It has become part of a macabre ritual. Each week, thousands of Palestinians stride towards the fence surrounding the small swath of land in which they have been imprisoned for years, as Israeli snipers pick their victims and shoot.
Since March 30, 132 Palestinians have been killed and over 13,000 have been injured as they have courageously protested the effects of Israel’s ongoing military siege on Gaza.
To some, the Palestinian march might look suicidal, but to Palestinians, it is the ultimate act of peaceful resistance. Malnutrition, lack of drinking water, daily electricity outages, massive unemployment, and extreme poverty are not abstract slogans for the civilians who have participated in these demonstrations.
So, week in and week out, they march towards the fence in the hope that the world will hear their anguish and that some country, some leader, or even some movement will support their cause and help them break the siege.
But each week, Israel is trying hard to push a different narrative. The Israeli military has been disseminating on social media images and videos of young children at protests. One short clip plays a lullaby interrupted by the sound of gunfire and rhetorically asks: “Where are the children of Gaza today?” After showing children amid the protesters, it then displays the word “here” in all caps across the screen.
Such videos are used as “the ultimate proof” that Palestinians are deploying children as human shields.
Israel’s “human shield” propaganda has also been applied on civilian adults. Following international outrage at the slaying of 21-year-old Razan Al-Najjar, who was killed while treating an injured protester, the Israeli army circulated an edited clip entitled “Hamas uses Paramedics as Human Shields”.
The video is based on an interview with Al Mayadeen TV in which Razan described her work as a medic: “My name is Razan Al-Najjar. I’m here on the front lines as a human shield to protect and save the wounded on the front lines.”
The Israeli army’s media unit conveniently edited the interview, omitting Razan’s claim that, for her, shielding the wounded is part of her responsibility as a medical worker. They also artfully ignored another clip posted on the New York Times website, where she describes the protests as an attempt “to send a message to the world: without weapons, we can do anything”.
Israel justifies its violent attacks by continuously accusing Hamas of using human shields, desperately hoping to stir moral indignation while also trying to muster a legal defence for the indefencible.
Morally, the charge intimates that the Palestinians are savages. Not unlike imagined barbaric pagans who offered their children to the gods, it suggests that the Palestinians of Gaza have no problem sending their sons and daughters to the front lines. The subtext is that civilised people protect their children while Palestinians sacrifice them.
Legally, a human shield is a civilian who is used in order to render a legitimate military target immune from attack. By accusing Hamas of deploying human shields, Israel hopes to shift the blame from the hunter to the prey, since, according to international law, the party responsible for the death of human shields is not the one killing them but the one using them.
This is precisely the message Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations conveyed in a letter he sent to the Security Council: “[the] terrorists continue to hide behind innocent children to ensure their own survival”.
With this statement, Danon not only shifts the blame but, in effect, also categorises anyone who participates in the March of Return as a military target.
Exactly because human shields, by definition, defend legitimate military targets, the seemingly endless accusation that Palestinians use human shields to protect demonstrators reveals that for Israel all Palestinian protesters are fair game.
But despite Israel’s best efforts, the “human shield” argument is increasingly failing to convince. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of perpetrating war crimes in its efforts to suppress Palestinian demands for liberation.
Meanwhile, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution with overwhelming majority condemning Israel’s use of “indiscriminate force”, while UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called for an investigation.
What is even more frightening, however, is that Gaza is not particularly unique.
From Venezuela, where priests defended anti-government activists from the lethal violence of riot police, to South Africa, where white students shielded black students as they rallied against unaffordable tuition fees, to the United States, where veterans tried to protect peaceful Native Americans who were being brutally attacked by security dogs, blasted with water cannons in subzero temperatures, and fired on with rubber bullets at Standing Rock Reservation, more and more people are either being framed as human shields or are actually serving as human shields.
In spite of the differences between these contexts, the figure of the human shield – whether used to justify colonial violence or to protect demonstrators – has become omnipresent in our contemporary political landscape.This, in turn, suggests that protesters are increasingly conceived as lawful targets and that the repertoires of violence as well as the legal justifications used in war have entered the realm of civilian life and are being normalised.