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Foreign Policy in Focus

The Democrats and the "Human Shields" Myth

Stephen Zunes

Israelis from across the political spectrum, emboldened by the interim report from the government's Winograd Commission, which investigated Israel's ill-fated assault on Lebanon, are expressing regrets over last summer's conflict with their northern neighbor. Uproar over the way a relatively minor border incident managed to escalate into a full-scale war is leading to demands for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's resignation and other top government officials are under pressure or stepping down.

Meanwhile, in the United States Congress, leaders of both parties are not only still defending Israel's decision to go to war, but its conduct of the war as well.

During the five weeks of fighting, 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 Israeli civilians were killed. It was the Lebanese who suffered the most, however. Massive Israeli bombardments took the lives of more than 1,100 people, the vast majority of whom were innocent civilians, and caused more than $3.5 billion in damage to the country's civilian infrastructure and widespread environmental damage.

Moral and Legal Responsibility

Yet Congress continues to justify last summer's widespread attacks on civilian targets by the U.S.-supplied Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) by claiming that Hezbollah used the Lebanese civilian population as "human shields," thereby seeking to protect America's closest Middle East ally from its moral and legal responsibility for its war crimes.

For example, on April 25, the House of Representatives passed by a near-unanimous voice vote a resolution (H. Res. 125) claiming that "throughout the summer of 2006 conflict with the State of Israel, Hezbollah forces utilized human shields to protect themselves from counterattacks by Israeli forces." In defense of the Bush administration's controversial backing of Israel's 35-day assault on Lebanon, the Democratic-led House cited President George W. Bush's claim that "Hezbollah terrorists used Lebanese civilians as human shields, sacrificing the innocent in an effort to protect themselves from Israeli response" and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assertion that "`Hezbollah and its sponsors have brought devastation upon the people of Lebanon, … exploiting them as human shields."

In an effort to make the case that it was Lebanese, not the Israeli armed forces, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, the resolution goes as far as claiming that "the majority of civilian casualties of that conflict might have been avoided and civilian lives saved had Hezbollah not employed this tactic."

Similarly, as Israeli peace activists began protests against their country's attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon last summer, the House of Representatives passed a resolution (H. Res. 921) defending the Israeli government's controversial policies, praising "Israel's longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss" and welcoming "Israel's continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties." The resolution, co-sponsored by Tom Lantos (D-CA)—whom the Democrats have subsequently elected to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee—passed by a 410-8 vote with four abstentions, also condemned Hezbollah for "cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields, locating their equipment and bases of operation, including their rockets and other armaments, amidst civilian populations, including in homes and mosques."

The problem is that it appears that none of these claims appear to be true.

No Evidence Found

Investigations by independent human rights groups during last summer's fighting did not find clear evidence that Hezbollah deliberately used civilians to shield their personnel or equipment from Israeli strikes. For example, a detailed study published at the end of the fighting in August by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that they had found "no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack." Similarly, Amnesty International, in a well-documented report published in November observed, "While the presence of Hizbullah's fighters and short-range weapons within civilian areas is not contested, this in itself is not conclusive evidence of intent to use civilians as 'human shields', any more than the presence of Israeli soldiers in a kibbutz is in itself evidence of the same war crime."

Human rights groups noted that the Hezbollah militia—which, like most militias, is a volunteer force whose members lived with their families — did store weapons in or near homes and some of the militia's hundreds of rocket launchers were found within populated areas, which are indeed violations of international humanitarian law since such practices put civilians at risk. However, Amnesty reported that while "The available evidence suggests that in at least some cases Katyushas were stored within villages and fired from civilian areas," it was only long after most of the civilian population had been evacuated and that it was "not apparent that civilians were present and used as 'human shields'."

As Human Rights Watch noted, even the presence of armed personnel and weapons near civilian areas "does not release Israel from its obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property during military operations." Similarly, Amnesty International noted how Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention also makes it clear that even if one side is shielding itself behind civilians, such a violation "shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians."

Wanton Attacks on Civilian Areas

In any case, the vast majority of Israeli strikes in civilian areas were nowhere near Hezbollah military activity. As Human Rights Watch noted, "In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians."

Similarly, Amnesty International reported that Israeli forces "carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on a large scale," including "those on civilian infrastructure" and "direct attacks on civilian objects." Furthermore, they reported that "These attacks seem to have been aimed at inflicting a form of collective punishment on Lebanon's people" and that "based on the available evidence and the absence of an adequate or any explanation from the Israeli authorities for so many attacks by their forces causing civilian deaths and destruction, when no evidence of Hizbullah military activities was apparent, it seems clear that Israeli forces consistently failed to adopt necessary precautionary measures."

