Monday, November 20, 2006

Civilian or Combatant?

Recently, there appears to be a increase in the explicit use of voluntary human shields in Gaza, resulting in the bizarre conflation of seemingly peaceful demonstrations organized to protect militants.

One case occurred in Beit Hanoun: Hamas Urges Women, Children to Shield Gunmen in Mosque (also here: Female human shield killed in Gaza siege), where Palestinian militants took refuge in a mosque and Hamas radioed for thousands of local women to surround the mosque, allowing some of the militants to escape dressed as the women. It appears that at least a couple of the women were killed in the process.

More recently in Beit Lahiya, Palestinians form human shield to protect home from Israeli air strike (also here: Palestinian shields foil Israeli strikes), where Israel warned residents (as usual) to leave a building they were going to destroy because it was a weapons cache, but instead of leaving, the residents called upon women and children to stand in and around the home to prevent the Israeli air strike. Apparently, they were successful and no air strike occurred. If the strike had proceeded, it would no doubt be considered by many to be a massacre of civilians by Israel.

Logically, in both cases, it would seem the women (or children or men) have discarded their civilian status as they insert themselves into the violent conflict, but it is nevertheless emotionally troubling to consider them combatants due to their ostensibly non-violent behavior. Are they still civilians? Of course, this moral quandary is what the militants are depending upon, and they will use the result as propaganda regardless of Israel's choice.

I recall scenes of how the British used to fight, lining up in rows and firing, symbolic of the pinnacle of civil warfare. How silly of them, standing there, open to be shot. But I wonder, are we (or Israel) also hampered in some way by our civility? By our unwillingness to sacrifice enemy "civilian" casualties? By our requirements for a fine granularity of justice, perhaps encouraged by unrealistic media?

Are we at a real and significant disadvantage due to our sensitivity? If so, how can we overcome this cultural and moral paradox?


UPDATE: New in Gaza: Priest, nun human shields. Foreign peace activists are getting involved in protecting targeted buildings, including a Father Peter and Sister Mary Ellen of Michigan.

They believe that Israel is primarily attacking these buildings as a form of collective punishment: "If Israel claims family member involved in violence, arrest them, don't destroy home populated by entire family". I wonder if they have considered that they might be protecting weapons or resources of militants?

Meanwhile, Israel is considering how to adapt its tactics, including moving in ground forces (placing both sides at greater risk) or changing the amount of time given to Palestinians to evacuate the area (has been about 15-30 min.).

Hezbollah's strategy in the recent conflict also involved human shields, through the unsolicited adding on of rooms with no doors to civilian homes near Israel to hold missile launchers.


Mark Congdon said...


Somewhat related to your questions is this recent news article in the Jerusalem Post about a 68-year-old female suicide bomber, which I found via the Volokh Conspiracy blog.

Differentiating between civilian and combatant on the battlefields of Iraq and Israel must be one of the most harrowing tasks we ask of anyone in this age.


Kevin said...


I agree; and thanks for your comment and links. David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy blog does make a similar observation regarding the exploitation of Israel's weaknesses and their use for propaganda. My simple, further observation is that those weaknesses are sadly often derived from a heightened desire for morality, thereby placing the moral at a distinct disadvantage.

Here's an article that goes into greater detail about the Granny suicide bomber, though there seems to be some confusion over her name and age (Fatma Omar an-Najar, 68 - versus - Fatima Omar Mahmud al-Najar, 57 -- I assume they are the same person). It describes the pride her large family and relatives had for her decision to be a suicide bomber:
Relatives said Najar left behind seven sons and two daughters, plus some 41 grandchildren, but insisted they were proud of her "martyrdom," which daughter Azhar said was a direct response to the Beit Hanun shelling.

"She did this operation in response to the Beit Hanun massacre. She was very moved by what happened," said Azhar, speaking from the family home in Jabaliya where relatives came to congratulate Najar's nearest and dearest.

Would her family and those relatives thus be considered as some sort of accomplices?