Human shields: shielding the truth

Arab Media Watch

(31 July 2006) - DURING ISRAEL'S 2006 onslaught and invasion of Lebanon, Israeli spokespeople and British media figures have increasingly blamed the high number of Lebanese civilian casualties on Hezbollah using them as "human shields." The group has stringently denied this.

Israeli commentator Amos Oz, in a 20 July opinion piece in the Evening Standard, used the term "human sandbags." His claim was run in a front-page news story in the paper, with the huge headline 'The Human Sandbags.' He was the only source in the article, and there was no attempt to ask human rights groups, journalists or Lebanese officials to verify whether this very serious allegation is true.

A day later, I was interviewed on radio with former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who repeated this claim, as did regular columnist Frederick Forsyth in the 28 July edition of the Daily Express, and Leo McKinstry in the Sun on 31 July.

Israel and its sympathisers have been using this excuse for the killing of Lebanese civilians even more since the bombing on 30 July of a four-story residential building in Qana, killing dozens, mainly women and children.

However, reporters at the scene said they had seen no Hezbollah fighters or action at the time, none of the bodies recovered have been militants, rescue workers have found no weapons in the building that was struck, and Human Rights Watch said that "Israel has not presented any evidence to show that Hezbollah was present in or around the building that was struck at the time of the attack." This scenario has been repeated many times during Israel's attacks.

HRW says responsibility for the "appalling" Qana attack "rests squarely with the Israeli military," calling it "the latest product of an indiscriminate bombing campaign that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have waged in Lebanon." Executive Director Kenneth Roth says the attack "suggests that the Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone."[1]

"The concept of 'free-fire' zones is incompatible with international humanitarian law," says Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary general. "The attack in Qana is symptomatic of the way in which this conflict has been fought to date and indicates either that Israel is failing to take necessary precautions to spare civilians or that it has intentionally launched a disproportionate attack on civilians."[2]

Furthermore, AMW has spoken to numerous sources on the ground in Lebanon, including several international human rights organisations (Amnesty, Save the Children, Oxfam, HRW and Unicef), British journalists (from the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Guardian), the Lebanese ambassador in London and a professor at the American University of Beirut, and none have seen any evidence to back the claim that Hezbollah is using civilians as human shields.

HRW Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert describes Israel's claim as "a convenient excuse...[O]ur investigations have not found evidence to support Israeli allegations that Hizbullah are intentionally endangering Lebanese civilians by systematically fighting from civilian positions...[T]ime and again villagers tell us that Hizbullah is fighting from the hills. Meanwhile, the homes hit by Israel have only civilians in them."[3]

A source at Oxfam described the allegation as "nonsense" by "the Israeli propaganda machine" to create "very dodgy journalism." Independent correspondent Robert Fisk, who lives in Lebanon and has reported from the country for more than 20 years, called it "bullshit." A reporter for the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper known for its pro-Israeli editorial policy, called it "total and utter rubbish," "completely retarded," "a whole lot of crap" and "simply not true." Another Telegraph reporter described the claim as "absolutely wrong." The Lebanese ambassador described it as "really stupid," and Professor Omar Nashabe called it "incorrect," "inadequate" and "baseless."

The sources said such allegations were nothing new. "This came up previously during the occupation of the south of Lebanon," said Nicole Choueiry, Amnesty's press officer for the Middle East and North Africa.

This is "the usual thing they say about Hezbollah," said Donatella Rivera, Amnesty's researcher on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. "It's a very old story. Israel has been saying that about Gaza and Palestine in general forever, so it's a broken record."

Fisk said: "There's a general lie going around that Arabs don't love their children, that they want to sacrifice them, the idea being that all Arabs are basically savages and awful people. The generic thing is to make the Arabs uncaring of their own children, and that they are basically animals. It's part of the beastialisation of Arabs, and this sounds like the same thing."

Sources poured scorn on the idea that Lebanese civilians were unfortunate collateral damage as Israel bombed areas from where Hezbollah were firing rockets.

"Israel has pinpoint accuracy," said a Telegraph reporter.

"Israel has one of the most advanced technological armies in the world, with equipment that can allow it to pinpoint the exact target or location they want," said Nashabe. "This means they're fully responsible for where their bombs land. They have the advanced technology, whereas Hezbollah doesn't. If you look statistically, the Israeli army has bombarded more civilian targets than the resistance has."

Fisk added: "How do you explain that the air force that uses pinpoint and surgical precision manages to kill so many children, young women and old people? The only way you can explain it, other than you don't fucking care, is to say 'oh well, they were being used as human shields by animals like Hezbollah.'"

Sources said the idea of the Lebanese group using civilians as human shields is absurd considering it draws most of its support from people in the areas it is based.

"A lot of these people support Hezbollah because they live in the south and it's the only group that has ever helped them," said a Telegraph reporter. "It has built schools and hospitals while no one paid any attention to them from the central government. If Hezbollah was using people as human shields, it wouldn't get their support."

Fisk said: "Most of them are with their own children. Why would they use them as human shields?"

Nashabe reiterated this sentiment: "Hezbollah are part of the population. They wouldn't hide behind their own children or family."

HRW states that even if Hezbollah were to locate military targets in populated areas, "Israel must refrain from launching any attack that may be expected to cause excessive civilian loss in comparison to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. That is, a violation by Hezbollah in this regard does not justify Israeli forces ignoring the civilian consequences of a planned attack. The intentional launch of an attack in an area without regard to the civilian consequences or in the knowledge that the harm to civilians would be disproportionately high compared to any definite military benefit to be achieved would be a serious violation of international humanitarian law, and a war crime.

"In any event, the presence of a Hezbollah commander or military facility in a populated area never justifies attacking the area as such rather than the particular military target. It is a prohibited indiscriminate attack, and a war crime, to treat an entire area as a military target instead of attacking the particular military facilities or personnel within that area."[4]

Amnesty reiterates this, saying that "international humanitarian law makes it clear that even if one side is shielding itself behind civilians, such an abuse does not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians."[5]

Moreover, it is truly ironic that the accuser is long known to use human shields itself, which is a war crime. "Hezbollah aren't known to use human shields, whereas the Israelis are," said an Oxfam source. "They have a history as long as my arm."

Israel has been accused numerous times by internationally respected human rights organisations of using Palestinians as shields during the current uprising against occupation, most recently by Oxfam and Israel's B'Tselem on 21 July 2006, though this was not reported by the media.[6][7]

Fisk said he personally saw Israelis use Lebanese as human shields during their 1980s invasion, "by forcing them to sit in front of their armoured vehicles as they were going into the streets. So for human shields, the experts are the Israelis."

Rivera concludes: "Ultimately, the fact is the children are being killed by Israeli bombs."


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* Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi is the Arab Media Watch chairman.
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