fact_108x60“Hamas is using them, Palestinians, as human shields.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, 20 July 2013

There is no dispute that Palestinian civilians tend to suffer disproportionately when the Arab-Israeli conflict boils over into violence.

At time of writing, more than 700 Palestinians have died in the latest fighting, compared to 35 on the Israeli side, 32 of them members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The lop-sided human cost of this conflict is entirely in keeping with previous outbreaks of fighting.

More than 7,500 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis have died since the outbreak of the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 2000, according to the Israeli human rights information centre B’Tselem.

All of this is often used as evidence of the brutally disproportionate nature of the military action Israel periodically launches in the occupied territories.

But the Israeli military has blamed high Palestinian casualty rates in the recent fighting Gaza on Hamas, saying the Islamist group that runs the enclave has a deliberate policy of placing its own civilians in harm’s way.

The analysis

Actually Hamas has made no secret of advocating the use of civilians as human shields to try to face down Israeli aggression.

A senior spokesman for the group, Sami Abu Zuhri, gave an interview on Palestinian station al-Aqsa TV earlier this month.

He said: “This attests to the character of our noble, jihad-loving people – who defend their rights and their homes with their bare chests and their blood.

“The policy of people confronting the Israeli warplanes with their bare chests in order to protect their homes has proven effective against the occupation… we in Hamas call upon our people to adopt this policy in order to protect the Palestinian homes.”

Credible reports from journalists in Gaza suggest some civilians are choosing to stay in their homes, ignoring warnings of imminent destructions that the Israeli military gives via telephone calls or empty shells “knocking on the roof”.

On the same day as Mr Abu Zuhri was broadcasting Hamas’s message, the New York Times reported the fate of a Palestinian man, Salah Kaware, who received a telephone warning that his house in Khan Younis in south east Gaza was about to be hit by the IDF.

The newspaper reported that another warning came as the occupants were leaving, when an Israeli drone fired a flare at the roof of the three-storey home.

“Our neighbours came in to form a human shield,” Mr Kaware said, with some even going up on to the roof to try to prevent a bombing.

Seven people died in the attack.

On 10 July the UN released a situation report which deplored the civilian casualties but added: “In most cases, prior to the attacks, residents have been warned to leave, either via phone calls by the Israel military or by the firing of warning missiles.”

But the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Interior has told residents not to pay attention to the IDF warnings.

It issued a directive “calling all our people not to deal or pay attention to the psychological warfare carried out by the occupation through rumours that broadcast across his media and delivering publications and communications on the phones of citizens”.

We don’t know how many of the Palestinian fatalities are the result of people choosing to ignore warnings from the Israelis.

We do know that some civilians have died after being hit with no warning – like the four Palestinian boys from the same family who were killed on Gaza beach last week.

There are also reports of people being given insufficient time to get clear of their buildings before the shells or missile hit.

Some journalists in the conflict zone report that civilians may be reluctant to flee their homes even after receiving warnings because they believe it is safer to stay indoors during the bombardment.

Placement of Hamas missiles

Israel says Hamas is inviting civilian casualties by placing its rockets in residential areas, next to hospitals, mosques and schools – all of which have been hit by Israeli strikes in recent days.

There is some independent evidence that this may be true, but we don’t know how widespread the practice is.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has confirmed that Hamas rockets have been found in two of the schools it operates in Gaza.

Israel has released numerous satellite images of what is says are Hamas command and firing positions very close to civilian houses in residential neighbourhoods in Gaza – but most of these are unverified by independent sources.

It could be argued that there is nowhere else for the militants to place their missile batteries, given the urban density of the Gaza Strip.

The enclave is sometimes said to be the most densely populated place on earth, although this is an exaggeration. It is very crowded, though less so than Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong and other cities.

The verdict

Hamas has made no secret of its policy of encouraging civilians to face down Israeli attacks “with their bare chests”.

But we don’t know how many people have followed this advice, so it’s difficult to say how far Hamas can be blamed for the civilian deaths.

We do know that rockets have been stored in UN-run schools, which may or may not add credibility to Israel’s broader claims that Hamas has a habit of operating in civilian areas.

Even if all these things turn out to be true, they may not exonerate Israel from the accusation of war crimes being levelled by the UN’s human rights chief Navi Pillay.

Israel’s conduct could still be found to be “indiscriminate” or “disproportionate” if it led to excessive civilian casualties or failed to distinguish between military and civilian targets, regardless of the behaviour of Hamas.