Shortly after the conclusion of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, a 34-day affair that dispensed with approximately 1,200 (mainly civilian) lives in the latter country, my friend and I embarked on a hitchhiking trip through the rubble. One of our stops was the town of Bint Jbeil, located 2.5 miles from the Israeli border and known as the “capital of the Resistance.” A former focal point of the Hezbollah-managed struggle against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, which was forcibly terminated in May of 2000, Bint Jbeil was savagely attacked by Israeli forces in 2006, partly as payback. Much of the town now lay in ruin.
The destruction of property, not to mention friends and loved ones, had somehow not interfered with the south Lebanese capacity for hospitality, and my companion and I were quickly ushered into one family’s living room for coffee. This particular family of five had spent the first 10 days of the war in a basement with a multitude of relatives and neighbors before fleeing northward in a convoy of white flag-waving vehicles, the last of which was pulverized by an Israeli missile.
Thanks to this experience, our hosts’ four-year-old daughter now panicked at the slightest sound. She nonetheless appeared more resilient than my friend and me: After learning that there was a two-foot-long unexploded Israeli aerial bomb lying in the unoccupied house next door, we spent the rest of our visit hyperventilating.
During the 2006 war, the Israeli military saturated south Lebanese homes, yards, and fields with up to 4.6 million cluster bombs, a good percentage of which failed to detonate on impact and thus continue to maim and kill to this day. One of Israel’s excuses for such behavior was that Hezbollah was using south Lebanese civilians as human shields, storing weaponry in area homes and launching rockets from civilian areas. Expanding on the Israeli fabrication that much of Hezbollah’s arsenal was located under civilian beds, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reasoned: “When you go to sleep with a missile, … you might find yourself waking up to another kind of missile.”
Of course, even if you didn’t go to sleep with a missile, you were still fair game for a personalized Israeli wake-up call, as plenty of civilians could attest to — like the south Lebanese children massacred while fleeing their villages under Israeli orders. It appears, indeed, that the Lebanese “human shields” so ubiquitously detected by Israel were in fact only elevated to the “human” level at the moment that their humanity could be exploited to demonize the “Party of God” and justify a thoroughly inhumane response to alleged transgressions. More broadly speaking, human rights are granted to victims of Israeli aggression only long enough for said rights to be violated by the likes of Hezbollah or Hamas — at which point the violation is magically avenged via indiscriminate Israeli slaughter.
As scholars Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon demonstrate in their new book The Human Right to Dominate, “the use of human rights to validate and legitimate domination can be seen very clearly … through the discourse surrounding human shields.” In the book, domination is defined as “a broad array of relationships of subjugation characterized by the use of force and coercion.”
In the case of the 2006 war on Lebanon, Perugini and Gordon write, conservative Israeli political actors essentially hijacked human shielding terminology heretofore used to criticize Israeli military habits like forcing Palestinians to walk in front of soldiers in order to deter attacks. Now, Hezbollah’s alleged human shielding was denounced by Israel as a war crime and violation of international law, while Israel’s assault was advertised as being in accordance with that same international law. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a think tank with offices located inside Israel’s Ministry of Defense, explained that international law “does not grant immunity to a terrorist organization deliberately hiding behind civilians, using them as human shields.”
What this meant for Lebanon, in the words of Perugini and Gordon: “[T]he death of ‘untargeted civilians’ is merely collateral — and thus legitimate — damage.”
The bulk of The Human Right to Dominate focuses on Israel/Palestine, an area that embodies this kind of domination rather nicely. The Gaza Strip in particular has served not only as a laboratory for various forms of repression but also as the backdrop for a sort of crash course in displacing the blame for military atrocities onto those atrocities’ victims. Call it “Human Shielding 101.”
During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 foray into Gaza that killed 2,251 Palestinians (most of them civilians, including 551 children), the Israeli army went into social media overdrive in an attempt to warp outsiders’ perceptions of the reality on the ground in Israel and Palestine to the former’s favor. Perugini and Gordon showcase a series of handy graphics that proliferated on official military Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and blogs, emphasizing that human shielding had become “a central trope in Israel’s semiotic warfare.”
One image takes the form of a quiz of sorts, posing the question: “Where do Gaza terrorists hide their weapons?” Lest we think too hard, the answer is readily provided along with simple illustrations: in houses, mosques, hospitals and schools. And what do you know — this pretty much gives Israel carte blanche to attack any and all of these structures, regardless of their human content.
