Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 14 November 2023



We can’t ignore the truth that Hamas uses human shields

Smoke trails from rockets being fired toward Israel are seen over Gaza on Friday. (Kenso Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

But Hamas does use civilians as shields, and it is crucial to understand that fact. As a Nov. 5 Post editorial observed, the group “has consciously exposed noncombatants to danger by provoking Israel militarily — while protecting its own leaders and fighters in tunnels.” In 2014, The Post reported that Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, now the site of Israeli-Hamas fighting, “has become a de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders, who can be seen in the hallways and offices.”

This Hamas practice is not new, and neither are efforts to distract from it with spurious claims of racism. In 2014, a human rights lawyer on CNN said, “the idea that Palestinians use their children as human shields is racist and reprehensible.” To which host Jake Tapper responded: “We have video of the Hamas spokesman on television telling people to stay in their homes, that it’s an effective way to make sure to fight off the Israelis. That’s not racist. That’s just a fact.”

This war tactic poses agonizing moral dilemmas for anyone concerned about protecting civilian lives. But Hamas itself makes no bones about how it fights Israel. One official of the terrorist group, Moussa Abu Marzook, recently stressed that Gaza’s tunnel network is for protecting Hamas fighters and declared the United Nations responsible for protecting Gazan civilians. Khaled Meshal, a Hamas leader, explained his openness to mass Palestinian death in pursuit of Hamas’s political aims, saying that millions were killed during the Vietnam War and other guerrilla conflicts.

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Hamas is using classic guerrilla tactics in Gaza as it tries to stop or delay its destruction by the superior Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In guerrilla warfare, the less technologically advanced party uses asymmetric tactics, such as embedding itself within civilian population centers and infrastructure, to press its advantage. These tactics make combatants harder to detect, and can protect them from enemy attack when they are detected — either because of the enemy’s moral inhibitions or because civilian deaths would set back its strategic aims.

Karl Marx once said that revolutionaries “ought not to adhere rigidly to the accepted rules of warfare.” Adhering to the accepted rules of warfare would be catastrophic for Hamas. The group has guns and rockets and antitank weapons, but not F-16s or precision-guided munitions. If its fighters squared off against the IDF in the open desert, they would be annihilated swiftly. But the deterrent effect from human shields is powerful. It’s one reason Israel never tried to destroy the terrorist group despite its attacks until the scale of its butchery on Oct. 7 left leaders in Jerusalem no choice.

Hamas’s fanaticism and Gaza’s density mean that the group has exploited civilians and civilian infrastructure more than perhaps any other contemporary military movement. But it’s an uncomfortable fact that even militaries supported by the West are known to conceal weapons in civilian zones for tactical advantage. The Post reported last year that “Ukraine’s strategy of placing heavy military equipment and other fortifications in civilian zones could weaken Western and Ukrainian efforts to hold Russia legally culpable for possible war crimes.” Combatants in wars for their survival tend to do what it takes to win, and other concerns are secondary.

War is not like police action against a criminal. Where the government has a monopoly on force, it can surgically separate criminals from the innocent. War takes place in a zone where the government’s power is violently contested, and law is unsettled. Innocent people die in all wars, including necessary ones. Lawyers advise Israel’s military as it tries to calibrate an acceptable level of civilian death in a given strike targeted at Hamas.

It is legitimate to criticize Israel for the number of Palestinian civilians dying in its war against Hamas. And it’s legitimate to criticize Hamas for trying to increase that number. Smearing such criticism as bigoted won’t change the enduring nature of guerrilla warfare — but it will distort the public’s understanding of what is happening and why.

Make no mistake: The suffering and death in this war, in Israel and in Gaza, are terrible to behold. Those who sympathize with Palestinians want to claim the moral high ground. But whatever people imagine in the safe and rich West, wars are not settled by taking a moral inventory of each side. Hamas declared war against Israel on Oct. 7. Now, it is facing the consequences and, tragically, ordinary Gazans are facing them, too.


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