Human Shields and Other Tactics of Israel’s Enemies

Rising tensions in Gaza and Syria make it seem only a matter of when, not if major hostilities will renew between Israel and one or more of its neighbors. In any conflict, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran know their most potent weapon is to intentionally and illegally put civilians in harm’s way, and then conduct an information campaign hypocritically blaming Israel for the ensuing casualties.

Facing similar threats, the United States should recognize this difficult situation faced by Israel, preempt such deceitful moral and specious legal arguments by its adversaries, and defend its ally’s commitment to lawful self-defense.

In recent weeks and months, Israel has been subjected to repeated indiscriminate incendiary and rocket attacks from Gaza that have devastated Israeli farmland and targeted populated areas. These attacks have increased in scale, with hundreds of rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza recently in the most intense battle since the 2014 Gaza Conflict. The Israel Defense Forces are prepared for a major operation against Hamas if these attacks do not cease.

At the same time, Israel’s northern border is also heating up. Iranian-backed forces have mounted an assault on rebel forces in southwestern Syria that could bring them to the Golan Heights and Israel’s doorstep. Already, Iran and its partners are making clear their hostile intentions, recently launching another unmanned aerial vehicle from Syria into Israel. Further Iranian entrenchment could force Israel to respond more proactively to defend its borders.

In any of these potential conflicts, Israel will be confronted with an adversary that routinely and deliberately violates the law of armed conflict by employing human shields and targeting civilians. During the “right of return” marches in Gaza this spring, Hamas used nonviolent protesters to shield terrorists that were firing grenades and small arms at Israeli soldiers. This is the latest adaptation of Hamas’ preferred illicit tactic of firing rockets at Israeli civilians from Gazan homes, hospitals, mosques, and schools.

With Iranian help, and right under the noses of U.N. peacekeepers, Hezbollah similarly stockpiles its massive arsenal of 130,000 rockets and missiles in civilian sites, with the ultimate intention of using them to overwhelm Israel’s defenses and rain down death and destruction on its population centers.

Whether hidden among or aimed at civilians, these illegal placements of arms caches and weapons systems create incredibly complex and dangerous environments for the IDF. Yet, Israel conducts operations with appropriate and admirable restraint, including recently when its largest airstrikes since 2014 took out Hamas military posts responsible for attacks on Israeli civilians.

As part of a delegation organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America to Israel this spring, we gained a firsthand appreciation for the professionalism and commitment to LOAC at the core of the IDF’s planning and conduct of operations. We believe this will continue to be true, even in looming conflicts that will place unprecedented operational demands on the IDF to conduct major offensive actions before its enemies can overwhelm Israel’s defenses.

Yet, Israel’s adherence to the law under such demanding conditions is not the story the global public likely will hear. For example, Hamas has proven very adept at information operations to distort actual events. During the protests in Gaza earlier this year, much of the international media blatantly misrepresented events on the ground by ignoring Hamas’ unlawful use of human shields, while accusing the IDF of targeting “unarmed protestors” and giving Gaza its biggest “pummeling” since 2014.

Indeed, this manipulation of the media and public sympathy is the most potent tool in the arsenal of Israel’s enemies. Unable to match it militarily, adversaries seek to discredit and delegitimize Israel by depicting its soldiers as war criminals, even as Hamas, Hezbollah, and others intentionally put civilians in harm’s way.

As former operational commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, we appreciate that these challenges confronting Israel – enemies seeking to deliberately exploit LOAC while delegitimizing their law-abiding opponent – are strikingly similar to those faced by the U.S. in its conflicts across the Middle East. The tactics these terrorists use to undermine and weaken Israel could easily be turned against U.S. forces the next time they are called on to conduct combat operations.

It is imperative that American policymakers, opinion leaders, and the press separate fact from fiction when it comes to Israel’s fight against terror. In recognition of the similar challenges we will likely face in the future, the U.S. must support Israel’s right and commitment to lawful self-defense in the media, the United Nations, and the halls of power in Washington.

By understanding and shedding public light on the methods currently being pursued by Iran, its proxies, and Hamas, the U.S. hopefully can spur understanding and even possibly action to forestall the unnecessary harm to civilians such tactics will most certainly produce.

This op-ed was also published in the Washington Examiner on July 27, 2018.