There is an intuitive image of Hamas that many people share as much more worse than a ‘conventional’ army would be in their place because of their tactics (i.e. throwing unguided rockets), when in reality its tactics (regardless of normative judgments) are not worse than their alternatives. Ironically, if Hamas had a conventional army and pretended to talk like Israel about wanting to avoid civilians and dropping them leaflets, would one assume that people would be more relaxed about this ‘new look’ of theirs, rather than the more visually disconcerting image of them throwing unguided rockets, even if it meant they killed more Israelis?
A friend of mine (incidentally one of the most people I respect, a member of the Jewish community who has incurred many problems for his anti-Israel views – but he also felt I did not talk about Hamas enough) recently came to me with ‘evidence’ of Hamas firing a rocket from a residential Gaza area, telling me that ‘civilian embedding’ is a real thing. But of course its a real thing, for as many have undoubtedly already heard by now ‘Gaza is an extremely densely populated area’ and hardly has any open space (a fact incidentally emphasised by the footage, a very cramped area with hardly any open space in view). Neither have I ever claimed that Hamas fires only from military/government installments or military areas – nor do I think many else do for that matter; there is hardly any space for ‘military areas’ in Gaza while ‘military installments’ and government facilities are the first targets and generally get destroyed straight away, meaning that they do not have the capacity to use them. What some have claimed rather, including the notoriously pro-Palestinian New York Times (heavy dose of sarcasm), is that there has been no evidence that Hamas has used ‘human shields’ in the legal meaning of the word; i.e. to hold civilians hostage by forcing them to stay in an area under attack to allow them to fight from ‘behind’ them. So the video didn’t show me anything particularly new or surprising. As a Palestinian friend recently put it to me, ‘In Gaza if you stretch out both your arms one of them will probably hit something’ (an exaggeration, but you get the jist).
Meanwhile, in Israel’s unique and customary fashion of (projected) morose irony, it has recently surfaced that it is in fact the Zionist state which has again explicitly used human shields in its current massacre in Gaza. Nor is this novel for Israel; in 2005 it emerged in an Israeli court that Israel had made use of Human shields an astonishing number of 1,200 times between the years 2000-2005, and this has continued ever since (see here, here, here, and here; and there’s quite a bit of footage on Youtube as well). But let us move on.
Let us talk now in purely military-strategic terms regardless of normative considerations of the military reality Hamas faces today and how it differs from that it encountered in the past. Israeli attacks today tend to overwhelmingly take the form of airstrikes, blockades of the borders, etc. rather than actual ground occupation by Israeli troops of the territory as was the case in the past (which would make troops an obvious target, the reason I believe they ultimately decided to withdraw to effect a less costly yet arguably just as effective occupation). Now in strategic terms the fact that Hamas are generally unable to respond directly to an Israeli attack or strike – for example by targeting an airplane with a anti-aircraft missile or reciprocating by flying its own over Israel – along with the fact that Hamas cannot operate a conventional war (i.e. have its own facilities/military installments or centres which it can protect and use, as mentioned above, as well as obviously the lack of an army or military equipment) leaves them with three main options, a) that they try to infilitrate Israel to attack troops/military installations on the other side (and they get equally blamed and termed ‘terror tunnels’ when they do so), b) that they try to infiltrate to carry out suicide bombings etc. inside Israel, and c) that they fire rockets. The first option has been used but is obviously very difficult to carry out, due to strong Israeli military capabilities, intelligence, border controls, etc.. The second option has stopped being used due to international condemnation, leaving the third option as generically the only viable way of issuing some form of military response. Incidentally there is a myth (an ironic one at that) that having a conventional army/airforce is in a way a good thing, and that Hamas’s unconventional missiles is much worse. The fact is that had Hamas had a conventional military the civilian casualties on Israel’s side would be multiple-folds what they are now!
