[A version of this article first appeared at The Algemeiner on May 12, 2023.]
CNN’s Isa Soares has a problem with human shields, but not with those who use them. During an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on May 10, 2023, the CNN International host pinned responsibility for the death of human shields used by Islamic Jihad on Israel instead of those who intentionally hide behind civilians, asking: “Now I’ve heard the argument often made that militants – and you hinted there – use civilians as human shields. But doesn’t Israel have an obligation to work around those shields here?”
A journalist needing a review of why human shielding as a practice is unlawful and morally wrong is itself concerning.
As explained by Michael N. Schmitt, a renowned expert and professor on the laws of armed conflict, the basic presumption behind the use of human shields is “that the prospect of killing civilian shields may dissuade an attacker from striking.” That deterrence can work in the form of moral concerns, but it can also work such that the “intended operation would be prohibited due to the presence of sufficient numbers of civilians” or where “the attacker’s operations might be perceived as unlawful.” As Schmitt elaborates, “images of dead and injured civilians transmitted across a globalized media (which often pays little heed to the military rationale of an operation) can make it appear as if the attacker has mounted inhumane operations,” (emphasis added) and this reality may force a party to abandon a strike because of “possible negative communicative consequences.”
This is exactly what terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad and Hamas hope for. Indeed, it is well known that Hamas extols the virtue of human shielding to its fighters because the death of human shields “increases the hatred of the citizens” against Israel and the IDF “must limit their use of weapons and tactics.” It is a classic example of lawfare as articulated by Major General Charles J. Dunlap: “the strategy of using – or misusing – law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective.”
By placing the responsibility on Israel, Soares feeds directly into the narrative terrorist organizations like Hamas have sought to create. It is an uncontroversial position that the responsibility for harm to civilians in a case of human shielding is assumed by the party engaging in the practice (see section 5.16.5 of the Department of Defense Law of War Manual). It is true that the attacking party still has an obligation to take feasible precautions. Similarly, the principle of proportionality still applies and may render certain strikes unlawful regardless of the other party’s cynical exploitation of civilians (“However,” according to the DoD, “the enemy use of voluntary human shields may be considered as a factor in assessing the legality of an attack”). But even assuming Soares understands how the laws of armed conflict work, her question completely erases the fact that responsibility always ultimately lies with the party using human shields.
As eloquently explained by Professors Geoffrey S. Corn and Rachel E. VanLandingham in the context of the May 2021 war:
What Hamas is exploiting is a deeply embedded confusion between cause and responsibility that allows for spread of distorted legal narratives. Israeli attacks may cause damage and destruction, but the responsibility for the tragic impact on Gaza civilians belongs exclusively to Hamas. This is because the terror organization pervasively and illegally exploits the presence of civilians to shield its targets and complicate IDF attack decisions. And Hamas knows that no matter the attack decision the IDF makes, it wins: If the IDF exercises restraint, Hamas wins a tactical benefit, but if the IDF launches the attack, Hamas wins a strategic information benefit by exploiting the attack’s collateral civilian impact.
This is not to say that Soares can’t or shouldn’t ask Israeli leaders hard questions. But journalists should not serve, unwittingly or not, the strategic objectives of those who deliberately put civilians in harm’s way. As the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics states, “journalists should balance the public’s need for information against potential harm.”
By playing directly into the hands of Islamic Jihad, Soares is only encouraging the terrorist organization to continue engaging in its cynical exploitation of its own civilian population. Moreover, the use of human shields doesn’t just threaten Palestinian civilians. As we’ve seen in just the last few days, it often forces the IDF to call off strikes, inhibiting its ability to protect Israeli civilians who are being indiscriminately targeted by Palestinian rockets.
Unfortunately, the benefit of the doubt – that Soares’s inquiry was borne out of ignorance of the law rather than malice toward Israel – becomes academic when one examines how Soares followed up on the question.
Soares: Now I’ve heard the argument often made that militants – and you hinted there – use civilians as human shields. But doesn’t Israel have an obligation to work around those shields here?
Bennett: Israel has an obligation to defend its people. What would you do, Isa, with your kids? Would you allow them to be next to rocket launchers?
Soares: No, I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t target civilians, sir. And this is my question to you.
Bennett: No, nobody’s targeting civilians, Isa. Nobody is targeting civilians.
Soares: So are you accusing Mr. Bennett, are you accusing those children of being part of this?
Bennett: No, I’m accusing Islamic Jihad of murdering its own children by cynically shooting rockets at Israeli children, but surrounding their own weapons with civilians in Gaza. There is no method that is more cowardly than what they’re doing, and shame on them.
Soares goes from acknowledging the civilians were human shields to suddenly claiming they were the targets. It’s a partisan charge that accomplishes little more than exposing Soares’s inability to be objective on the subject. She only compounds her reprehensible partisanship by putting words in Bennett’s mouth and suggesting he accused “children of being a part of this.” This is not the behavior of a serious journalist.
The entire episode recalls a previous segment on Isa Soares Tonight. Earlier this year, Soares brought on the United Nations’s Francesca Albanese, a notorious antisemite who shamelessly distorts international law (such as by claiming Israel has no right to self-defense against terrorists), to demonize and delegitimize Israel. Perhaps if Soares brought on legitimate, credible experts, she wouldn’t be caught making such shameful displays of partisan legal revisionism that will only end up putting more civilians in harm’s way.