Episode 197: The ‘Human Shields’ Canard as Catch-All Colonial Absolution
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Viet Cong Use Children as Human Shields,” the Associated Press alleged in 1967. “‘Civilian casualty?’ That’s a gray area,” Alan Dershowitz argued in the Los Angeles Times in 2006. “We can’t ignore the truth that Hamas uses human shields,” wrote Jason Willick. Recently in the Washington Post in 2023.
Adam: For more than five decades, military forces with overwhelming firepower, specifically aerial power, including the US, Israel, and others have accused enemy combatants of using “human shields.” According to these allegations, forces of resistance throughout the world, from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front to Palestinian militants, herd civilians in front of them or hide in hospitals, religious institutions, and other public places in order to evade attacks. In turn, they force the enemy to “risk” killing civilians, and they themselves bear responsibility for those who are killed.
Nima: But rarely, if ever, have these accusations been true. Indeed, the term “human shields” despite having a clear legal definition has become a catch all for militias and insurgency groups that merely operate among a civilian population, functioning as a convenient pretext for invading, occupying and colonial forces to kill civilians, and reinforcing racist conceptions about besieged populations. So why and how do media provide cover for governments that lie about an instrumentalized supposed “human shielding?”
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll discuss the decades-old “human shields” accusation, examining how it dehumanizes and militarizes civilian populations under occupation or invasion, demonizes any resistant movements at all and sanitizes killing civilians by reluctant actors who simply have no choice.
Nima: Later on the show will be joined by two guests, Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini, co-authors of the book Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, which was published by the University of California Press in 2020. They also co-wrote the book, The Human Right to Dominate, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press. Neve Gordon is Professor of Human Rights and the Politics of Humanitarian Law at Queen Mary University of London. He is also the author of the book Israel’s Occupation.
Neve Gordon: The definition of human shields, according to the laws of war, is that it avows the protections offered to the civilians, but immediately after it, disavows it and says these civilians that are used as human shields can be killed. The fact that they are there does not make the target immune from attack, meaning you cannot use human shields because they are protected, civilians are protected, but if you use human shields, I can kill you. And if I kill the civilians while I kill you, you are to blame for the civilian deaths.
Nima: Nicola Perugini is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.
Nicola Perugini: On the one hand, it’s a tool. It’s a mobilization of international law. And on the other hand, it’s propaganda. It’s info war. Israel has waged this war, has mobilized human shielding in its wars through the media, through social media, through Twitter, Facebook, everything. So it’s really an attempt to shape the meaning of what is going on in the field by blaming the enemy for civilian deaths and casualties.
Adam: So obviously, the term “human shield” has been around a lot in the news lately. And it’s such a charged concept. And as we discussed in previous news briefs about the so-called war in Gaza, it is very much central to the entire moral framework of how you justify killing tens of thousands of people and upwards of 15,000 children. And we argue that human shields kind of becomes its own racist moral ecology. And we wanted to sort of take today’s episode and go into detail about its origins and why we think this racist ecology is so central to how you maintain things like the sieging and blockade of Gaza. And how it kind of begins to be this moral carwash for which anything can kind of go through and come out the other end and feel good about themselves. And we really thought it deserved its own episode because it has a fascinating history, much of which our guests have been detailing for many, many years if not decades. So we’re excited to dissect this concept because it is both extremely topical and also extremely evergreen at the same time.
Nima: Yeah, the idea that this term and this concept is one of absolution for those who commit massive massive crimes, offsetting their own responsibility and accountability upon those that they are actually besieging, attacking, and slaughtering. Now, the term “human shields” has a specific legal definition. We want to start with that. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the term “describes a method of warfare prohibited by International Humanitarian Law where the presence of civilians or the movement of the civilian population, whether voluntary or involuntary, is used in order to shield military objectives from attack, or to shield, favor or impede military operations.” The use of human shields is prohibited by Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, which was added in 1977, and was classified as a war crime under the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and customary international law. Now, there’s a perverse irony here as we’ll see over and over again on this episode. When forces are accused of using human shields, the putative rationale is that they’re using civilians to prevent attacks. In reality though, in many of the cases we’ll be discussing, the accuser whether the United States, Israel, Russia, or any other government is not deterred from attacking but rather, uses human shielding as an excuse to kill as many civilians as possible. Now, the term “human shields” dates back to at least the late 19th century, appearing in US media coverage of the Spanish-American War.
For instance, take this article filed from Manila on May 5th, 1899, describes a battle from the point of view of American Major General Henry Lawton. It says,
In the attack upon San Rafael the American forces were met with a heavy fire from a large number of insurgents, who were concealed in the jungle on all sides. It was only the adoption of the tactics followed by Indian fighting in the United States, every man for himself, that saved the division from great loss.
The article continues with an entire section devoted to this subheadline, “HUMAN SHIELDS.” This section says this,
General Lawton, when attacking in force, outside of Ballinag, saw women and children in the insurgent trenches, and sent Captain Case in advance with a white flag to warn the insurgents to remove the non-combatants. When within 500 yards of the trenches two volleys were fired at Captain Case’s party.
Adam: So here we have this idea that the native population who was being attacked and what was an extremely brutal war in the Philippines that killed over 200,000 indigenous Filipinos of Imperial conquest of the Philippines of the Spanish-American War, that they in fact, were not gallant and they just hid behind women and children. But it’s important that the colonial force be seen as more civilized and that the sort of primitive native just doesn’t care about women and children, their own women and children. Therefore, it’s okay to kill them because they’ve already sort of accepted that that’s their fate. This trope would again be used repeatedly in the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Italian newspapers routinely portrayed Ethiopian resistance fighters as savages who use Red Cross medical units as shields. Our guests today, Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, noted in a 2018 article that Italy systematically bombarded medical facilities operating by different Red Cross societies, which Italy claimed were being used by Ethiopian fighters. Does this sound familiar at all? Italy insisted that Ethiopian forces by allegedly hiding in medical facilities had neglected to distinguish between combatants and protected civilians, thus violating what’s known in international law as the principle of distinction. Gordon and Perugini highlight a January 1936 edition of the Italian newspaper La Tribuna Illustrata that includes an illustration of armed Ethiopian fighters rushing for cover under a Red Cross banner. You’ll have that in our show notes. It’s pretty egregious. And this racist trope really took off thirty years later in the Vietnam War where human shielding accusations really accelerated in reference to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.
Nima: Having actually written the book on this practice of human shielding and its political utility, sgain, our guests Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini have explained the context for this in Vietnam in a 2021 interview. In it, they stated this,
Building on successful anti-colonial resistance against the French colonisers, the Viet Cong adopted the Maoist idea of a people’s war as it mobilised the Vietnamese population against the US occupation. Infiltrating the social body, they promoted cooperation between soldiers and civilians and in this way involved the masses in the anti-imperial war effort. The Viet Cong understood that their forces’ success depended on the guerrillas’ capacity to work together with the people, and so they also intermingled with the rural population like ‘fish in the water.’