Though subsequent investigations have only reconfirmed that the large numbers of civilian casualties in Lebanon were a result of actions by the government of Israel, not Hezbollah, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), in a debate on the House floor on April 25 insisted that "The key reason that civilian areas were destroyed was the cynical strategy of Hezbollah guerrillas to stage their attacks from the middle of towns and residential areas" and that "the loss of civilian life in Lebanon was due solely to Hezbollah's cruel and uncivilized use of civilian areas as military bases."

Kucinich Raised Concerns

When Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) raised concerns about Israel's use of cluster bombs in civilian areas which have led to the deaths of scores of Lebanese children both during and subsequent to last summer's fighting, Rep. Ackerman responded by insisting that these dangerous anti-personnel weapons were "used in self-defense."

Despite Ackerman's eagerness to defend and cover-up for war crimes by this important Middle Eastern ally of the United States, the Democrats have elected him chairman of the important House Subcommittee on the Middle East, indicative that the new majority party shares their Republican counterparts' lack of respect for international humanitarian law.


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My efforts to ascertain where members of Congress get information to back up their defense of Israeli war crimes have revealed a rather startling inclination to rely on rather dubious right-wing sources for information. For example, following a speech in March, in which Senator Barack Obama repeated the myth that Hezbollah had used "innocent people as shields," I contacted his spokesman as to what evidence the presidential hopeful had to make such charges. He referred me to a report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies, a right-wing Israeli think tank headed by the former chief of the Mossad which maintains close ties to the Israeli government. Despite repeated requests, Obama's office was unable to provide any other source supporting the senator's charge. This underscores serious concerns among human rights activists that Obama and other leading Democrats, like President Bush, have the same propensity to believe the findings of ideologically-driven right-wing think tanks above those of objective scholarship, reputable journalists, or principled human rights groups and other nonpartisan organizations.

Israel's Use of Human Shields

Ironically, while Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights organizations—including the Israeli group B'tselem—have demonstrated that, while there is little conclusive evidence that the Hezbollah militia used human shields as a calculated policy, the Israeli Defense Forces have used this illegal maneuver as a standard practice, particularly earlier this decade following a right-wing coalition coming to power in Israel in early 2001. A recent HRW report notes how "Human Rights Watch and Israeli and Palestinian organizations documented numerous cases of Israeli forces using Palestinian civilians as human shields." Similarly, Amnesty International has reported how Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank "have often used Palestinians effectively as human shields, endangering their lives in violation of international humanitarian law. There have been no Congressional resolutions condemning Israel's use of human shields, however. Congressional Democrats essentially share the Bush administration's practice that if you are perceived as an adversary, your crimes will be exaggerated or even manufactured, while it you are perceived as an ally, your crimes will be covered up.

During the April 25 debate over the resolution condemning Hezbollah for its alleged use of human shields, Representative Dan Issa (R-CA)—a supporter of the measure—pointed out that "The use of human shields in the Middle East is unfortunately widespread" and showed a series of photographs of Israeli forces using Arab civilians as shields, including a 2004 photograph of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy tied to the hood of an Israeli police jeep in the West Bank. In response, Ackerman claimed that soldiers responsible "were charged, and the court found them guilty, and the court banned it." In reality, however, while the Israeli Supreme Court did ban the use of human shields in 2005, no soldiers have been sentenced for engaging in this illegal practice. To the House Democrats' chief spokesman on U.S. Middle East policy, however, the important distinction is that there is "a difference in moral values" between the Arab "perpetrators" and the Israeli "victims" whose only fault is that they may occasionally "go too far . . . in the pursuit of terrorists and evildoers."

From the perspective of Ackerman and most of his colleagues, despite the fact that the majority of Israelis killed in last summer's fighting were soldiers and the vast majority of Lebanese killed were civilians, Hezbollah's violence constitutes "terrorism" whereas the Israelis' violence constitutes "self-defense." In taking this position, these lawmakers are shielding the United States—which provided Israel with most of the ordinance and delivery systems responsible for the carnage and which for weeks blocked a cease fire from going into effect— rom its moral and legal responsibility as well. Indeed, according to this bipartisan viewpoint, neither the United States nor its ally bears any blame for the slaughter of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, since those deaths were actually the fault of their fellow Lebanese.

