Human Shields are Wrong, but their Prevalence May Surprise You

Human shields have long been cited as one of the lines not to be crossed even in the most dogged of firefights, and have been linked to certain leaders and groups as justification for greater military aggression. Now, a proposal for strong sanctions against those who use human shields in combat has been put forth, but there’s little evidence to suggest that such a move would deter those who resort to using non-combatants as a means of survival and/or greater destruction. And, it’s possible that such sanctions would embroil unintended targets within their nets.

Some of the most loathed leaders and groups have been described as chronic purveyors of the human shield. The implication is clear: somebody who would sacrifice an innocent person to protect themselves in a conflict that they have willingly engaged in is among the lowest form of coward, and therefore deserves a special brand of military aggression in response. History shows us that public attention paid to any individual or group which resorts to human shields is likely to be followed, in time, with military escalation.

In a 2003 report, the CIA detailed how Saddam Hussein had employed the human shield technique on a grand scale, more than once. There were the foreigners and Iraqi citizens who Hussein forced to serve as human shields against their will:

‘In late 1990, Saddam held more than 800 Western, Japanese, and Kuwaiti nationals as involuntary human shields at strategic installations in Iraq and Kuwait to deter attack by the international Coalition being organized against Baghdad. Saddam refused to allow thousands of other foreigners, including women and children, whose countries had joined the Coalition to leave Iraq or Kuwait and announced that they also might be used as human shields. Saddam released these foreigners at the end of 1990, prior to the initiation of Desert Storm.’ (

Also of note, according to the CIA’s paper, is the fact that Hussein had encouraged Iraqi citizens to serve as “voluntary” human shields.

‘Saddam encouraged hundreds of Iraqi families to put themselves at risk as "voluntary" human shields at palaces and strategic facilities in Iraq during a crisis in November 1997 over Iraq's refusal to allow UN inspections of sensitive government sites.’

The world knows how it ended for Saddam Hussein…

However, examinations of historical reports illustrate how, in fact, the use of human shields has bled into both sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

‘In a report entitled Human Shield, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem describes how, during the 2002 military operation “Defensive Shield”, Israeli soldiers would randomly take Palestinian civilians and force them to enter buildings suspected of being booby-trapped, made them remove suspicious objects from roads, stand inside houses where soldiers had set up military positions, and walk in front of soldiers to shield them from gunfire (Stein, 2002).’ (journals.sagepub)

So, according to the resolution being proposed, Israeli troops would have been left open to sanctions due to their use of human shields. Except that, in the wake of a 2005 ruling by the High Court of Justice, the use of human shields was designated as a “cruel and barbaric act”. It was not long after that the Israeli Defense Force was citing the use of human shields as evidence of the greatest atrocities that could be committed in warfare.

‘One year after the High Court ruling, other Israeli political actors began appropriating the term human shield. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), a conservative Israeli think-tank whose offices are located in the Ministry of Defense, published a report about Hezbollah’s use of Lebanese civilians as human shields during the 2006 Lebanon War (Erlich, 2006).’ (journals.sagepub)

And, today, Mark Dubowitz, CEO of Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is citing the use of human shields as reason to impose heavy-handed sanctions on those who use them.

‘Terrorists’ use of human shields is a remarkably effective tactic against countries like the U.S. and Israel, whose ethical and military codes require avoiding civilian casualties... Sanctions for using human shields could lead to prosecution in European courts and counter false claims that Western democracies are to blame for harm to these civilians.’ (WSJ)

Dubowitz goes on to cite ISIS and Hezbollah as routine users of human shields, apparently ignoring that their use has been documented by others, namely Israel. The extent to and prevalence with which human shields are used does matter, and nobody is categorizing ISIS, Hezbollah, and Israel together. However, honesty matters when discussing such issues, and the fact is that sanctions against those who used human shields would have, at least theoretically, netted Israeli should such sanctions have been imposed circa 2001. That is not the intent with which Dobowtiz’s proposal is being put forth.

Dubowitz and FDD’s pro-Israeli leanings are well-known, and nothing to condemn, despite the think tank labeling itself as non-partisan.

‘[FDD’s] research and advocacy have centered on the Middle East and in particular on conflicts and issues that impinge on Israel. And its positions have closely tracked those of the Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—not just on the Iran deal, but on the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the desirability of a two-state solution.’ (Slate)

In fact, the roots of the FDD are inextricably linked to pro-Israeli groups. They are one in the same…

‘On April 24, 2001, three major pro-Israel donors incorporated an organization called EMET (Hebrew for “truth”). In an application to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, May explained that the group “was to provide education to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.” But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, May broadened the group’s mission and changed its name to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.’ (Slate)

There’s nothing wrong with falling in line ideologically with Israel, but Dubowitz’s implication that human shields are the unique tool of terrorists ignores history.

And, in this lies a crucial point: in war, the value of a life on your side of the conflict is always going to take precedence over the life of somebody affiliated with the opponent, whether they are civilian or not. Some acts of war are beyond the pale – the use of nerve, for example.

But extradition is unlikely to discourage a terrorist from acting as a terrorist, and such specific sanctions involving such a specific aspect of war – condemnable as it is – would have embroiled unintended groups in their snare, assuming you are willing to go back 16 years or so into the history books.

A fair question: would Dubowitz have been in favor of such sanctions then?

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