Perugini and Gordon continue, saying this,
The US was intent on undermining the relation between the Vietnamese guerrillas and civilians. When the International Committee of the Red Cross asked the United States to uphold the Geneva Conventions while fighting against the Viet Cong, the Lyndon Johnson Administration invoked the human shielding clause to accuse the Vietnamese enemies of relying ‘heavily on disguise’, including shielding behind innocent civilians.
Now, major news agencies were instrumental in disseminating this human shield narrative. Here’s an example from a syndicated United Press International article from February 11th, 1965, published in the Atlanta Journal, which is now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The headline reads, “Humans Used As Shields For Attack.” And another syndicated article, this one from the Associated Press from April 23rd of 1965 and published in The Philadelphia Inquirer had this banner headline, “Vietcong Beat Drums To Get Human Shields As Marines Arrive.” The article begins this way, datelined from Binh Thai, Vietnam, April 22nd, 1965:
The roll of drums echoed along the valley. ‘The Vietcong know you are coming,’ said the Vietnamese officer. “They want the women and children to come in this direction as a human shield. The drums are the alarm.
Adam: And this trope would be very popular throughout the war. This is an AP article from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 9th, 1967. The headline would read, “Vietcong use children as human shields.”
Saigon (AP) — a U.S. spokesman said today the Viet Cong use Vietnamese children as human shields in an attack on South Vietnamese troops in the Mekong Delta, resulting in the death of 10 children and the wounding of 16 others. The spokesman said the Viet Cong herded a group of civilians, mostly children, toward a South Vietnamese ranger position last night near Truc Gian in the delta province of Kien Hoa, 40 miles south of Saigon.
But the spokesman’s claim among so many others that evoke the concept of human shields was false and disguised the US’s strategy and objectives of mass slaughter of civilians and combatants alike during the war. In his 2013 book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, journalist Nick Turse found that the killing of millions of civilians of Vietnam “stemmed from deliberate policies that were dictated at the highest levels of the U.S. military.” And thus, that “human shield” accusations were used to cover for these brutal and important to emphasize, deliberate policies of not distinguishing between killing civilians and combatants. And of course, as Turse notes in his book, what would very much also happen is after a bunch of civilians would be killed by US forces, they would then plant guns on them and call them combat kills because there was incentive for particular divisions and units of soldiers to rack up Viet Cong death. So they would posthumously conscript civilians they would kill as combatants and especially if they were men between a certain age, they could sort of credibly claim they were. This was routine throughout the Vietnam War.
Nima: Now, these human shield accusations have resurfaced in more recent years and often, in the case of Israeli violence against Palestinians, and almost always to justify the Israeli military killing of Palestinian people.
Adam: Consider this canonical opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times on July 22nd, 2006 amid the so called Israel-Hezbollah War. The author of the piece, of course, none other than Alan Dershowitz himself, accuses Hezbollah and Hamas of using human shields, echoing similar accusations from Israeli officers. This was around the same time he was allegedly engaged in multiple acts of sexual trafficking of children. But we’ll set that aside. The headline read, “‘Civilian casualty’? That’s a gray area. Those who support terrorists are not entirely innocent.” Dershowitz would write,
Turning specifically to the current fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas, the line between Israel soldiers and civilians is relatively clear. Hezbollah missiles and Hamas rockets target and hit Israeli restaurants, apartment buildings and schools. They’re loaded with anti-personnel ball-bearings designed specifically to maximize civilian deaths. Hezbollah and Hamas militants, on the other hand, are difficult to distinguish from those civilians who recruit, finance, harbor and facilitate their terrorism. Nor can women and children always be counted as civilians, as some organizations do. Terrorists increasingly use women and teenagers to play important roles in their attacks.
Now, notice the contrast here that Dershowitz attempts to distinguish between Hamas and Hezbollah, i.e. Arabs versus Israelis. Israel values human life enough to distinguish between combatants and civilians, but Hamas and Hezbollah don’t because they’re mindless religious fanatics, or like the Vietnamese and the Filipinos before them, sort of are inherently barbaric and don’t put value in human life like a civilized people do.
Nima: There’s also a lack of distinction within the actual population between combatants, soldiers, and civilians. So it’s not just who’s doing the attacking, but it’s who’s being attacked. And so in this way, Dershowitz makes it clear that, you know, while Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilians are two completely distinct groups, when it comes to Palestinians, well, men, women and children, you never really know. So I guess they’re all viable targets.
Adam: Right. So yeah, therefore, even though again, if you add up the amount of civilians that each side kills, it’s not even close. So there has to be a way of rationalizing that, which is to say, oh, they just put a bunch of civilians on top of their military installations. Again, never mind the fact that plenty of Israeli military installations are in your residential neighborhoods. That aside, in 2007, Human Rights Watch, which a few times here in this episode you’ll see, looked into allegations of human shielding by Hezbollah and Hamas in 2006. So they released a report in 2007 that found no evidence to support these claims.
Human Rights Watch said,
Israeli officials have made the serious allegation that Hezbollah routinely used “human shields” to immunize its forces from attack and thus bears responsibility for the high civilian toll in Lebanon. Apart from its position near UN personnel, Human Rights Watch found only a handful of instances of possible shielding behind civilians, but nothing to suggest there was widespread commission of this humanitarian law violation or any Hezbollah policy encouraging such practices. These relatively few cases do not begin to account for the Lebanese civilians who died under Israeli attacks.
And at the same time, Israel has themselves used human shields on a few occasions. An investigation by the Israeli nonprofit B’Tselem noted that “during an incursion by Israeli forces into Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip, on 17 July 2006, soldiers seized control of two buildings in the town and used residents as human shield[s].” The IDF’s practice of using human shields has continued unabated with far too many examples to cite. But whenever they sometimes want to go into a place that you know, is hostile, they’ll use a Palestinian literally as a human shield in front of soldiers that go in. And then sometimes, if there’s a suspicious package or something they believe to be a bomb, they’ll at gunpoint force Palestinians, sometimes Palestinian miners to open up the package so their own troops are not put at risk.
Nima: Time and time again, Israel circulates doctored videos meant to provide so-called proof of Palestinians’ use of human shields. In 2018, for instance, after killing 21-year-old medic Razan al-Najjar, who was treating a Palestinian protester while she was being killed by the Israeli military, the IDF tweeted an edited clip of an interview with al-Najjar. The IDF titled the clip “Hamas uses paramedics as human shields.” In the clip, al-Najjar is speaking Arabic, and the English translation presented by the IDF had her actually calling herself a human shield, which, of course, she never did in the interview from which the video was sourced. But Israel’s constant propagandizing of the use of human shields, doctoring videos, making this claim again and again to the media as many times as it has been shown to be false, they don’t stop doing it. It remains an effective propaganda tool.
