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December 19, 2023

Why Israel's denial of innocence to civilians is so deadly for Gaza

Shree Paradkar

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At their most sympathetic these Palestinians are portrayed as "human shields," which dismisses them as collateral damage, victims of Hamas rather than Israel.

Social & Racial Justice Columnist

Saturday, December 9, 2023

in Gaza? The Israeli government and its supporters would have us believe they are anything but innocent civilians.

This is important. Denying the innocence of the thousands killed during Israel’s onslaught allows its leaders to justify civilian deaths or to proffer a rationalization that “they brought it on themselves,” while blaming everything on Hamas.

As Israel undertakes air and ground offensives in Gaza, some within and outside of government have deployed an arsenal of verbal volleys that serve to dehumanize civilians there. By repeatedly focusing only on Hamas’s horrific crimes, they rebuff any attempt to frame Gazan civilians as victims.

Too often, Gazan civilians are treated as interchangeable with “Hamas,” allowing all civilians to be dismissed as terrorists. When they’re not called terrorists themselves, Israel categorizes them as Hamas sympathizers. At their most sympathetic these Gazans are portrayed as “human shields,” which dismisses them as mere collateral damage, as victims of Hamas rather than Israel.

For example: Former Mossad chief Rami Igra told CNN's Anderson Cooper last month that “The ‘non-combatant population in the Gaza Strip’ is really a non-existent term. Because all of the Gazans voted for Hamas. And as we have seen on the 7th of October, most of the population on the Gaza Strip are Hamas.”

Cooper didn’t push back, but this is blatantly untrue. There have been no elections in Gaza since 2006, when Hamas won with 44 per cent of the vote, and in no district did it win a majority. Today, nearly half the population of Gaza is under 18; they were either not born when Hamas came into power or not eligible to cast a ballot then. It means only a fraction of today's Gazans ever voted for Hamas.

The implication of conflating civilians with militants is clear. Israeli Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu told Israeli media that since there were “no non-combatants in Gaza,” using an atomic weapon on the Palestinian enclave was “one of the possibilities.” He was suspended after his remarks caused outrage with the opposition.

It is also seen in a military spokesperson’s comments on Israel’s initial airstrikes that “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”

It allowed for Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to refer to Palestinians and Hamas militants as “human animals.” And for Israel’s ambassador to Berlin, Ron Prosor, to double down on those comments and say the western world must stand with Israel as it fights the “bloodthirsty animals” of Hamas, who are used interchangeably with Gazans.

It meant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could invoke a biblical nemesis that was widely taken as a justification for the wholesale slaughter of Palestinians. And for a minister to characterize the Israeli offensive as “now rolling out the Gaza Nakba.” (The first Nakba being the expulsion/displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948.)

At the same time, Israel and its supporters justify atrocities against Palestinian civilians on the basis that Hamas is allegedly using those civilians as human shields.

“Do you know how incredibly difficult it is to go after Hamas,” former U.S. state department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus asked on Fox News recently, “because they’re using their own people as human shields.”

Human shields were “a key pillar of Hamas’s terror operations,” the Times of Israel quoted Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari as saying.

Human shields describe a method of warfare in which individuals either voluntarily or otherwise are placed in front of a military target to protect it from being attacked.

Israel’s claims  and its purported evidence  that Hamas has prevented civilians from fleeing areas that Israel has warned will be targeted by shelling have not been independently corroborated, and Hamas denies them. There is evidence that Hamas has used civilians as human shields in past conflicts.

It’s worth noting that it was official practice for the Israeli army to use Palestinian civilians and children as human shields until the Israeli high court banned it in 2005.

Despite that ruling, Israel was found to have used three Palestinian children as human shields in 2013 and another three in 2022.

Hamas is now believed to be launching attacks from civilian areas, turning Gazans into what Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini, the authors of "Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire," call “proximate human shields,” or civilians who are called shields “simply because they are ‘too close’ to a legitimate target site.”

All of this is complicated by the fact that Gaza is a small, crowded strip of land about 365 square kilometres – about three-quarters the size of London, Ont. – with a population of 2.2 million. It’s a densely populated area with few safe places for civilians to escape or for Hamas to house military centres.

Yes, it’s easy to see how language is used to dehumanize, to whip up hatred for “the other” among the fearful.

But what is the role of the West that continues to arm Israel while making somewhat soothing noises about civilian slaughter? How many dead Palestinians are too many? 5,000? 10,000? 15,000? The numbers tick, tick upwards as relentlessly as the odometer of a speeding car. Have adults, especially males, been so villainized as to be considered unworthy of mourning? In that case, is the harrowing butchery of 6,000 children, toddlers and babies among them – still not counted as deaths of innocents?

Not for Netanyahu, who framed the violence as a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness” on Twitter (which his office deleted) and in a speech in the Israeli parliament.

But for us?

Will the stomach-churning evidence of the rotting corpses of premature babies in a bombed hospital not move us to insist Israel to stop its carnage in Gaza? Not a temporary ceasefire, not a humanitarian pause. A full cessation.

And when – if – that is done, how will we ever pay restitution for this damage to their lives and to our conscience?

Shree Paradkar is a Toronto-based columnist covering issues around social and racial justice for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @ShreeParadkar.

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