to enter the country—while simultaneously trying to preserve their political autonomy. Although they did not want to be manipulated by the Iraqi regime, they followed this route because they believed that their action could actually have a tangible impact on the impending war.

On the eve of the US attack, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a report entitled Putting Noncombatants at Risk: Saddam’s Use of “Human Shields,” which denounced Saddam Hussein’s use of involuntary shields—Iraqi and foreign civilians, as well as prisoners of war—to protect strategic installations during the 1990–1991 First Gulf War. The CIA then went on to analyze the current crisis, claiming that “Baghdad is encouraging international peace groups to send members to Iraq to serve as voluntary human shields, and the Iraqi military continues its longstanding policy of placing military assets near civilian facilities and in densely populated areas.” Two months later, General Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that all forms of shielding of military targets are illegal, even when civilians “volunteer for this purpose.” Legally speaking, there was, in his eyes, no difference between involuntary and voluntary shields.

Things on the ground were, however, more complicated than the CIA and General Meyers claimed. The shields repeatedly stressed their independence from Saddam Hussein’s regime both in their press releases and in official exchanges with the Iraqi government. Donna Mulhearn—an Australian human shield in charge of media relations—explained the group’s position in a journal entry from Baghdad: “The human shields value life, all life. We opposed the Iraqi regime and its crimes before it was trendy to do so. . . . To say that opponents to war are automatically Hussein supporters is just childish and implicates millions of people around the world who have expressed their opposition.” 

In a letter to President George W. Bush, the activists further reiterated their autonomy from the Iraqi government and underscored that the locations they had selected for shielding were not military targets. “You,” they wrote the president, “should be aware that each of these human shields has voluntarily installed him or herself on these sites in an effort to deter the aerial bombing of vital infrastructure without which normal civilian life cannot exist.”

Since their action was prompted by a nonviolent ethic of care by civilians for civilians, their aim was not to protect Iraqi military installations; they situated themselves, instead, at power plants, water treatment stations, and food silos that sustained millions of civilians, as well as in oil refineries located close to civilian areas, hospitals, and communication centers. Their intervention represented a specific form of nongovernmental solidarity that could be characterized as a humanitarian shielding action—a form of human shielding driven by a sense of humanity and compassion for vulnerable civilians trapped in a war zone. 

This type of direct action differs, however, from classical forms of humanitarian aid. Both humanitarian aid and humanitarian shielding actions are responses to real or potential humanitarian crises affecting civilian populations, yet humanitarian aid organizations like Oxfam or CARE rely on sophisticated bureaucratic mechanisms that aim to alleviate suffering while, at least ostensibly, excluding politics and political activists. By contrast, humanitarian shielding is political through and through and sets out to prevent the horrors of war rather than mitigate its devastating effects. If humanitarian organizations aspire to ease and relieve the suffering caused by war, humanitarian shields attempt to avert or stop it altogether.

Just as important, guaranteeing the staff’s protection within the conflict zone is a key imperative that informs the way humanitarian aid organizations operate, while, for humanitarian shields, risk is the essential means for averting a humanitarian catastrophe. They understand that resisting violence and shielding innocent lives might entail taking the ultimate risk, the risk of dying.

Active civilians

Contrary to their hopes, the Human Shield Action group did not manage to stop the war. Nonetheless, they did demonstrate that civilians willing to risk their lives in an effort to protect other civilians trapped in a war zone can, in fact, create a peaceful obstacle against the use of lethal violence. Significantly, none of the sites they occupied were hit by aerial strikes, except for a telecommunication building that was bombed the day after the human shields had abandoned it. Those in the United States who supported the invasion argued that this clearly demonstrated the surgical and proportionate nature of the military’s use of force and that the troops had never intended to target civilian sites. From another perspective, this observation suggests that the shielding had actually worked. Precisely because human shielding altered the military and legal calculations in the battlefield, it served as a successful form of deterrence and resistance.