Adam: We’d be remiss just to get away from Israel for a second that lifting directly from the American and Israeli playbook was Russia and their war on Syria. They routinely accused everyone in Syria who fought back of using human shields. Now, Human Rights Watch has claimed that ISIS used human shields, but pretty much any group was said to be terrorist using human shields. This from September of 2016, Russian Foreign Minister: “Terrorists use human shield to attack Syrian Army” in which they claimed members of al-Nusra in Syria used human shields, a claim that was never really substantiated, and they didn’t really even bother to substantiate it. To them, the entire population of Syria who did not fall under the purview of the Syrian government was themselves human shields. So this was a very popular trope during Russia’s war in Syria that anyone who opposed the government was ipso facto a human shield.
Nima: And to take us right up to the current day. Of course, nowhere has the human shielding accusation been more visible than in media coverage of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. Repeatedly, US policymakers and media accuse Hamas of using human shields. We hear this all the time, suggesting that Palestinians don’t value life the way Israelis or Americans do while insisting simultaneously that Israel has no choice but to just kill so many civilians in order to annihilate the bad guys, right? In order to, as they say, decimate Hamas, the hunt for Hamas that is ongoing which, as we’ve discussed on Citations Needed and has been shown repeatedly in other outlets, that is not actually what Israel is doing. They are deliberately ethnically cleansing Gaza rather than strategically and surgically searching for the baddies.
Adam: One example was from the October 30 edition of The New York Times newsletter The Morning by David Leonhardt. See episode 195 for our dedicated analysis to that windbag. Leonhardt wrote,
Hamas has hidden many weapons under hospitals, schools and mosques so that Israel risks killing civilians, and facing an international backlash, when it fights. Hamas fighters also slip above and below ground, blending with civilians. These practices mean that Hamas is responsible for many of the civilian deaths, according to international law.
Now, the link Leonhardt uses to cite this is a 2014 Washington Post article by Terence McCoy that relies almost exclusively on Israeli military and pro-Israel sources to sort of paint this idea that everywhere in Gaza is a legitimate target because supposedly, according to them, at least, they store weapons, caches, and missile launchers and all kinds of weapons in those places. Now, several different high-profile examples of alleged Hamas command and control centers ended up of course, being much ado about nothing. There isn’t really any evidence there was any Hamas military presence there or any weapons behind ones that were obviously planted by the Israelis. Now, there’s some gray area as to where Hamas or other organizations store weapons but generally speaking, they’ve shown no evidence they do it in any kind of systemic way in things like hospitals and schools. But that of course, is not really something that David Leonhardt or anyone else really is interested in interrogating.
Cut to Elizabeth Warren, who as the body count was getting more and more obscene by the day in the latest “war” on Gaza or the bombing siege, ethnic cleansing of Gaza. This is her tweet from October 31st in relation to an Israeli attack, “blast” that blew up a refugee camp, killing over 300 Palestinians. Elizabeth Warren wrote, “Horrible. Israel has an obligation to protect civilians under the laws of war. Hamas’s use of innocent Palestinians as human shields does not excuse bombing a location filled with civilians.”
So even in this sort of feigned, liberal handwringing, the bad guy still has to be the Hamas using human shields. The existence of a militia or a military actor among civilian populations is not the legal or moral definition of a human shield. Again, if an IDF soldier in uniform walks into a Sbarro’s Pizza, that does not mean you can just blow up Sbarro. That is not what the term “human shields” is supposed to mean. It has a deliberate meaning. But pretty much in general Western discourse that legal meaning has no bearing and human shields kind of just becomes anytime there may or may not be some Hamas guy in the vague proximity of civilians in the densest population, one of the densest populations on Earth.
But human shielding is not the same thing as urban warfare. As we’ve noted many times now, Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Before October 7th, the population was roughly 2.3 million. One percent of the population has since been killed, distributed throughout an area of about 140 square miles. Any presence of insurgent groups within Gaza, e.g. Hamas or PFLP or PIJ, necessarily has to embed with the urban population just as the Viet Cong had to necessarily embed with the urban population of Vietnam because they were massively massively over resourced by a much, much, much, much bigger military. Additionally, for years, human rights organizations have investigated the question of human shields and Gaza. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have done so many times, finding no evidence of the use of human shields in Gaza. Human Rights Watch released another report in 2009, following 2008 and 2009 Operation Cast Lead, which Israel launched a massive military assault on Gaza, killing roughly 1,400 Palestinians and destroying the homes of 20,000 Palestinians.
In this report, Human Rights Watch wrote,
Israel has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the deaths of Gazan civilians during the operation because, Israel says, Hamas fought from populated areas and used civilians as human shields’ — that is, deliberately used civilians to deter attacks against Palestinian forces. In the killings documented in this report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the civilian victims were used by Palestinian fighters as human shields or were shot in the crossfire between opposing forces. In each of the incidents, Israeli forces appeared in control, and Palestinian fighters had left the area in question. The civilian victims were in plain view and posed no apparent security threat.
Israel has never publicly countered these reports with any evidence of the use of human shields. Rarely are guilty combatants named nor is proof provided by Israel because they really don’t need to. What Human Rights Watch or other sort of legal bodies say about the dubiousness of the claim of human shields is not really relevant. The point is, it’s more of a vibe it kind of feels true. And of course, it’s simply a feature of massively asymmetric warfare and urban warfare, not any kind of inherent moral or ideological distinction between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.
Nima: And undergirded by the racist notion that the colonial power is the good power and the colonized, occupied, invaded, those living under apartheid in a open air prison, that those people the indigenous people of the land are the ones who pose a threat, are the ones who have no morality in them and that they of course, are then using their own people as human shields to deter attacks by the noble colonizers. We see this again and again. And to discuss this some more, we’re going to be joined now by our two guests, Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini. They are co-authors of the book, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, which was published by the University of California Press in 2020. They also co-wrote the book The Human Right to Dominate, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press. Neve Gordon is Professor of Human Rights and the Politics of Humanitarian Law at Queen Mary University of London. He is also the author of the book Israel’s Occupation. Nicola Perugini is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. They’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
We are joined now by Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini. Nicola and Neve, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Nicola Perugini: Thank you.
Neve Gordon: Thanks so much for having us.
