Cracking down on human shield ops and optics

The countries that seek to respond to such inhumane methods should be actively reaching out to and engaging victims and survivors of such operations, and lending legitimacy to their voices.

June 5, 2018 20:08
Cracking down on human shield ops and optics

HOUTHI FOLLOWERS in Sanaa, Yemen demonstrate against US President Donald Trump’s visit to neighboring Saudi Arabia in May. Their placards slam Israel, too: “Allah is the greatest. Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, victory to Islam”.. (photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)


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Much has been said about the recent Hamas-backed “March of Return” on Israel’s borders, coinciding with the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. Opinion makers are divided on whether to consider the handling of the episode, which killed approximately 110 individuals, mostly Hamas operatives, a PR victory or defeat for Israel, given that the White House placed blame on Hamas, and responses of the Arab states have been relatively subdued. A few demonstrations around the world – in Morocco, Turkey, and elsewhere – were organized by Islamist parties and likewise quickly subsided. Indeed, even Gaza’s Health Ministry removed the death of an eight-month-old baby, which had initially served as a rallying cry for propagandists, from the list of victims of the IDF’s alleged aggression.

Nevertheless, the outcry against Israel during the first couple of days of the clashes was felt by pro-Israel activists in the West, embittered by the continuous blame for Hamas’ use of human shields to advance not so much the welfare of its own constituents, as anti-Israel acrimony.

This is not new. Complaints about this ruthless and illegal tactic by the Iran-backed Sunni terrorist organization, whose leaders conveniently reside in Turkey, emerge after every war and altercation with Hamas. The IDF has often faced a bitter dilemma of having to choose between bombing hospitals sheltering Hamas operatives and weapons or inviting additional shelling against Israel’s own citizens. Yet the international community is paralyzed by unwillingness to condemn these tactics and demand accountability from the organization that has infamously used international aid to build terror tunnels rather than provide for its civilian population. Hamas is not alone in the use of these tactics, which at any other time in history would have placed its leadership on trial for war crimes. The use of human shields is consistently underreported, though they are an important part of a cycle of human rights abuses in various Middle East conflicts.

Iranian proxy Hezbollah is infamous for using civilians as human shields during the 2006 Lebanon war with Israel and during other military operations and terrorist attacks. Despite sanctions placed on that organization by the United States and other governments, this method has not been eradicated from its arsenal. Syrian rebels have used civilians as human shields by placing them in cages, even as Assad’s own government did not hesitate to use civilians as human shields in the early part of the war, an atrocity that served as a precursor for his gas attacks against civilians in the quest to retake rebel-held parts of the country.

Terrorist groups frequently use human shields in their propaganda efforts to draw condemnation of the seeming negligence and disproportionality of their adversaries. When the media fails to report the true culprits behind the mass deaths, the conflicts appear one-sided and state-backed efforts against terrorists are made to seem unjustifiably inhumane.

A RECENT UK Parliamentary Group report about the civil war in Yemen decries the Saudi and Emirati restrictions on humanitarian aid, which has been used to smuggle advanced weapons by Iran into Houthi hands, and likewise notes the numbers of civilians in hospitals and private areas killed by the Arab coalition’s airstrikes.

However, the report fails to make any mention of the Iran-backed rebel Houthis’ use of hospitals and civilian areas as human shields to distract from the coalition’s mission and to maximize the number of civilian casualties, giving the coalition, particularly the Saudis, a terrible image in the eyes of the international community. The report, then, sacrificing its own credibility and the credibility of the major international NGOs that provided the reporting, pushes for a diplomatic solution to the ongoing civil war, seemingly accepting the premise that people who with no qualms sacrificed civilians to undermine the political image of their enemies, belong at the negotiating table, or even in the unity government.

Indeed, for Iran, sacrificing civilians, whether its own or those of the perceived adversary, is not a deal breaker in its effort to destabilize the Middle East and promote its own hegemony. The lives of its own citizens have no inherent worth for the regime; Iran boasts of the highest execution rate in the world; capital crimes include homosexuality, belonging to minority or leftist parties, and drug-related crimes, even as Iran encourages the flow of drugs into the peripheral regions populated by Ahwazis, Kurds, Azeris and other non-Persian nations. Many of the executed are children. When human lives are worthless and there is no accountability for human rights violations, the use of human shields becomes natural, acceptable and easy to employ. Hamas has openly admitted Iran’s financial backing of these operations.

A NEW provision in the US National Defense Authorization Act, spearheaded by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), seeks to find a solution by holding terrorists who use human shields accountable for this atrocity. The amendment seeks to “gain transparency into the use of human shields by terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The provision requires a specific plan and actions to address these tactics.” Just as importantly as finding a military and national security solution to the use of civilians as pawns in terrorist attacks, making these tactics socially unacceptable will lead more people to turn away from Hamas, Hezbollah and others in search of alternative and less violent solutions to the economic, political and social problems beleaguering their societies.

Human rights activists and journalists attacking Israel tend to underplay the fact that Hamas is willingly endangering its own citizens and that ideologues find it acceptable to bring young children to what essentially amounts to a battlefield. The public relations effort that should go into exposing this topic should be extensive and not reactionary to the heat-of-the-moment developments on the ground. Thus, the public can be informed and inoculated to the methods of terrorist organizations long before they can be strung along out of sympathy for the alleged justice of the cause itself.

Indeed, however, posting articles and statistics will do nothing for Israel, the Arab coalition, Lebanese, Syrians, or anyone else who has had to suffer as a result of such brutally manipulative information warfare methods. The countries that seek to respond to such inhumane methods should be actively reaching out to and engaging victims and survivors of such operations, and lending legitimacy to their voices, which all too often are suppressed by the terrorist operatives. The human shields are only useful in undermining the enemy; they never get the spotlight to tell their own stories, nor the freedom to choose their destiny. Perhaps it’s time to lend credibility to their stories, rather than to the powerful, corrupt and vicious groups that use them.

The author is a New York-based human rights and national security attorney, who writes for a variety of US and international publications about the Middle East.

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