As the civilian death toll in Gaza rises, the same old tropes about Palestinian 'human shields' are starting to make the rounds. But what is the reality?
As Israel uses disproportionate force against Palestinians, deploying its fighter jets to bomb buildings in besieged Gaza, a narrative is being spun about how Palestinian fighters use civilians as human shields.
Across Twitter and other social media platforms, Israeli commentators and officials are vigorously pushing this line in tandem with the increase in bombardments in which 48 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed up until Wednesday morning. Over 300 have also been wounded.
A patchwork of militant groups in Gaza, that put up some degree of resistance, have retaliated to Israeli aggression with homemade rockets that were fired into Israeli neighbourhoods. Five Israelis have been killed in the rocket attacks, officials say.
Israel has repeatedly used the civilian-human-shield argument to unleash its US-backed airpower on Gaza where even basic necessities have to be smuggled in because of the Israeli blockade, which has affected more than 1.8 million people for 14 years.
“What Israel has done in the past - and I can already see on several Twitter feeds that it is doing now - is that it is casting and framing the civilians it is killing in Gaza as not mere civilians but also human shields,” says Neve Gordon, a professor of international law and human rights at the Queen Mary University of London.
“International law says that it is illegitimate to use human shields. In this way Israel is placing the blame of the death of the civilians that it has killed on Hamas’s shoulders,” he tells TRT World.
The 2014 Israeli incursion into Gaza in which more than 2,100 Palestinians - two-thirds of them civilians - were killed saw similar attempts by Tel Aviv to put the blame on Hamas and other groups for high civilian casualties.
During the current crisis, the international community is often forced to rely on facts provided by Israel since it strictly controls access of independent investigators and humanitarian workers to Gaza, the coastal region that Palestinians want to include in a future state of their own.
After the 2014 war, an Amnesty International investigation wasn’t able to verify many of the Israeli claims of civilian buildings including schools being used by armed groups to fire rockets and mortars.
For instance, Israeli forces completely destroyed al-Wafa hospital in Shuja’iyyeh claiming that it was used as a rocket-launching site. But Amnesty says it wasn’t able to find evidence that would corroborate the Israeli assertion.
The whole notion of using human shields can get complicated during a conflict especially when the Israeli side has superior fire power, which is backed by satellite imagery and high-tech surveillance gear.
Fighters from Hamas and other groups have to remain mobile and move launchpads from one place to another to avoid Israeli detection.
Professor Gordon says that in the eyes of Israeli officials all the Palestinians in Gaza are human shields because Hamas and other militants are fighting from an urban area.
For Israelis, “there are no civilians in Gaza. So they are either militants or human shields,” he says.
Amnesty International notes that the international definition of a human shield would constitute a situation where fighters mix among the civilians and deliberately restrict safe passage for them.
“The Israeli authorities have claimed that in a few incidents, the Hamas authorities or Palestinian fighters directed or physically coerced individual civilians in specific locations to shield combatants or military objectives. Amnesty International has not been able to corroborate the facts in any of these cases,” the human rights group said in its report.
Amnesty, however, did not give a clear pass to Palestinian armed groups as it noted that reporters on the ground have documented instances where fighters launched rockets in close proximity to buildings reserved for civilian purposes.
“International law is based on the principle of distinction where military and militants must distinguish between combatants that can be killed according to the law and the civilians that must be protected,” says Professor Gordon.
“And if Israel ends up killing many civilians in the Gaza strip then it can be accused of carrying out war crimes because it is not securing the protection of the civilians.”
One Hamas official Ghazi Hamad at the time of the 2014 conflict said that fighters ensure that rockets are fired at least 200-300 meters away from schools or hospitals - a distance twice the size of a football field.
In any case, right activists say that Israeli reasoning of targeting homes and schools is not justified when the besieged Gazans have nowhere to go.
“There are no bomb shelters or protective facilities for Gaza’s 1.8 million people, and no place in the Strip was truly safe during the hostilities,” says Amnesty.
It is worth noting here that Gaza is densely populated, though it is disputed whether it is one of the 'most' densely populated places on earth. But Gaza City, a favourite target of Israeli strikes, by all accounts, is the most densely populated city in the world.
Using the human shield argument, Israel has in the past bombed infrastructure such as Gaza’s only power plant to inflict collective punishment on Palestinians.
Professor Gordon says that the set of laws including the Geneva Conventions that deal with the issue of human shields are tilted in favour of the dominant military - which in the present case is Israel.
“That interpretation in my mind is problematic. The law itself is state centered. It prefers state over non-state actors. Because Hamas is a non-state actor, the law is actually set against it.”