Adam: So just to start off, we want to talk about the kind of moral utility of the term “human shields.” Then, we’ll sort of narrow down from there. We argue, as I’m sure you all have as well, that it’s less any kind of legal term or legal charge more than it is a kind of pop, ad hoc, racist moral system to kind of justify whatever you want. Because as you write, it “shifts the blame from the hunter to the prey since according to international law, the party responsible for the death of human shields is not the one killing them but the one using them.” Therefore, by definition, especially in the current context, in Gaza, Israel cannot be responsible for any deaths incurred by its bombs or shelling or sniping or starvation or cutting off a fuel or sieges of hospitals, etc., etc. That by definition, anything that flows from their violence is not their fault, which, of course, means that as a corollary to that, there’s no kind of upward level of violence they can level because it’s not their responsibility either legally or morally. And that effectively turns, especially in concentrated populations, 2.2 million people into one large human shield. Now, this is a moral hazard for fairly obvious reasons for anyone paying attention because the people bombing have no responsibility. So I want to sort of talk by discussing less the moral utility but more the propaganda value. It seems like every single story one sees on CNN or The New York Times has a throwaway line about the use of human shields. And that therefore kind of turns the normal moral faculties off on one’s brain. And they say, oh, the toddler being pulled out of rubble, by some sort of moral Rube Goldberg machine is Hamas’s fault or whatever. Can we start by talking about the propaganda value of the term and how you approach that not in terms of its actual legal specifics, but in terms of how it’s perceived by the public?
Neve Gordon: Sure, before we can talk a bit about the history of human shielding and how it came about because it comes to resolve a certain problem. And the problem is that in the colonial wars, the laws of armed conflict were not considered applicable because the laws of armed conflict are between usually two states. And colonized is not a state. So the laws were not applicable. They were not used. And the colonizer did more or less what it wanted to do to the colonized. Then, we have a process of decolonization. And suddenly, the populations that were considered subhuman and not human and people we didn’t really need to respect according to the law join the family of nation, become civilians. And suddenly we need to apply the laws of armed conflict when we fight them. But we’ve never related to them, we as the West, as civilians in the sense of being fully human. We think that the human shield argument comes to solve this problem. What do I mean to “solve this problem?” I mean, to justify the massive killing of civilian populations by state armies. And so, we see that suddenly, in Mosul 2016, 100,000 Iraqis are suddenly framed as human shields, and that makes them killable subjects. By killable subjects, what we mean is that the definition of human shields according to the laws of war is that it avows the protections offered to the civilians, but immediately after it, disavows it and says these civilians that are used as human shields can be killed. The fact that they are there does not make the target immune from attack, meaning you cannot use human shields because they are protected, civilians are protected. But if you use human shields, I can kill you. And if I kill the civilians while I kill you, you are to blame for the civilian deaths. And that’s what you were getting to, I think, Adam, when you said it’s about changing the responsibility for the damage done. So we see in Gaza, now Israel has flattened whole parts of Gaza, destroyed the hospital, killed tens of thousands of civilians. And yet, Israel blames Hamas for the damage it has done. And the human shielding argument is crucial for this. It’s crucial for the legitimization of the targeting of civilians and civilian targets. And it’s crucial for shifting the blame and playing this propaganda role you’re talking about so that the Hamas is to blame for the civilians Israel kills.
Nicola Perugini: I would like to start by historicizing the beginning of the propaganda or what you’ve called this propaganda. So this doesn’t start with October the 7th or October the 10th. The trope has been used and mobilized within this radio establishment, within the military since 2008, 2009. So what happens is that in 2005, Israel withdraws from the Gaza strip its settlers. It’s not in control anymore of the territory. It remains in control, and it occupies the air and the sea and the borders. A new way of waging violence against Palestinians after they have been put under siege in 2007 is mainly through the air and that’s when, in the first massive assault against the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2009, the trope of the human shields starts to enter the picture. Then, it continues, it increases in 2012 and 2014 against the march of return. So even when Palestinians are simply demonstrating and trying to return to their homeland, the trope is mobilized. And you’re right. On the one hand, it’s a tool. It’s a mobilization of international law. And on the other hand, it’s propaganda. It’s info war. Israel has waged this war, has mobilized human shielding in its wars through the media, through social media, through Twitter, Facebook, everything. So it’s really an attempt to shape the meaning of what is going on in the field by blaming the enemy for civilian deaths and casualties. So this is the historical context for what we’re seeing now. In 2023, as to October the 10th, and I’ll go back to October the 10th because it’s a very important date, the accusation of human shielding reaches an unprecedented level, a peak because it’s the entire population of Gaza, which is framed as a huge human shield. What happens is that on October the 10th, Israel issues an evacuation order against 1.1 million people from the north eastern Gaza Strip, and it orders them to go to southern Gaza. So it’s an ethnic cleansing and depopulation order which was issued. And then, it starts framing all those who remained in the north of 1.1 million, so several hundred thousands who weren’t able to leave in 24 hours, as human shields, as what Neve was calling potentially killable subjects. Simultaneously, this role drops leaflets on the north in which it frames part of the population also as terrorist accomplices. In any case, what’s going on and what has been going on for three months, this systematic attempt to erase and cancel any possibility of framing Palestinian civilians as civilians, then Israel continues bombing those who go to the so-called safe areas which were not so safe and kills them also, often claiming that they were human shields. What we have at the beginning of November is a picture in which 7,700 Palestinians were killed, half of them in the safe areas, so-called safe areas, almost 3,000 out of 7,700. And on November the second, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a document in which it starts framing and defining the legal facts on the ground. And this legal document which is available on the website defines human shielding as follows. The residents of Gaza are used as human shields by Hamas. The population of Gaza is used as human shields by Hamas. That “the” is crucial because there is no distinction. “The” is everybody, all the residents, the entire population. And then, it adds this legal interpretation. Let me read it. “Given this reprehensible strategy, many ostensibly civilian objects may become legitimate targets. As a result, it cannot be concluded from the mere fact that seeming ‘civilians’ or ‘civilian objects,’ have been targeted, that an attack was unlawful. So basically, there are no civilians. Or the civilians who are civilians are potentially civilians between quotation marks. The entire population is a shield. There is an escalation here because human shielding here becomes a tool for targeting a group as a group. And as we know, this might translate into a form of genocidal elimination.
Adam: Yeah, so rather than a kind of post-facto rationalization for blowing up a school bus, it becomes premeditated, that effectively conscripts 2.2 million people into Hamas whether they want to be or not, and then therefore, justifies, again, like mass killing, as you said.
Nima: Now, as we’ve been talking about both the kind of propaganda value of this and Nicola, as you just articulated, the Israeli-created legal definition here to absolve themselves of everything that they know they’re about to do and have already been doing, of course. But as you both have written, this idea of human shielding actually does have a very specific legal meaning in international law that isn’t just a military actor living among civilians. I would love for you to explain to our listeners what that legal meaning actually is. And what criteria is used to prove that human shielding is being used as a tactic under law and then how that has since been twisted, which of course, we’ve already been sort of getting into.
Adam: Because as we note, Human Rights Watch did look into the issue of human shielding, pedantic legally to a fault. And they found in 2009 that there was no evidence that any Palestinians did it. They did, however, find that Israel did it, sometimes individual soldiers. Talk about the actual legal definition because it is an actual thing that does exist.
