Throughout the ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip, perhaps no phrase has featured as prominently or persistently in the lexicon of Israeli propaganda as “human shields.” Repeated in stentorian fashion by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a heavily regimented army of 10,000 public relations flacks, the phrase has been ruthlessly deployed to shield Israel from responsibility for the bloodbath it has caused in Gaza. Israel has killed 1,800 civilians in a matter of weeks, including some 430 children, but it was Hamas that forced them to do it.
Like so many Zionist accusations against Palestinian society (“They only understand force,” “They teach their children to hate,” “They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”) the human shields slander is a projection. Israel is the most militarized society on earth, with soldiers and military installations honeycombed throughout its civil society. With full military conscription for all men and women and reserve duty required for all Jews until they reach their 40s, Jewish Israelis alternate constantly between the role of civilian and soldier, blurring the line between the two.
Within one of Tel Aviv’s most densely populated neighborhoods sits Ha’Kirya, the army’s headquarters, a gigantic complex of monolithic buildings that house the offices where attacks on Gaza are planned. The uniformed officers and soldiers who work inside take lunch in the cafes and shop in the malls surrounding their offices, embedding themselves among the civilian population. A military base is nestled in the middle of the campus of Haifa University while Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities offer military officers free tuition, encouraging their enrollment and allowing them to carry weapons on campus. It is hard to find a henhouse, flophouse, or fieldhouse anywhere in Israel without some kind of military presence.
In an editorial for the Israeli daily, Yedioth Aharonot, veteran Israeli military advisor Giora Eiland argued in favor of collectively punishing Gaza’s civilian population. “In order to guarantee our interests versus the other side’s demands, we must avoid the artificial, wrong and dangerous distinction between the Hamas people, who are ‘the bad guys,’ and Gaza’s residents, which are allegedly ‘the good guys.’”
Naturally, Eiland failed to consider the terrible implications of eliminating the distinction between civilians and the armed factions that move among them: If his logic were inverted to apply to Israeli society, where civilians are soldiers and soldiers are civilians, almost every Jewish Israeli citizen could be considered a legitimate target.
Most vulnerable among the Jewish Israeli public are residents of the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. Many of these working class development towns and kibbutzim were planted during the 1950s in place of the Palestinians who had just been forcibly expelled. In al-Majdal Asqalan, now known as Ashkelon, Jewish immigrants from the Middle East were literally trucked in to replace the Palestinians who had been held within a barbed wire enclosure before being outcasted to Gaza. Today, these largely neglected communities form a human wall against the demographic threat tucked behind a high-tech cordon sanitaire just to their south.
Not only do Israel’s southern communities exist under the threat of rocket and mortar attacks from those they displaced, they are routinely used as shelters and temporary bases by the Israeli army.
Renan Raz, a 26-year-old waiter and anti-occupation activist now living in Tel Aviv, remembers the anguish he experienced when the army arrived in Dorot, the southern kibbutz where he was born and raised. It was the height of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on that left over 1400 Palestinian Gazans dead, mostly civilians, between December 2008 and January 2009.
“Most of the days soldiers were fighting in the Gaza Strip in the morning and in the evening they were coming back to our kibbutz, bringing their weapons there, they were sleeping there, and sometimes they were practicing [military drills] in the fields, in the kibbutz grass — they were hiding there and making plans,” Raz told me. “The way I saw it, they were using us as human shields.”
Raz recalled, “We were right on the border of the Gaza Strip and they were practicing in the fields with weaponry, whether it’s with their rifle or armored vehicles. I could hear explosions [from the fields] while they were practicing and maybe even shooting things into Gaza.”
“We are a sick military society,” he continued. “You can’t say Hamas is using their civilians as a human shield when it’s obvious that our army is using all of us as human shields. And those of us who live near the Gaza Strip are definitely the biggest human shields.”
Raz remembers being almost alone in raising questions about the presence of the soldiers. “People were so happy, they were really proud of them. Each day after they came out of the Gaza Strip, in the [kibbutz] dining room, if it was lunch or dinner, there was food waiting for them,” he said. “They came into our houses and used our showers and relaxed there. People wrote letters to them after they left the kibbutz thanking them for risking their lives for us. Not only in the kibbutz but all over Israel they are seen as the most sacred thing. People treat them as angels, as people who put their own lives at risk so civilians can live at peace.”
Having already refused army service in defiance of his country’s militarist ethos, Raz turned solidly against the attack on Gaza. “Whenever there was a rocket alarm, all the people around me were shouting, Death to leftists! and Death to Arabs! And I just wanted to have a better life for everyone. I don’t want to be intimidated by the rockets but I also don’t want the people in Gaza to be bombed and massacred for no reason. I realized that this is the oppressed and the oppressor — it wasn’t self-defense.”
During the current assault on Gaza, Israeli forces have returned to the communities surrounding Gaza to bivouac and stage attacks. However, the fear of “terror tunnels” and rockets has led many of the local residents to flee, leaving virtual ghost towns in their wake.
In a recorded message broadcast on July 29 by al-Aqsa television, Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades general commander Mohammad Daif declared that Gaza fighters were exclusively targeting active duty Israeli military personnel and avoiding attacks on civilians. So far, the Qassam Brigades have killed 65 Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians, one Thai worker, andwounded a kibbutz owl.