Other graphics include a poster reiterating that houses can be legitimate military targets, a poster warning that “Hamas uses civilians to protect its weapons” and a split-screen comparison between Israel and Hamas: “Some bomb shelters shelter people. Some shelter bombs.” Another poster carries a quote from former Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz asserting that Israel is aware that there are civilians in Gaza, but that Hamas “has turned them into hostages.”
Using such logic, Israeli forces can thus rationalize whatever variety of military obscenity and excess happens to tickle their fancy. As Perugini and Gordon note: “When all civilians are potential human shields, when each and every civilian can become a hostage of the enemy, then all enemy civilians become killable.”
Furthermore, the authors observe, the Israelis’ disinformation campaign works to obscure the “radically disproportionate power differential” that exists between themselves and the residents of the Gaza Strip — who, for example, have no access to bomb shelters despite being on the receiving end of bombardments by F‑16s and drones rather than makeshift rockets that a small number of Israelis near border areas with Palestine are subject to (many of which are intercepted, anyway).
This power differential naturally translates into disproportional casualty figures on the ground: during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008-09 offensive in Gaza, Palestinian civilians perished at a rate of 400:1, in comparison to their Israeli counterparts. But because “international law favors the high-tech states,” as Perugini and Gordon point out, the glaring discrepancy is somehow disappeared on account of Israel’s ever-expanding arsenal of precise weaponry, the purpose of which — the law assumes — is to ensure that utmost care is taken to avoid civilian casualties.
The problem, of course, is that while high-tech violence is seen to be more civilized, “surgical strike” capabilities in the hands of a state built on a policy of ethnic cleansing don’t exactly cohere with the idea of civilized restraint. It also bears mentioning that cluster bombs, an Israeli weapon of choice in Lebanon in 2006, are the diametrical opposite of precise — unless one’s precise goal is to kill indiscriminately.
Meanwhile, to buttress its officially disseminated propaganda, the state of Israel relies on an international mob of volunteer propagandists. Take New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, who endorsed Israel’s strategy of “inflict[ing] substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large [and] exact[ing] enough pain on the civilians … to restrain Hezbollah in the future.” This strategy, he said, “was not pretty, but it was logical,” and should also be implemented against Hamas. In polite society, you’re not actually supposed to advocate for civilian deaths, but such conventions seem to be easily brushed aside when Palestinians are the ones dying.
Additional philosophical assessments have been put forth by former Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz, who in 2006 suggested that there weren’t that many full-fledged “civilians” in Lebanon and Gaza in the first place. Proposing a “continuum of civilianality” to determine just how civilian-like any given individual was, Dershowitz contended that, because the Israeli army had instructed Lebanese civilians to flee the war zones in the south, “those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit” in terrorism. Not established was the degree of “civilianality” pertaining to those civilians killed by the Israeli army while fleeing.
It might be worth drawing up just such a continuum for Israel, a highly militarized society that operates on a universal draft, where upwards of 90 percent of the Jewish population has been known to support any given murderous assault on Gaza. As it so happens, though, a continuum of civilianality de facto existed long before it was articulated by Dershowitz — a continuum of humanity perpetually skewed against Israel’s victims.
Perugini and Gordon stress that “liberal human rights organizations also produce a hierarchy between civilians,” by virtue of subscribing to the notion that civilian victims of precise weaponry constitute legitimate collateral damage, while Israeli casualties of imprecise weaponry — although much fewer and farther between — are victims of war crimes. Following in the footsteps of the Israeli government and its think tanks — which, Perugini and Gordon write, “formulate … sovereign acts of killing as a human right” — liberal NGOs end up “us[ing] human rights to rationalize the deployment of sovereign violence against the dominated.”
Of course, Israel/Palestine is not the only venue in which the human rights discourse fails to jibe with any approximation of the pursuit of justice. When, for example, Amnesty International campaigns against the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, or Human Rights Watch refuses to condemn U.S. drone attacks across the board, the very concept of “human rights become[s] organic to domination,” lending itself to the dominant powers’ interests and frequently entailing rampant violations of these very rights.
Because international human rights and humanitarian laws so often function on behalf of the dominant, Perugini and Gordon conclude, what’s required is a critique of these laws themselves. Otherwise, it seems, the dividing line between expendable and nonexpendable lives will remain firmly in place, and moral wrongs rather than human rights will continue to be the order of the day.