Neve Gordon: So maybe I’ll begin by reading the definition because it’s very short. And then I’ll discuss the different kinds of human shields. So the international law defines human shields as and I quote, “the presence or movement of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular, in attempts to shield military objectives from attack or to shield favor or impede military operations.” [quote] So a human shield or a civilian object as in a person that is a protected person according to international law that is used between a warring party and a legitimate military target. So just to go back to what Nicola said before, when he talked about the march of return, when the Israeli was saying Palestinians are using human shields in the march of return, it means that the civilian population that we’re protesting there is a legitimate military target because human shields, according to the law, only protects legitimate military targets, okay? It’s not just someone there. Now, we have identified three kinds of human shields although the law really talks only about one of them. The law talks about what we called coercive human shielding or involuntary human shielding. And those are the human shields that Adam, you just mentioned in the Human Rights Watch report, when an Israeli soldier would take someone in his hand or under threat of shooting them and tells them walk before me or check this bag if it’s a booby trap or something like that. That’s coercive human shielding. And there’s no evidence that we have seen any kind of Palestinians using coercively or Hamas using coercively Palestinians as human shields. The second kind of human shield may be the paradigmatic example from the Gaza Strip is Rachel Corrie, someone that voluntarily acts as a human shield, namely, putting themselves voluntarily between a warring Party and its target and saying, “I will protect that target with my body.” And this is a kind of human shielding that does not follow the logic of the economy of warfare. It’s an anti-warfare strategy that is very different than anything we’ve seen. It’s like this anti-militarism. Again, we have not seen voluntary human shields in the Gaza Strip since October 27th. What we have seen is a totally different kind of human shielding. And it’s what Nicola and I have called “proximate shielding.” The idea that we’re close to a warring party transforms us to a human shield. And we see that through the urbanization of warfare. When warfare goes to the cities, then anyone that still remains in a city by default becomes a human shield. But there’s an irony here too because when we began working on this, we thought that what I just said was true. But then we looked closely, and we figured out it’s not precise. It’s not juxtaposition or proximity to any warring party. It’s juxtaposition or proximity only to a non-state warring actor. So when Hamas bombs Tel Aviv and maybe it’s targeting Israel central command which is in the center of Tel Aviv, no one is claiming that civilians living around the center of Tel Aviv are human shields. They’re civilians.
Adam: Right, which is a definition that strikes me as a little arbitrary, for obvious reasons. And I want to ask about that. So there’s this idea that the common rejoinder one hears is what is Israel supposed to do? Hamas lives among the civilian population. I guess Hamas is supposed to drive around in trucks with the big target on their back, saying, you know, this is a military coalition. So aside from the obvious hypocrisy that like, you know, I went to a school that had a US military recruiting center inside the school with actual National Guard troops and military personnel walking around. I don’t think anyone would say bombing that school would be justified. Although this is the logic one hears all the time. Obviously, military personnel are at large enough NFL football games, they do flyovers, high school parades, whatever it is, militaries is intertwined with our lives, both uniformed and non-uniformed, as it is, of course, in Israel. Like you said, any kind of small, condensed population will have military going in and out of, you know, IDF troops are on the train. I once saw what had to be an 18-year-old IDF troop just leave a submachine gun on a train seat and walk off, pretty half-ass those young conscripts. But nobody would say we can bomb the train or bomb the school, I think. So you’re right, there’s sort of the sub-state carve-out which does seem quite arbitrary, but it sort of speaks to a bigger issue, which is to go back to your first point earlier about colonized people and this is true. historically. Again, we spent a long time talking about Vietnam. There’s this idea that oh, you know, the Vietnamese military swims among the people in the kind of Maoist sense, right? And it’s like, well, okay, but doesn’t that tell you something more existential about the nature of the so-called conflict? If Hamas has, let’s say, certain polls show as much as 50%, 60% support. I know now in the West Bank, it’s higher and in Gaza, it’s slightly lower according to the latest poll taken during the truce. And they can more or less operate freely within a population and other militants, right? PFLP, PIJ, etc. Doesn’t that speak to a kind of more existential issue about the nature of the conflict and the asymmetry of the conflict? Because presumably, if Palestine had a state, they would have a distinct military with distinct sort of separation. And the same thing in Vietnam. You know, Vietnam is now no longer a counterinsurgency country. It’s a proper country with the flag and UN representation, and they have a military with jets. And they’re very clearly defined. It’s like the sort of ambiguity among civilians, whether in all these anti-colonial struggles is inherent in the nature of the colonization. So if there is a difficult time telling, assuming good faith, which I don’t think exists here, but let’s assume good faith for the sake of argument, doesn’t that say something about the nature of what is going on in Gaza?
Nicola Perugini: I think what Israel should do is Israel should leave Gaza. Gaza should be decolonized. And a process of decolonization of Gaza and other territories should take place. How? What are the end results? We’re going to have to see, but that process is necessary. Talking about your point on the existential condition of the situation, yes, Israel has completely smashed within a small strip of land, a population which has developed and has developed into an overcrowded territory in which there is total surveillance, in which there is no other way to fight back other than hiding. And hiding is what determines in such warfare context the very high civilian casualties we are seeing. There is a situation in which density plus the techniques of warfare which are available for the colonized in this context are leading to a situation in which the colonizer is perpetrating basically genocide. So there is no victory for Israel in Gaza because there are no conditions which would allow a way out, which are not a condition in which Israel leaves and abandons the territory, and we achieve what has been achieved in other colonial contexts.
Adam: Yeah, of course, from the beginning, there’s only two ways this ends, which is ethnic cleansing, full-blown ethnic cleansing or some arbitrarily high number of Palestinians die, and they call a truce and Hamas or some version of Hamas is still in power. That’s really the only two options.
