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.
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.