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Congress Utilizes Myth of “Human Shields” to Justify War Crimes

No Gaza eyewitnesses found evidence of Hamas using human shields during the last conflict.

No Gaza eyewitnesses found evidence of Hamas using human shields during the last conflict. Israel’s murder of civilians would have been a crime anyway, yet Congress seeks to undermine international law.

On November 5, Amnesty International released another report on this summer’s fighting between Israeli and Hamas forces report, revealing “A pattern of frequent Israeli attacks using large aerial bombs to level civilian homes, sometimes killing entire families.” The report also exposed “A pattern of attacks on civilian homes by Israeli forces which have shown a shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians, who were given no warning and had no chance to flee.”

Amnesty has been joined by the United Nations and human rights groups expressing outrage at attacks on civilians by both Hamas and Israel. Israeli forces killed nearly 1,500 civilians, including 500 children, during its seven-week bombardment of the crowded enclave known as the Gaza Strip. Hamas rocket attacks, meanwhile, killed five civilians in Israel.

Despite this, leading Democrats in Washington have joined Republicans in claiming that the people killed and the dwellings destroyed from Israeli bombing and shelling were legitimate acts of self-defense against military targets, and dismissed reports by reputable Israeli and international human rights groups saying otherwise. In July and August, the US Congress passed a series of resolutions and forwarded public letters with broad bipartisan support providing unqualified backing for the massive Israeli air and ground assault, in language directly contradicting findings by journalists, medical workers and United Nations officials on the ground, as well as investigations by both Israeli and international human rights groups.

Human Rights Watch cited evidence of Israel “blatantly violating the laws of war designed to spare civilians,” including attacks on heavily-populated neighborhoods and shooting at fleeing civilians. Similarly, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem challenged its government’s claims that they had “no intention of harming civilians,” noting how after “weeks of lethal bombardments by Israel in the Gaza Strip which have killed hundreds of civilians and wiped out dozens of families, this claim has become meaningless.” United Nations officials in the Gaza Strip also charged Israeli forces with engaging in serious violations of international law, following a series of attacks against six UN schools where Palestinians were seeking refuge, and where no Hamas weaponry or fighters were present, killing 46 civilians.

In an effort to discredit these reports, the US House of Representatives, with more than 100 co-sponsors from both parties, passed a resolution by unanimous consent insisting that the Israeli attacks were exclusively “focused on terrorist targets” and that Israel “goes to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors.” Majority leader Harry Reid introduced a Senate resolution, also pushed through by unanimous consent, claiming that “the government of Israel has taken significant steps to protect civilians in Gaza” and that “Israel’s attacks have focused on terrorist targets.”

The right-wing Israeli government has repeatedly claimed the civilians killed by their forces during the war were a result of Hamas using “human shields,” defined under international law as “Utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operation.”

No eyewitnesses in the Gaza Strip during the war found any evidence of this, however. For example, in a July 24 New York Times article on the question, their reporters in Gaza noted, “There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack.” Similarly, on July 25, Amnesty International noted that they had no evidence “that Palestinian civilians have been intentionally used by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups during the current hostilities to ‘shield’ specific locations or military personnel or equipment from Israeli attacks.” Preliminary investigations by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and others – while noting that Hamas had illegally engaged in hostilities in close proximity to civilian populated areas and had stored weaponry in unoccupied homes and schools – has subsequently found no evidence that Hamas had actually engaged in the actions meeting the widely-accepted legal definition of human shields.

In an apparent effort to discredit these reports, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pushed through a Senate resolution claiming “Hamas intentionally uses civilians as human shields” and condemning the United Nations Human Rights Council for not saying that they did. Similarly, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) drafted a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights attacking her for not declaring that “Hamas is using Palestinian men, women, and children as human shields to deter Israeli attacks.” Neither senator’s offices were able to provide me with any evidence backing their claims, nor were they able to explain how they were able to somehow locate information that journalists, UN officials, or human rights monitors in Gaza itself were unable to find.

Likewise, the House passed a resolution claiming that “Hamas has been using civilian populations as human shields” and calling on “the international community to recognize and condemn Hamas’ breaches of international law through the use of human shields.” This hasn’t happened, however, because – despite widespread condemnation of other war crimes by Hamas – the international community has failed to find any credible evidence that they actually did so.

It is important to note, however, that even if Hamas actually had used human shields, Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it clear that if one side is shielding itself behind civilians, such a violation “shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians.” In other words, it would not only be a war crime for Hamas to force civilians into harm’s way, it would also be a war crime – despite Congressional insistence to the contrary – for Israel to kill them.

To use a domestic example: If bank robbers were holding tellers and customers hostage and were shooting at people from among them, the police could not get away with killing the hostages as well by saying the criminals were using human shields. Indeed, the implications of such broad bipartisan support in Congress for effectively saying otherwise is chilling, given that it could be replicated by law enforcement officials here in the United States at a time of militarizing local police in the name of fighting terrorism.

The goal of Sens. Boxer, Reid, and other members of Congress appears to be to undermine the Fourth Geneva Convention and other international legal principles protecting non-combatants. In doing so, they are effectively allying with Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who has similarly unleashed massive attacks on crowded urban civilian neighborhoods, causing even greater carnage, in the name of “fighting terrorism.”

Israel certainly has a right to defend itself. However, just because Israel is considered an important strategic ally of the United States and a lucrative market for US arms manufacturers does not give Congress the right to lie and cover up for war crimes.

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