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

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 it is clear 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.



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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.

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.The Conversation 

Benjamin Jensen, Professor of Strategic Studies, Marine Corps University; Scholar-in-Residence, American University School of International Service

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.  

Image credits: Wounded Palestinians wait for treatment at the overcrowded emergency ward of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City following an Israeli airstrike on October 11, 2023. / Wikimedia 


Showing 4 reactions

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  • mrscracker
    Hamas is more about a criminal cartel than a legitimate military operation. The way they operate resembles how drug & trafficking cartels insinuate themselves into parts of Latin America: exploiting, recruiting, or coercing the local populations into enabling their criminal activities. Hamas behaves no differently. They have no shame. Mexican cartels at least take ownership for their crimes & victims.
  • Paolo Azzaroli
    commented 2023-11-21 20:54:48 +1100
    Our memory of recient past is at its lowest point.

    The Israels IDF know wery well the al-Shifa Hospital, as they rallied it in the past.
    Also in year 2014 Intifada they “discovered” Hamas arms in the undergound premises of the hospital.
    The recent discovers looks like propaganda narrative. I don’t discard the point that Hamas take adwantage from staying amid civilians, but I belive Hamas don’t leave arms where they know IDF ase used to look.
    Was written 2014-06-29
  • Kathy Ungar
    commented 2023-11-21 20:46:59 +1100
    Please, let’s be just a bit more incredulous about Israeli government claims. The more credulous we are, the more people die in terror-bombing that has already made Gaza in the words of UNICEF a graveyard for thousands of children.

    Interesting how a bag supposedly ‘found’ in a hospital progressively ‘grew’ weapons the more it was shown to different journalists. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6It0BhRyeAI
    Or how about the claim that ‘names of terrorists’ were found on a chart on a hospital wall https://thegrayzone.com/2023/11/15/biden-israels-gaza-hospitals-intelligence/ when these are Arabic names for days of the week? Israel is simply trying to cover itself and look good – it would be ridiculous if it weren’t so horribly serious.

    Or see here for a (sadly outdated) report on the multiple hospitals and health facilities and sometimes ambulances Israel has attacked https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israel-palestine-war-how-did-hospitals-gaza-become-primary-targets. For live updates on the carnage see here https://www.middleeasteye.net/israel-palestine-hamas-war-gaza-live-invasion

    The wilful credulity of Israel’s allies – as opposed to urgent condemnations and calls for help by international organisations – has meant the massacre just goes on and on with weapons and funding from the US. Israel must be stopped for its own sake and that of the countless innocent people – North and South, in hospitals, refugee centres, residential buildings, places of worship – it bombs, shoots, starves etc day by day.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2023-11-21 18:04:19 +1100
    … And civilians have been targeted in many wars:

    - the British incarcerated the Dutch/Boer population in, what they called, concentration camps, to cut the Boer rebels off from supplies.
    - the German army in WW2 put, with the support of the army of Finland on the other side, Leningrad into a blockade, in which many civilians died in a large famine,
    - Bomber Harris convinced Churchill and the Americans to carpet bomb Dresden and Hamburg to destroy the morale of the German workers (with very poor results from a military point of view),
    - the Soviet troops were ordered to rape and kill Germans (interestingly the soldiers fighting on the front did generally not commit those crimes but the soldiers that came after the fighting had ended), Berlin today has a lot of Russian genes …

    And then there is all the propaganda and lies during wars. Governments lie and even try to control how history is recorded after a war.

    Never blindly trust the press statements of a warring party. Even the supposedly “good” party may lie.