Fida Shafi
Academy Associate
Characterizing civilian deaths as the ‘collateral damage’ of using human shields is misunderstanding the situation. Gazans simply have nowhere to go to escape the violence.
Palestinians stand next to a makeshift shelter in Gaza City on 6 August 2014. Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.Palestinians stand next to a makeshift shelter in Gaza City on 6 August 2014. Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

In an interview on the US radio programme Democracy Now, Henry Siegman, a German-Jewish refugee who fled Nazi occupation to become a leading American Jewish voice as the executive director of the American Jewish Congress and head of the Synagogue Council of America, said: ‘No country and no people would live the way Gazans have been made to live.’

As the hostilities in Gaza continue, and ceasefires keep collapsing, the human cost to Palestinian civilians can no longer be depicted merely as the ‘collateral damage’ of ‘Hamas’s’ human shields. In an appeal launched to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the UK’s Disaster Emergencies Committee - made up of some of the UK’s leading aid agencies – said that the situation has reached crisis point:

‘Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and are in desperate need of food, water and shelter. All 1.8 million people living in Gaza are without adequate access to medical care because the health system is on the brink of collapse. Safe water is limited, with 1.4 million Gazans with no or very limited access to water sanitation. 65,000 people have seen their homes damaged or destroyed, and 24 hospitals and clinics have also been damaged.’

In the midst of all of this, there will be little emphasis, if any, in Gaza on the issue of Hamas using ordinary Palestinians as human shields; instead, people will feel as they do now, that they have been slaughtered at home while the world watches. They feel that their lives are considered worthless when non-combatants are targeted or treated as collateral damage in a dehumanized way.  They will not blame Hamas; they will blame Israel.

The first thing to grasp is that Hamas, made up of a variety of individuals with different political perspectives, is perceived as an Islamic resistance movement. Even though Hamas’s political agenda grew out of its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, its local agenda is very focused on combating the Israeli occupation, one of the reasons they have been supported by Shia and Sunni groups alike, as well as non-Islamist leftists in and outside Palestine. As a movement, Hamas is rooted socially as well as politically in Palestinian society, a fact that distinguishes it from local Salafist-jihadist groups that are few in number and are not acting in support of Palestinian liberation.

The tragedy of the past few weeks has increased the support for the reunification of Palestinian society in the West Bank − including Jerusalem − and Gaza. No single Palestinian party, including Fatah, has blamed Hamas for its rocket fire against Israel in the face of the overwhelming amount of explosive weapons  that Israel dropped on Gaza in the past month. Popular opinion would not permit it. On the contrary, the recent suffering has served to unite ideologically different political parties in the name of ‘resistance in Gaza’. The killing of civilians who have nothing to do with Hamas − they are generally not members of Hamas let alone militants − has brought the Palestinian issue firmly back on the international agenda from which it had largely disappeared since the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Palestinian journalist Asmaa al-Ghoul, who has in the past been harassed and censored by Hamas, wrote following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah on 3 August that killed at least nine members of her family: ‘If Hamas, in your eyes, is ordinary civilians and families, then I am Hamas, they are Hamas and we are all Hamas.’ In this respect in is important to understand that very few Palestinians – if any – in Gaza accept the commonly stated idea that they are dying because Hamas forces them to be human shields. Gaza is so densely populated that there is nowhere to hide or run when the shells drop even with short-notice warning. People are not ‘human shields’ as such, they are merely living there doing the best they can without options.

Palestinians argue that if Hamas is to be labelled a terrorist organization, how is Israel any different?  Israel argues that it cares about human life, but killing so many civilians is not a smart way to show it. In other conflict zones, many families are able to flee to other parts of the country, or across borders.  But in Gaza, an area only 32 kilometres long and a few kilometres wide, housing 1.8 million people, there is no escape; there are no safe places to go. 

Nobody, adult or child, Palestinian or Israeli, should have to live this way. Responding to urgent humanitarian needs is only one part of the puzzle. Golda Meir, one of Israel’s early leaders is often quoted: ‘We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.’ This cannot be what Israelis believe; clearly Arab mothers and fathers love their children just as Israeli’s love theirs. The psychological defence of arguing that the Palestinians of Gaza have brought this upon themselves is neither believable nor sustainable, nor does it convince the majority of the world that continues to watch from outside.

We need to start thinking differently. Addressing and building on Palestinian unity for an enduring settlement based on the end of occupation is essential for both Israelis and Palestinians alike.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback