Hamas isn't the first military group to hide behind civilians as a way to wage war

The Taliban and the Islamic State group are among the militant groups that have been known to use civilians as human shields in the past, in order to try to shift their opponents’ war calculations.

By Benjamin Jensen Published on Nov 16, 2023.
The exterior of Shifa hospital in Gaza City is seen on Nov. 10, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas near the facility. AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli military said on Nov. 15, 2023 that it had found weapons and a Hamas command center at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, after sending troops into the medical facility.

Shifa has become the epicenter of Israel’s ground invasion into Gaza, as the Israeli military says that Hamas has strategically placed its fighters and weapons in a broad tunnel system that connects to the hospital, and that Hamas is using hospital workers and patients as human shields. The U.S. says its intelligence shows that Hamas, as The New York Times wrote, “has been using hospitals in Gaza, including Al-Shifa, as command centers and ammunitions depots.” Hamas has denied the allegations.

The hospital complex now houses about 700 patients, 400 health workers and 3,000 Palestinians who are displaced from their homes, according to United Nations figures.

This is far from the first time that a military group has allegedly used civilians to shield themselves and their weapons, says Benjamin Jensen, a war strategy expert from American University School of International Service who served 20 years in the military.

Jensen explained that civilians often become pawns in war when one side does not have a military advantage against a stronger adversary – and looks for other ways to weaken their opponent.

1. What purpose does using civilians to shield fighters serve in a conflict?

Using places and things civilians need, like hospitals, as a means to fight a war is considered a weapon of the weak. It is a way to use another side’s values against it.

I think we should be under no illusions that Hamas has – in this war and historically – tried to embed themselves and weapons in places civilians live or visit, in order to make it more difficult for the Israelis to target them.

One question in war is, “How do I raise the cost that my adversary has to incur in order to attack me?” Your goal is to gain a relative advantage at the lowest possible cost to yourself, and with the lowest possible benefit for your adversary.

And in this case, the costs to Israel are damage to its reputation and legitimacy, among some people, because of the civilians it is killing in Gaza while targeting Hamas.

2. Are fighters hiding behind or among civilians a new way of waging a war?

Using civilians to further a military advantage is not a new phenomenon.

We still have this ridiculous image of war looking like people lined up in neat rows, meeting each other in defined fields of battle. But that flies in the face of the actual history of warfare historically, and especially in the 21st century.

In the Japanese attack on the British stronghold of Singapore in 1942, during World War II, for example, one of the key features of Japan’s approach was to bomb people’s water sources, in order to more rapidly compel the British surrender.

We’ve seen adversaries in multiple modern conflicts hide behind or among civilians. It’s sad, because it means the only truth in war is that there will be tragedy, and civilians will pay the heaviest price.

3. Where else has this happened?

Even if you go back to the Vietnam War, you can find examples of the Viet Cong sometimes using the same routes or vehicles that were used for aid delivery to civilians. Wars dating back to the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s are really where you start to see more examples of fighters trying to shield themselves with civilians or with U.N. peacekeepers, as happened in Bosnia.

We’ve seen the Taliban in Afghanistan hiding in civilians’ homes and in hospitals, as well as storing weapons in mosques. The Taliban were very good at being fluid and moving in and out of civilian areas that would make it difficult to strike them.

The battle of Mosul, between the Islamic State group and the Iraqi government from 2016 through 2017, was another example of this. The Islamic State fighters herded an estimated 100,000 civilians together and used them as civilian shields.

Even in the case of the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly declared war on the entire society of Ukraine. But it’s possible that some of Russia’s strikes against hospitals in Ukraine happened because Russian intelligence received information that Ukraine may or may not have been moving soldiers or items in and out of the hospital.

4. Do civilians sometimes willingly play the role of human shields?

It varies. Based on my experience, do I think it’s possible that the lead hospital administrators in Gaza know the full landscape of the labyrinth of tunnels underneath? No. Do I think one or two officials or a couple of janitors or part-time workers do? Yes. Do I also think that it’s possible that most people in a war zone are just trying to survive and they look the other way? Yes.

There’s this weird phenomenon for civilians in situations like this, in which they often know something’s going on. But also if you’re smart enough, you might not ask anything. Hamas was known to mistreat Palestinians before this war started.

A woman with a headscarf holds a small baby and sits amid a large pile of rubble.
A Palestinian woman holds her baby at her home destroyed by Israeli air strikes in a central area of the Gaza Strip on Nov. 15, 2023. Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

5. How does Hamas allegedly using civilian shields complicate this war?

The answer depends on what your military is trying to achieve. If your idea is that you have to move faster than your adversary, then you are willing to probably assume a higher risk of civilian casualties and lose the information war – meaning the war of people’s public opinion – in order to rapidly destroy your adversary.

But with Hamas locating themselves alongside important places like hospitals, Hamas has actually made Israel fight them in places Israel wouldn’t want to target them, because of the potential loss of civilian life. And in doing so, look at how fast Israel lost momentum in its information war. Israel is taking a huge amount of criticism for its killing of civilians as it goes after Hamas.

Despite what some protesters are saying, I can say that the Israeli military does care about civilian casualties. Israel still is a democracy. And they respect, even if not to the exact standards that many people would like to see, the laws of war – certainly more than Hamas does. For example, Israel limits how it targets military strikes.

And even with that, the information blowback against Israel is real. I fought for 20 years. It’s hard to get images of infants killed and hurt in this war out of your head. Social media accelerates the circulation of images that pull on our emotions and make it difficult to have objective conversations about the conflict.

Benjamin Jensen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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