Irrespective of the reasons why the civilian sites were not bombed, the voluntary human shields in Iraq did present a legal challenge to the attacking forces. This became obvious when the US government decided to charge citizens who had served as human shields after they returned home. The activists were sued for up to $1 million on the grounds that their travel to Iraq was “unauthorized” and that their shielding actions comprised an “exportation of services” that violated the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime. They were also accused of “shielding a Government of Iraq (GOI) infrastructure from possible U.S. military action.” 

The courts, however, were unable to convict the citizens because the locations they stayed in were not legitimate military targets. While military and legal experts have continued to frame voluntary human shielding as a form of direct participation in hostilities—which means that civilians who serve as shields lose the protections bestowed upon them by international law—civilian sites tend to be illegitimate targets. Therefore, it is difficult legally to characterize people protecting them as human shields and thus as participants in hostilities. 

Simultaneously, the voluntary shields challenged the laws of armed conflict because the legal articles dealing with human shielding are restricted to situations where civilians or prisoners of war are forced to become shields and do not, as one report stated, “cover an event where individuals acted knowingly and on their own initiative.” This, as we have seen, is due to the way international law construes civilians as passive actors. Thus, when civilians become active in a nonviolent and protective way, they challenge existing legal assumptions. Precisely because voluntary human shields in the case of Iraq were active civilians protecting civilian sites, the question of how to treat them remained unresolved. Accordingly, such shielding activities elude the law…

  Human Shields: The Weapon of the Strong  

by Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini

October 22, 2015In a series of interventions, Adil Ahmad Haque and Charlie Dunlap have debated the Defense Department Law of War Manual’s position on human shields (herehere, and here). Claiming that the manual does not draw a distinction between voluntary and involuntary human shields, Haque maintains that it ignores the principle of proportionality, thus permitting the killing of defenseless civilians who are used as involuntary shields. Dunlap, however, insists that the manual includes all the necessary precautions for protecting civilians used as shields by enemy combatants, and argues that the adoption of Haque’s approach would actually encourage the enemy to increase the deployment of involuntary human shields. The two scholars clearly disagree on a number of legal issues, and yet they both treat human shielding as an ahistorical phenomenon and therefore fail to address a much more fundamental question: Why does the Law of War Manual suddenly include clauses dealing with human shields? Why in 2015 and not before?

At first glance, this might seem like an irrelevant question. However, if one considers that human shields were neither mentioned in the 1956 Department of the Army Field Manual, which preceded the new manual, nor in much more recent manuals published by the DOD (such as the 2009 US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, where human shields are extremely relevant), it becomes clear that the introduction of human shields clauses in the new manual has great legal and political significance.

This is not to say that DOD has never mentioned the use of human shields in its manuals. In the 2005 Law of War Handbook, one clause is dedicated to human shields, but it is significantly different from the clauses in the new manual. It reads: “Civilians may not be used as ‘human shields’ in an attempt to immunize an otherwise lawful military objective. However, violation of this rule by a party to the conflict does not relieve the opponent of the obligation to do everything feasible to implement the concept of distinction.” But, other than that, DOD has not weighed in on the use of human shields until its latest manual.

This becomes even more striking once one takes into account that human shielding is not a new phenomenon and, at least theoretically, could have appeared in all the previous manuals. Already by 1867, immediately after the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman explained the advantage of using human shields on the battlefield. He wrote:

[I]f torpedoes [land mines] are found in the possession of an enemy to our rear, you may cause them to be put on the ground, and tested by wagon loads of prisoners, or if need be, by citizens implicated in their use. In like manner, if a [land mine] is suspected on any part of the road, order the point to be tested by a car-load of prisoners, or citizens implicated, drawn by a long rope. Of course an enemy cannot complain of his own traps.

During World War II, the Allies bombed Nazi trains carrying ammunition even though they were aware that civilian prisoners were being used to shield the trains from aerial attacks. Indeed, immediately following the war, at the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, German armed forces were accused of human shielding. In Vietnam, the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians spurred international legal debates (on the eve of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions) about the status of civilian populations in wartime and their use as shields. And, in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s and Slobodan Milosevic’s use of human shields garnered considerable media attention.

