Militant rockets can be seen launching from crowded neighborhoods, near apartment buildings, schools and hotels. Hamas fighters have set traps for Israeli soldiers in civilian homes and stored weapons in mosques and schools. Tunnels have been dug beneath private property.
With international condemnation rising over the death toll in Gaza exceeding 650 in the war’s 16th day, Israel points to its adversaries’ practice of embedding forces throughout the crowded, impoverished coastal enclave of 1.7 million people.
“Hamas uses schools, residential buildings, mosques and hospitals to fire rockets at Israeli civilians,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Canadian counterpart in a call over the weekend, according to a statement from Mr. Netanyahu’s office. “Hamas uses innocent civilians as a human shield for terrorist activity.”
Nothing is ever so clear in the complex and often brutal calculus of urban warfare. There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack — the legal definition of a human shield under international law. But it is indisputable that Gaza militants operate in civilian areas, draw return fire to civilian structures, and on some level benefit in the diplomatic arena from the rising casualties. They also have at times encouraged residents not to flee their homes when alerted by Israel to a pending strike and, having prepared extensively for war, did not build civilian bomb shelters.
Israel, for its part, says it takes precautions to avoid killing civilians, but has also accepted as inevitable that there will be large numbers of civilian casualties when it strikes at certain targets, like Hamas members in their houses, or offices, or mosques.
“It’s a bit of a fluid concept,” said Bill Van Esveld, a lawyer and senior researcher in the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch. “If you have any choice in the matter, you should not be fighting from an apartment building full of civilians.”
Some of Hamas’s tactics mirror those of other insurgent groups, like the Irish Republican Army and Nicaraguan contras.
“Hamas knows that it works to its advantage, politically and diplomatically, as the civilian death toll mounts, there is increasing pressure to end the war immediately, and what that typically entails, if past is precedent, is making some concessions to Hamas,” said Nathan Thrall, co-author of a recent International Crisis Group report on Gaza. “Hamas deliberately buries the weapons in populated civilian areas hoping that will reduce the chance that those weapons will be taken out from the air — that’s a pretty clear-cut case.”
Experts in international law say that even as Hamas is legally obligated to minimize its operations near civilians — and is committing a war crime by firing rockets indiscriminately — so, too, is Israel obligated to identify specific military targets and keep the risk to civilians proportionate to the threats the targets pose.”
– The New York Times, "Civilians as Human Shields? Gaza War Intensifies Debate"