Special Report

Human Shields

A paying proposition for terrorists.

By 2.18.09

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As hostilities in Gaza wind down for who knows how long, a postmortem on the world's response and its effect on terrorism globally becomes pertinent.

The ratio of combatant to civilian deaths in Gaza -- about 3 to 1 (900 combatants out of an approximate 1,200 fatalities), compares favorably to even less exacting interventions: NATO's 1999 air offensive against Serbia killed 670, of which 500 were civilians, a ratio of about 1 to 3.

Few would argue that NATO was reckless or malign in its operations against the Milosevic regime. Nonetheless, much criticism was directed Israel's way on the morally inverted basis that, as Israel was retaliating against incessant Hamas rocket attacks, Israel, rather than Hamas, was responsible for the deaths of civilians among whom Hamas deliberately embedded its forces.

That single fact points to the growth of an alarming international development -- the successful use of civilians as human shields by terror organizations.

This tactic has become routine and -- in terms of public relations -- successful, because recent years have witnessed indulgence of its practitioners and sharp censure for those confronting them.

In 2002, Palestinian terrorists screened themselves with nuns and priests by holing up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity to elude Israeli forces which they knew to be loath to enter after them. The terrorists were evacuated after a stand-off and lived to fight another day, while the Israelis received much opprobrium for besieging a church.

The Lebanese terror group Hezbollah took the strategy one step further in its 2006 war with Israel by embedding a large proportion of its army in densely populated civilian areas. Bombs and ammunition were stored in mosques, rockets fired from civilian homes, rocket launchers set up beside hospitals, gunmen operated from behind U.N. posts, and so on. Errant Israeli shells that killed civilians in a building brought enormous criticism upon Jerusalem, yet comparatively little for the terrorists who had deliberately chosen this spot to launch missiles into Israel.

The effectiveness of this strategy emboldened others to use it. In October 2006, NATO units were involved in urban fighting by Taliban forces holed up in civilian houses in Afghanistan's Panjwayi district. The result was as many as 80 civilians killed and widespread regional criticism for NATO.

In November 2007, Hamas introduced a further innovation: the use of willing human shields. When its gunmen were cornered at a mosque in Gaza's Beit Hanoun by Israeli special forces, Hamas used radio to call upon local women to flood the scene of the armed stand-off so as to enable the gunmen to escape, which they did. No government or international organ condemned Hamas for the use of this tactic while apologists applauded it.

This scenario was repeated in all particulars only weeks later when an American priest and a nun become voluntary human shields within the house of Mohammed Baroud, leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), one of the terror groups firing rockets and shells into Israel from Gaza.

Indeed, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni testified, indirectly, to the success of the use of human shields at the time: "We prefer to attack an empty building which is being used to manufacture rockets, even taking into consideration that the terrorists will leave the place."

When a nation prefers missing its targets rather than inadvertently hitting civilians, it has lost the ability to defeat terrorists who use human shields. That of course, was always the terrorists' aim -- to make the specter of civilian losses so terrible that those equipped with a conscience and rule book would give up the fight.

Jamila Shanti, who pioneered the successful human shield campaign in Beit Hanoun two years ago said at the time, "We consider it a new kind of resistance, highly successful, one that will serve us well against the Israeli enemy."

New it may be; highly successful it certainly has been, until now; and it may indeed serve Hamas and others well enough to enable them to fight another day. But it was unlikely that the Israelis would be permanently deterred from preferring the preservation of Palestinian civilians lives to that of their own.

In entering Gaza three weeks ago, Israel sought to alter this malign calculus, using surprise, detailed intelligence and precision to redress the balance, but its success is far from assured since its withdrawal. Guns rule in Gaza, and only their replacement by bigger guns can break Hamas' hold on the population. There is little to suggest that Israel is working to eliminate Hamas as a regime and if it is its outgoing government is not saying so.

Three things in combination can defeat the successful use of human shields -- the elimination as fighting forces of the groups that use it; utter condemnation by foreign governments, international organizations and publics for this practice; and international support for lawful forces opposing the terrorists.

One instance in which this rare combination did occur came in July 2007, when Pakistani Islamists took cover inside the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. They refused to surrender, resulting in the death of 173 people in battle with the Pakistani security forces. However, as those fighting the terrorists were neither Christians nor Jews but themselves Muslim, international Muslim opinion was notably indulgent towards then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and non-Muslim nations followed their lead.

In short, where human shields are concerned, the world generally bows to Muslim reflexive anger at non-Muslim forces combating other Muslims, whoever these Muslims might be. As a result, who knows how many more civilians will yet die in future conflicts with conscienceless terrorists because the use of human shields is being shown to be a paying proposition?

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About the Author

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004). His blog can be found on the History News Network.