Given this long history, the question of why human shields suddenly appeared in the 2015 Law of War Manual urgently needs to be addressed. Our counterintuitive hypothesis is that human shields are not only being deployed as a weapon of the weak against high tech states (the underlying assumption of both Haque and Dunlap), but that the legal phrase “human shield” has also been mobilized by strong states to legitimize the increasing deaths of civilians on the battlefield. This has become especially true following the so-called “War on Terror” and new US military occupations.

To better understand our claim, it is crucial to acknowledge the exponential increase in civilian casualties in warfare, which is due both to the development of modern weaponry and to the fact that, following decolonization, non-whites have acquired the previously denied status of civilians; therefore, their deaths have also begun to be counted. The increasing civilian death toll has, in turn, led to the emergence of firmer protections through various international conventions, all of which categorize wanton civilian deaths as a war crime. Despite these legal innovations, the arenas of war continue to expand, while more and more civilians are being killed, including by liberal western armies. And it is precisely in this postcolonial legal and political setting that the US and other western governments want to preserve a position of moral superiority.

This, we suggest, is the reason why the category of human shield has acquired such an important role. The manual states:

5.5.4 [I]n some cases, a party to a conflict may attempt to use the presence or movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to shield military objectives from seizure or attack. When enemy persons engage in such behavior, commanders should continue to seek to discriminate in conducting attacks and to take feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to the civilian population and civilian objects. However, the ability to discriminate and to reduce the risk of harm to the civilian population likely will be diminished by such enemy conduct. In addition, such conduct by the adversary does not increase the legal obligations of the attacking party to discriminate in conducting attacks against the enemy.

Insofar as human shielding limits the ability to discriminate, it legitimizes the increase of harm to civilians. Therefore, even if the manual would have explicitly stated that the killing of civilians framed as human shields should be subjected to the principle of proportionality (Haque’s suggestion), the main problem would not have been resolved because when a person on a battlefield is defined as a human shield — a vulnerable civilian body that willingly or even unwillingly becomes a technology of warfare whose function is to render a military target immune — he or she irreversibly loses some of the protections traditionally assigned to civilians by international humanitarian law (IHL). Once IHL draws a distinction between civilians and human shields (whether voluntary or not), this distinction can easily be marshaled to relax the test of excessive injury to civilians — meaning that the principle of proportionality works differently when civilians are framed as shields.

Several liberal commenters and even prominent humanitarian institutions believe that a distinction between civilians and human shields is important. Legal scholar Yoram Dinstein writes that the “appraisal of whether civilian casualties are excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated must make allowances for the fact that—if an attempt is made to shield military objectives with civilians—civilian casualties will be higher than usual.” Even the International Committee of the Red Cross claims, in a manual entitled Fight it Right, that the “attacking commander is required to do his best to protect [human shields] but he is entitled to take the defending commander’s actions into account when considering the rule of proportionality.” Killing human shields is, in other words, not the same as killing civilians.

A slightly different line of argument, whose consequences also underscore the implication of framing civilians as human shields, has been voiced by several just war theorists from Michael Walzer to Asa Kasher. Analyzing Israel’s recent wars in Gaza, Walzer and Kasher concur that Palestinian human shields are indeed civilians, but they maintain that even though Israel killed them, the country is not responsible for their deaths. Hamas, these just war theorists aver, shoulders a double responsibility: for attacking Israeli civilians and for the deaths of Palestinian civilians it uses as shields.

In this context, it is not surprising that the new Law of War Manual introduced human shielding clauses. The manual provides the US military with a new tool, allowing it to construe enemy civilians as human shields. Irrespective of the question of proportionality and its case-by-case interpretation, the manual enables as well as justifies a higher degree of violence and “collateral” damage during warfare. From this point of view, the introduction of the human shield clauses should be understood as the introduction of a legal technology that shields the strong from potential accusations of having committed war crimes.

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