Nicola Perugini: Yes, and I wanted to add something else. This is something that has to do with the history of civilian participation into national liberation, anti-colonial wars. So this has to do with the very nature, and the only option that the colonized has, which is waging wars, which are ultimately people’s wars. The fish and the water. There is no possibility when you are attacked as a people of defending yourself and achieving liberation other than joining forces. The people is attacked as the people, the people liberate itself as a people. That has been developed in anti-colonial wars. It has traveled and migrated to the Global South and to other countries, which liberated themselves through the same techniques. And it’s still alive, I think, in Palestine. Now, the problem is that this civilian involvement in the self-emancipation and national liberation efforts clashes with one of the pillars of international law, which is the prohibition to involve civilians in the war effort. If a civilian participates in the war effort, that’s a violation of international law. So there is a clash between two registers, ethical and political registers of justice. One is the register of justice, of national liberation from colonialism and foreign domination. The other register is the register of international law. Now, what happened in Vietnam, what happened in other anti-colonial wars, and what is going on in Gaza is that these political processes which are common to all colonial contexts, and these ways of waging war in which entire populations are involved because they’re liberating themselves as a people, were framed in Vietnam and then in other colonial contexts and now in Palestine, as something which violates the law. In other words, resistance, anti-colonial resistance can be outlawed or is being outlawed through the prism of and through the legal discourse of human shielding. I mean, in Vietnam, it wasn’t just human shielding. In Vietnam, it was also vegetation shielding because napalm was used against both humans and nonhumans. This raises two important questions. The first question is what I’ve already mentioned, which is the clash between registers of justice, civilian involvement when you have to liberate yourself is in a way natural. How do we combine that with the prohibition of international law or in a way in which international law doesn’t erase that fundamental right? And the second question is the question of race. I’m Italian. Why anti-facist parties and warfare is celebrated. So anti-fascist people’s war is celebrated as a crucial national achievement of liberation in which civilians were involved in the affront whereas other national liberation wars are condemned and outlawed through human shielding. Why? I mean, in the United States, the Independence War was a people’s war. And it’s celebrated right, as a moral pillar, as a political pillar of the nation state. So why are our people’s wars celebrated whereas people’s wars waged by non-whites become a violation of the law?
Adam: Ho Chi Minh would make that point sometimes to troll the US.
Nima: Neve, if there’s anything that you want to add about the inherent power asymmetry of the human shield argument or of effectively using legalese to outlaw as Nicola said, resistance and outlaw national liberation movements.
Neve Gordon: Yeah, I mean, in Israel, there’s clearly an amnesia going on. Because if you walk around Tel Aviv and you look at schools or synagogues, you’ll see that there’s in front of several of them a plaque saying, this synagogue was used to hide weapons. And this school was used to hide fighters. Or we used to train in this school in the kind of pre-state paramilitary groups that organized first to get rid of the British and then to get rid of the Palestinians. So the same techniques are always used by the people as you guys have said before, they’ve organized into a state army and so forth. Now, we have a situation now in Gaza where Israel has a surveillance system that covers everything above ground. So the Hamas has built tunnels. It’s estimated 300 miles of tunnels. I don’t know how many. Maybe 400 miles of tunnels, 500 miles of tunnels. But basically, there’s tunnels running underneath the whole Gaza Strip. So everything above the tunnel is a shield. And that means everything above the tunnel can be bombed. And that’s the situation that we’re at. And that’s the legal argument Israel’s using to defend the fact that it is actually bombing everything above the tunnels, meaning it is flattening whole neighborhoods and so forth. And what we see and maybe we can get into it, how certain sites, for example, we’ve written quite a lot on the use of the shielding argument in relation to health care and the bombing of hospitals. And I think that’s also maybe something you all will want to get into.
Adam: Yeah, we discussed the 3D model of the alleged Bond villain lair underneath Al-Shifa Hospital that ended up being one tunnel that was not connected to the hospital and a few metal cots. Because again, it just doesn’t make sense, right? You’re not gonna have any popular support if you go around building your command and control center under hospitals. But using the human shields logic, which we argued in a previous episode, if you buy into the sort of whole logic of the sort of racist human shields framework, it would logically follow that if vulnerability to civilian populations correlates with where you put your militants, it would make sense that the most vulnerable place with you know, NICU babies and old ladies would be the place with the most Hamas fighters, right? Taking that logic to its extreme, every hospital would be a Hamas command and control center. Of course, it turns out never to be true. They just make these phantom arguments about missiles being fired from hospitals, but they never have any evidence. They just launder it through the media. And then we go well, both sides, and then we move on past to the next hospital they destroy.
Nicola Perugini: So, I think we have to situate the question of the hospitals. Again, historically, this doesn’t begin now. Israel through different means, through the siege, has systematically attacked the healthcare system in Gaza since 2005 with the withdrawal. The whole healthcare system has become and has been subjected to targeting and two forms of attacks since at least 2005. Now, what happens here with the human shielding argument, applied to the entirety of the population and to the entirety of the territory is that it allows to target something crucial, which is life-sustaining and life supporting infrastructures. So, human shielding applied to hospitals here becomes another crucial tool of elimination. In three months, you can basically produce the collapse of the entire healthcare sector with 13 hospitals out of 35 only partially functioning now. Human shielding applied to civilian objects and infrastructures, again, becomes another weapon within the arsenal of weapons that you have in a logic of elimination of the population. You can kill people, you can let them die. So the human shielding argument applied to hospitals is precisely about creating the conditions for letting people die, and the projections are horrifying and terrifying. I mean, public health specialists are projecting this current condition with the attacks on the healthcare system into one year and what they project is possibility and probably one quarter of the population in Gaza might die as a result of these attacks on hospitals framed as shields. So it’s very crucial to go back to the biopolitical and necro-political level of the accusation of shielding applied to hospitals.
Nima: Because again, they’re just doing total war. I mean, this is the oldest form of warfare. And people were never precious about this until after World War Two. They’re just doing a classic Bronze Age siege. And then when people point that out, they go, oh, no. And then they have a bunch of, you know, fancy lawyer jargon about well, oh, no, this is different, trust me. It’s like, no, you’re just doing what people did up until the 1940s when it became out of fashion to do this, right? Similar like how they call themselves colonialist until the 1940s and it became out of fashion. And then oh, no, how dare you call us colonial. It’s like no, the leaflet says, settler colonialism. Like it’s right there. It’s not a new woke buzzword. It’s called the Palestine colonization office. Like they said it. Literally, that’s what it was called. And you’re gonna get a similar preciousness about it. What you’ll say is okay, again, the tactics of Hamas notwithstanding, which I think we can sort of object to in terms of who they target, how they do it, but the basic argument that like violent resistance is inherent in that condition strikes me as manifestly obvious, right? Like, when you ask people, you say, well, okay, if they can’t have a military in a sub-state sense in terms of fish swimming in the water, right, that’s sort of seen as per se human shields and a violation of international law, then how would you resist violently in the sense that Israel has a military, US has a military, all these people have militaries? So clearly, there’s no categorical principle against shooting people or shooting other military targets. So what would that look like? How would you do that? And then the response invariably just gets to the point of, they don’t believe Palestinians should have any mechanism or any faculties for violence at all, that they should roll over and become a basically a glorified NGO that lives under the charity and caprice of Israel and the United States. And now, I guess they’re suggesting the government should be run by Arab states because they’re just interchangeable Arabs. And supposedly, Bin Salman is the Pope of the Arabs. They keep talking about him being involved in this. You know, Saudi Arabia has a 5% approval rating in Gaza. But for some reason, they’re going [1:02:05]. I think Saudi Arabia’s approval rating in Gaza is less than Israel’s and that’s not a joke. So then you realize, oh, they just want them to be compliant NGO employees that have no political independence at all.
Adam: But also not resist nonviolently because that is met with violence as well.
