Hamas’s Palestinian Victims: Human Shields

As the media broadcast and discuss images of destruction in the Gaza Strip, it is essential that they recall, and alert the public to, the context within which those images exist — most narrowly, that during the fighting Hamas launched attacks against Israel from crowded and built up civilian areas.

By basing its leaders, fighters and rocket launchers near or inside homes, mosques and schools, Hamas chose to put its neighbors in the line of fire, and invited destruction that, even with today’s most advanced guided weapons and with unprecedented attempts to reduce civilian casualties, is an inevitable result of contemporary urban warfare.

Some media reports have referred to the mingling of Hamas fighters among civilians as merely an Israeli claim. One unsigned report by the Associated Press, for example, reported that “Israel says Hamas militants are launching rockets from civilian areas and using non-combatants as human shields” (emphasis added; AP, “Israel denies attack on clan members in Gaza town,” Jan. 10, 2009).

This is a partial and misleading truth. In fact, it is not only Israel but also independent journalists and Palestinian witness who have attested to Hamas’s self-serving and illegal tactic.

To be sure, Israeli officials and soldiers have drawn attention to the issue. Gabriela Shalev, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said on Jan. 14, 2009 that “Hamas and terrorists like it … view civilians not as a population to be avoided in an armed conflict but as a population to be exploited in an armed conflict.” Israeli soldiers have told reporters of discovering schools rigged with explosives and homes serving as weapons depots, and intelligence officers have noted that some Hamas leaders took shelter in a hospital basement. Maps seized during the military operation provide other examples of the organization’s intentional mixing of weapons and civilians.

There is also video evidence from IDF aircraft showing Hamas rocket activity from a schoolyard and just outside of schools, secondary explosions caused by weaponry stored in mosques, and military attacks from Palestinian homes.

While the videos linked to above and numerous other similar clips released by Israel provide incontrovertible evidence of Hamas locating military objectives within and near densely populated areas, they do originate from Israeli sources. Still, to report only that “Israel says” Hamas bases itself among civilians amounts to error of omission.

Shireen Shihab, for example, is not an Israeli. She is a Palestinian resident of Gaza City who told the New York Times she saw Hamas fighters launching rockets from her neighborhood. Jabaliya resident Ibrahim Amen told reporters he saw a commander of the Hamas military wing near a UN school just before the school was damaged by Israeli mortar fire. More strikingly, the 16-year-old Amen said he was recruited to the area of the school to build positions for Palestinian fighters. Two other Palestinians witnessed “a small group of militants firing mortar rounds from a street near the school,” according to the AP. (This is the same AP that later asserted only that “Israel says” rockets are being fired from civilian areas in Gaza.) Palestinian Hanan Abu Khajib saw the same thing. Talal Safadi relayed that “resistance fighters were firing from positions all around the [al Quds] hospital.” Mohammed Sadala’s Beit Lahia home was destroyed because Hamas fighters broke into the empty house and used it to fire at Israeli troops, he told a reporter. His neighbor, Hail, pointed out that Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters used his house, kept weaponry their, and even left wires leading from his home to a neighbors house, which appeared to have been booby trapped. Mohammed Shriteh, a Palestinian ambulance driver, says he was ordered at gunpoint to transport Hamas fighters in his ambulance. A Palestinian reporter in Gaza was caught on tape amused that Hamas had apparently just fired a Grad rocket from under the building from which she was broadcasting.
A Western reporter described a Qassam rocket being fired in the Nuseirat refugee camp from “smack in the middle of the four buildings, where every apartment was full, most of them with newly made refugees,” and a camouflaged tunnel of the type used by Hamas in a residential neighborhood in Jabaliya. (The tunnel was seen only a few yards away from a Palestinian woman who told the reporter that there were no such tunnels.) 
The United Nations’ top humanitarian official, John Holmes, protested this “reckless and cynical use of civilian installations by Hamas,” calling it, and Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians, “clear violations of international humanitarian law.”

Because Hamas’s use of civilian areas to attack Israel is well documented, journalists who relay this as an Israeli claim effectively mislead the public. It would be more honest to report, as fact, that “many purely civilian neighborhoods aren’t safe because Gaza militants often fire rockets from such areas,” as did the Los Angeles Times; or that Hamas puts civilians at risk “by storing weapons among them, including in mosques, schools and allegedly hospitals, too, making them potential military targets,” as did the New York Times.

Journalists who witnessed, or found witnesses willing to talk (a number of Palestinian witnesses told reporters that they wished to remain anonymous because they feared “reprisal” by Hamas), about Hamas’s use — or more aptly, abuse — of Palestinian civilians despite extremely difficult reporting conditions should be commended. Thanks to their work, and to Israel’s video footage, there is no reason at all for responsible media outlets to pretend that Hamas’s disturbing practice is just an Israeli claim. News consumers deserve to be told all the relevant facts when they hear about civilian casualties and damage to civilian areas in Gaza.
Updated Jan. 28, 2009

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