Discrediting the Human Rights Community

Now having the majority in Congress, the Democrats appear to have made it a priority to use their position to discredit reputable human rights groups in an effort to defend the policies of important U.S. allies. Indeed, some leading Democrats, in a desperate effort to defend human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed Israeli government, have attacked human rights groups directly. For example, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a member of the Democratic Leadership Team, has said that "a lot of those organizations, Amnesty International in particular, have always had bias against Israel."

In reality, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and similar groups with a universal human rights agenda, rather than demonstrating any bias against Israel or any other state, have been quite rigorous in their uniform standards of reporting human rights abuses. Not only has Amnesty International been outspoken against human rights abuses by Middle Eastern governments opposed by the United States and Israel—such as Syria and Iran—but Amnesty also correctly concluded that Hezbollah, in the fighting last summer, had also "committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes." HRW demonstrated how "the scale of Hizbullah's rocket attacks on towns and villages in northern Israel, the indiscriminate nature of the weapons used, together with statements by Hizbullah's leader, showed that Hizbullah carried out direct attacks on civilians as well as indiscriminate attacks and attacks on the civilian population as reprisal."

Human rights groups are not the only target of Congress in its desperate effort to advance Bush's Middle East policy agenda. Members also appear determined to attack the press for daring to report war crimes by America's most important Middle East ally. For example, House Resolution 125 complains that "the news media made constant mention of civilian casualties but rarely pointed to the culpability...of Hezbollah for their endangerment of such civilians." In reality, media watchdog groups noted that the

American news media actually tended to underplay the civilian casualties in Lebanon and uncritically repeated Israeli claims that Hezbollah was to blame.

Why Democrats Defend War Crimes

Despite claims to the contrary by some Democratic members of Congress, it is not likely that their support for Israel's war on Lebanon has been motivated by a sincere desire to show solidarity with Israel since—as the Winograd Commission's report demonstrated—the war actually harmed Israel's legitimate security interests. The popular reaction in Lebanon to the widespread killing of Lebanese civilians by U.S.-backed Israeli forces and the successes by the Hezbollah in resisting the IDF ground offensive has led to a dramatic increase in popular support with Lebanon and throughout the Middle East of the radical and fanatically anti-Israel Shiite group.

In defending Israel's attacks against innocent Arab civilians, the Democrats and their Republican allies will only embolden hard-liners in Israel to use such immoral, illegal and counter-productive tactics in the future.

Nor do claims by apologists for Congressional supporters of such resolutions that to oppose Israel's illegal and self-destructive assault on Lebanon's civilian infrastructure would endanger their chances of re-election. Polls showed that a majority of Americans found Israel's assault on Lebanon last summer at best to have been excessive and every one of the 11 Democratic members of the House who refused to support H. Res. 921 in July 2006 supporting Israel's attacks on Lebanon was re-elected in November by a bigger margin than they were two years earlier.

Perhaps the ultimate reason is that the Democrats' agenda is essentially the same as the Republican administration and their Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill: to cover up for abuses of international humanitarian law by the United States and its allies and discredit human rights organizations that challenge these practices as a means of enhancing the hegemonic role of the United States in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In insisting that the large number of civilian casualties in Lebanon were a result of Hezbollah using the civilian population as human shields, Congress can try to make the case that—contrary to the findings of reputable human rights groups, United Nations agencies and others — Israel's actions were not illegal. Otherwise, under U.S. arms control laws, the United States would be forced to restrict some of the lucrative arms exports to Israel by the politically powerful arms industry.

In addition, by challenging the credibility of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their reports on Israeli violations of international humanitarian law in Lebanon, their reports on U.S. violations of international humanitarian law in Iraq and Afghanistan are less likely to be taken seriously by the American public. Similarly, by depicting Arab militias as sinister terrorists who use innocent civilians as shields, it makes it easier for the United States and its allies—which rely heavily on air power in their counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the heavy civilian casualties that result -- to deny any legal or moral responsibility, even though the death toll from such air strikes greatly surpasses the numbers of civilians killed by the so-called "terrorists."

Just as the American and Israeli people are beginning to challenge the morality and utility of their respective governments' heavy-handed use of military power to address complex political challenges, the Democrats have decided to join the Republicans in rushing to defend it. As a result, it is imperative for peace and human rights groups to challenge the Democrats in Congress who continue to defend Israeli war crimes as vigorously as we do the Bush administration and Republican members of Congress.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the Foreign Policy In Focus Middle East editor.

© 2007 Foreign Policy In Focus

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