Because when the White House and even some liberals in Israel say Palestinian state, it’s very important to be clear, they don’t actually mean a state. They don’t mean that they have any kind of independent security apparatus other than some kind of …PA-type instrumentation of Israeli largesse. So I want to talk a bit about that rejoinder. It’s like, well, so what do you want them to do? And then you quickly realize they kind of just want them to roll over and die.
Neve Gordon: Well, you know, one of the sayings in Israel is, you know, we’ve seen how the human shield is used to blame the Palestinians for the destruction Israel reaps. And then another claim made in Israel is how come the Palestinians don’t have a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Now, anyone that opened their TVs in March 2018 and onwards, week after week after week, saw 10,000 and 20,000 and 30,000 and sometimes 50,000 Mahatma Gandhis walking to the fence and calling on the international community saying to them, hey, we’re locked up in this cage. It was then already well over 10 years, 12 years, I think, at the time. We’re locked in this cage. Don’t you want to do something? We’re coming here in non-violent protesting masses, crying to the world saying what? Do something! No one gives a shit. What we have is we have a whole history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance from day one of 1967. We have teachers’ strikes, we have lawyers’ strikes, we have tax strikes, we have boycotts. Nothing works, and that has to do with the colonizer. The colonizer is unimpressed by these kind of actions of resistance and gives nothing. Not only doesn’t give anything, it continues the strangulation and tightens the noose. And so what is the message to the Palestinians? What is Israel’s message to the Palestinians?
Nima: Yeah, I mean, it gets right back to this idea that all of the arguments against any kind of Palestinian resistance, non-violent, violent, BDS, etc., all of that is illegitimate, right? And therefore anything Israel does is not only justified but also righteous and somehow legal at all of these levels. And as a kind of final question to you both and thank you so much for spending this time with us, I’d love to kind of talk about the effect of these arguments, namely, say the human shield argument on media audiences receiving this again and again and again. So it’s not just that it’s used by the Israeli military. It’s not just that it is repeated by the US government. But the effect that this kind of terminology and this kind of propaganda has when kind of laundered through the media as a kind of moral absolution, right? And it ameliorates cognitive dissonance. Because there are horrific images we’re seeing all the time, huge genocide level death tolls, and it’s so much to comprehend as someone receiving this information. And then you kind of apply the human shield framework, and that provides a very convenient moral out. It doesn’t ask, much less answer extremely difficult questions because you’re just sort of like, oh, well, you know, I see these huge death toll numbers. And then the New York Times and CNN talks about yet another hospital was destroyed, yet another school was invaded and massacred, city blocks were leveled. There are thousands more buried under the rubble. But then there’s this line: but Hamas uses hospitals, schools, and mosques to hide their weapons or the people who are there are not being allowed to leave because they are human shields. So then you’re like, well, I guess what is Israel supposed to do? Right? I mean, if you’re a consumer of this kind of media, and you’re not actually paying attention to other things. It’s this moral carwash, right? You go in and you have kind of tough questions. You’re like, oh, that doesn’t seem right. And then you hear human shield, and you come out completely clean. You know, we’ve been talking about the kind of legalese here, can we talk about the moral and psychological utility of this human shield argument and how it proliferates in Western media, and then the effect on those receiving it who actually do have the ability to maybe pressure the number one benefactor, the number one arms dealer of this death and destruction and maintaining this colonial state that Israel does in Palestine, the way that that really helps dismantle any kind of opposition to what we are seeing and to what Western governments are allowing, justifying, encouraging, arming to allow this to continue happening.
Nicola Perugini: Nima, I agree with you that the trope was absorbed uncritically, at least for several months by the mainstream media. And it was accepted. And there is a reason for that. And the reason is that the trope and the accusation of human shielding is not an Israeli exception. We have to situate again how Israel mobilizes and deploys the human shielding accusation within a broader global framework in which also other actors, the US but also non-western actors, Russia, the Syrian regime, the Saudis in Yemen, have been deploying for several years, if not for decades, the human shielding trope in order to justify civilian casualties in their wars. So there is some sort of global…faction to the trope, which goes beyond the case, Israel. And this is because human shielding as we show has a very long history that then was consolidated especially after the beginning of the War on Terror in which the trope reemerged so, so strongly across the continents. Then, there is an issue which has to do with the West and why the trope is accepted within the West, and I think that that has to do with the issue of race and how human shielding functions as a rationalizing accusation. So what is behind the human shielding accusation? The idea that there are certain actors who wage war in so-called inhumane ways, using perfidy and using uncivilized ways of warfare. And I think that within the western public, the accusation that Israel mobilizes against brown Palestinians, has to do precisely with this legacy, rationalizing legacy of the image of the non-western warrior as a less humane warrior as a barbarian as a perfidious actor in the battlefield. So going back to my own country, I mean, the fascists accused the Ethiopian resistance in 1935 of using hospitals as shields. The…language which is very similar to what we have been hearing in the last month, and I think in a way I think we’re stuck there. What I’m trying to say is there, Ethiopia in 1935 is still with us and still manifests itself among us.
Neve Gordon: I might add that it sticks as Nicola says because of the racism in the West. But we have seen in our research that this racism is also cited and re-articulated by humanitarian organizations, by the ICRC, by different UN agencies, by different human rights organizations. And so this whole civilization divide is that we distinguish between civilians and combatants. And the Palestinians don’t or the racialized don’t. Now, think about it. Just think of the numbers. Israel distinguishes between civilians and combatants, but the Palestinians don’t. I mean, it’s ludicrous. And yet it passes as if without a blink. And so the propaganda also exposes our own racism, the fact that the propaganda works, and it is used to basically intensify and reinforce certain historical forms of racism.
Nima: Yeah, because western violence will always therefore be not only justified, but also innocent and noble like as a blanket statement.
Adam: Well, you know, 2023 is somewhat interesting, because like you said, Nicola, in many ways Israel stopped even trying to. They’ve internally, especially in Hebrew language media stopped even trying to make these liberal interventionist arguments and explicitly said the whole population is militarized. Whereas their English language, forward facing propaganda and obviously, pro-Israel groups in the US are still holding on to this zombie they’re trying to reduce civilian casualty argument even though you know, +972 magazine had a pretty detailed explanation about how Israel themselves is deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure. They’ve dropped the pretense in many ways because they are in this kind of Trumpian bubble of kind of eliminationist rhetoric where they keep saying, hey, guys, why don’t you stop saying things that are overtly genocidal? And then the next day the Minister of Intelligence or Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Defense will come out and say something overtly genocidal. And so in many ways, this war is different.
Nima: It’s not just liberal genocide. It’s now like macho genocide.
Adam: Yeah. And it’s like, they’re sort of dropping the pretense. And I think that’s revealing that much of this is obviously always been kind of reverse engineered around the need to kill civilians.
Nima: Before we let you go, Nicola and Neve, thank you so much for spending this time with us. Can you let our listeners know about what you are maybe each working on that we can be looking forward to coming out soon? Let our listeners know what you have going on.
Nicola Perugini: I’m working on a project which is called Decolonizing the Civilian which is precisely an attempt to explore the implications of what I talked about in our conversation. So the implications of this clash between the ethical political register of civilian involvement as self-determination, national liberation, anti-colonial effort and the ethical, legal register of international law and the prohibition of involving civilians who are presented in formalist and positivist international law as merely passive actors who cannot act in the battlefield. So that’s my project. And who knows, maybe there’s gonna be more projects with Neve.
Neve Gordon: I was working on a project of the role of civil society in enabling apartheid. So the apartheid reports on Israel look at the state and what the state is doing. And the underlying assumption here is that, you know, to understand how apartheid ticks, we also need to look at what civil society is doing. But I’ve stopped that in the past half year or so. And I began looking at anti-semitism, and the way the weaponization of anti-semitism, and particularly now in the past few months, the kind of support for terrorism and anti-semitism that is using as a mechanism of silencing any pro-Palestinian utterances. And we’re seeing it actually since October 7, we’re seeing a development. So if there was a change in the past two decades of trying to conflate anti-Zionism and harsh criticism of the State of Israel with anti-semitism, since October 7th, what we’re also witnessing is the attempt to identify between those that adopt the settler colonial lens with anti-semitism so to kind of have shut up or silence anyone that tries to understand Israel, Palestine through the settler colonial lens. So I’ve been writing a few articles about those things.
Nima: Well, thank you so much to both of you for spending this time with us. It has been really wonderful speaking with you. Of course, we have been joined by Of course, we have been joined by Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini. They are co-authors of the book, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, which was published by the University of California Press in 2020. They also co-wrote the book The Human Right to Dominate, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press. Neve Gordon is Professor of Human Rights and the Politics of Humanitarian Law at Queen Mary University of London. He is also the author of the book Israel’s Occupation. Nicola Perugini is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.
Nicola Perugini: Thank you.
Neve Gordon: Thank you.
Adam: Yeah, I think the fundamental thing that sort of asked the listener or reader to believe is that this group of people fundamentally doesn’t love its children or love its wives or love its grandparents, right? There’s this idea that life is cheap, we don’t care. There’s a kind of heartlessness to it, that they’re just kind of monsters. And that whatever these groups are, whether it’s Vietnamese, Palestinian militants, whatever, that there’s a large group of people, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands within a population who literally just don’t care about life. And that the person doing the life extinguishing does care but they’re kind of forced to do it because I guess they have to kill the baddies.
Nima: Right. But they do so with such a heavy heart.
Adam: Yeah. And there’s kind of no way for, I think, that to have as much widespread acceptance without racism. And I think racism as a kind of explanation can maybe seem a little pat, but I don’t really know how else to kind of explain how it’s sort of generically understood. It’s like, oh, the human shields like yeah, they put their four daughters on top of their roof and built their little weapons factory. I mean, again, the whole Al-Shifa Hospital raid which again, ended up being totally fake, right? The reason why it was believed so much is because there was a general racist idea that there were hundreds, thousands of patients going in and out of a hospital and by the way, UN workers, right, even western union workers to some extent, but they were, I guess, were brainwashed into the Hamas cult, that went in and out of this hospital for 15, 16, 17 years. And there was some massive underground command center that they knew about because Israel wasn’t claiming they were being duped. They said they knew about it, and that it was this massive conspiracy, not one defector, not one piece of like, guy walked in there with a little, you know, one of those James Bond cameras and took photos. There was no actual evidence of it. But there was this massive conspiracy by tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people over 15 years.
Nima: Cause it’s just a vibe.
Adam: Right. Because again, if you take the human shields logic to its logical extreme, the most vulnerable populations, which Al-Shifa Hospital is because it was the most sensitive surgeries, it was the most advanced hospital in Gaza, would be the place where you would have the main Hamas command center. And then you get there and it’s like a tunnel that doesn’t even connect to the hospital. And I think the steel cot and a toilet. And it’s like, oh, well, because you have to believe in racist bullshit to believe that.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. And that kind of racist bullshit is, I mean, summed up by that infamous Golda Meir quote, former Prime Minister of Israel, where she said, “We can forgive them for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” And so all of that kind of racism, barbarism of the other, and that shooting and crying bullshit of Israeli Hasbara, that if you are the civilized, good guys, it pains you how much your enemy doesn’t care for their own children and just forces you to bomb them and shoot them and murder them and starve them. But really, whose fault is that? It is, of course, your enemies’ fault, right? And so the fact that we can intellectualize that, and we can, you know, kind of talk about the racist roots of that, yes, sure. And we have done that on this episode and elsewhere. But Adam, as you said, the fact that the Al-Shifa story or any other Hamas hides weapons in schools, Hamas hides weapons in mosques, you can’t tell who’s a civilian who’s a combatant, just the fact that these articles are so ubiquitous in our media proves how willing the audiences are to even just believe this, right? That the framework itself is not so outlandish that it would immediately be disbelieved. The fact that these articles and these stories and these cable news pieces can still come out again and again and again just goes to show how deeply embedded these ideas of who is an amoral savage and who has the high ground morally is just suffused in the narratives of what we believe, what we receive. Because otherwise, if it was so outlandish, if it was so ridiculous, they wouldn’t be able to continue to publish them.
Adam: Yeah, pretty much. All you really needed to do is to kind of wash over people without them thinking about it too much. And it kind of seems vaguely true and you go yeah, okay, I guess the 30,000 dead Palestinians and 15,000 dead children, I guess they had no choice and you’re gonna go about and you flip the channel. And you sort of go on and you watch fucking, you know, American Gladiator or The Masked Singer, and you feel good about yourself. Or Navy and CIS, FSF, and FBI Five or whatever? And it’s like, eh, human shields. Human shields.
That’s a human shield.
Nima: They have no choice. They have no choice and we have to support that.
Adam: No choice. No choice. No choice.
Nima: Yeah, it gets back to, Adam, something that we have discussed again, again, which is like the thought terminating cliche, and I think human shields is up there as an all-timer.
Adam: Pretty much the main one, yeah.
Nima: Yeah. Like it’s just, you know, conversation ender. It’s like, you know, how many thousands of human beings can just be obliterated, and you don’t seem to care? You don’t seem to be demanding that our government put an end to this, which could be done, the Biden administration could put an end to this tomorrow. Why, you know, why is this just being justified, justified, and justified? And you know, you kind of get to cut that thought off because you know what, Hamas uses human shields so hey, shoulder shrug. Let’s go do something else. So, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for joining us.
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Citations Needed’s senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, February 7, 2024.
Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.