Some will say ‘Oh but at least they wouldn’t be trying to target civilians as opposed to their indiscriminate rocket fire’, yet the idea that conventional armies do not target civilians is a myth! But lets leave that aside for a second; even going along with the argument that its less morally ‘wrong’ to target another country’s populated areas with conventional militaries rather than unconventional guerrillas because of the different ‘intent’ (i.e. lets accept the premise that with the former ‘civilian casualties are not intentional targets’) – the fact is that the overwhelming evidence of a century that ‘conventional’ bombings of populated areas are incredibly more costly in terms of civilian lives than ‘unconventional’ ones means that regardless of ‘intent’ the sheer consistent *outcome* of so many more innocent deaths means that it is actually much more morally *worse* to continue doing so! In other words, if you’re targeting an area with an F-16 airstrike, even presumably with nebulous intentions of trying to avoid civilian casualties, against targeting an area with a rocket intending civilian casualties; the overwhelming historical (and contemporary) evidence that the former will still ultimately result in much more innocent casualties than the latter means that the consistently means-tested end-result of greater innocent deaths if ignored renders it *morally worse*.
This is of course merely a hypothetical for those who hold that view, it is a myth that ‘generically’ conventional militaries do not ‘intend’ civilian casualties any more than non-state actors (or at least try to apply more caution); it it not true that with a conventional army ‘at least you’re not trying to intentionally target civilians’; when has this been the case? This is an absolute fiction, the historical evidence from the last century of offensive wars show that practically every single army that launches airstrikes on cities know – and moreover *intends* for there to be civilian casualties, because they see that as a necessary part of what war entails (killing civilians is a massive damage to the government which is unable to protect them, hence it is ’emasculated’ in comparative terms and much weakens its authority) and *just as relevant* to it as targeting military forces.
What’s the point of me saying all this? Well because there is an intuitive image of Hamas that many people share as infinitely much more worse than a ‘conventional’ army would be in their place, because of their tactics (i.e. throwing rockets), when its tactics (regardless of normative judgments) are not worse than their alternatives. Ironically, if Hamas had a conventional army and pretended to talk like Israel about wanting to avoid civilians and dropping them leaflets, would people be more relaxed about them, rather than the more visually disconcerting image of them throwing unguided rockets, even if it meant they killed more Israelis?
Ultimately regardless of one’s own views on Hamas, they are not exceptional in terms of guerilla tactics nor are they that different from other guerrilla groups which have historically operated within civilian areas (that’s not to say that they are necessarily right in everything they did either); look at the Algerian resistance to the French, they operated in populated areas as well and hid amongst civilians (and targeted French settlers). With guerrilla movements generally there is often no clear ‘military-civilian’ dichotomy as the (civilian) community tends to support the resistance (of whichever form). The Fourth Geneva Convention gives an occupied people the right to resistance – with force of arms if necessary – against an occupied power to achieve self-determination. While this does not entail the wording of ‘targeting of civilians’, it does entail the wording of ‘war’; ultimately therefore it comes down to whether it is preferable for Hamas (or any other Palestinian armed group) to carry out this resistance through locally-made rockets or a conventional army with modern-day bombs, missiles and tank-shells. Would that be more comforting for those who cite Hamas’s ‘indiscriminate’ rocket attacks as an incomparably exceptional evil? Presuming that the answer to this would be the obvious ‘no’, and presuming that the option for violent resistance is say still chosen (as it is entitled to be under international law), the legitimacy of Hamas’s military tactic of throwing rockets in the complex setting of Gaza thus comes down to whether doing so is something the civilians of that area accept and are behind, as opposed to them doing so when the civilians are against it.
Again, this is separate from any normative judgement entailing me ‘relishing’ that Hamas should throw rockets, what I am saying is that this is the objective reality regardless of what I think of Hamas. Is it a pleasant situation? No, it is not. And this is why we must put the onus on Israel, because in human terms they have left the blockaded, hungered, imprisoned and massacred people in Gaza, who have nonetheless still not lost their natural human sensibilities (anger, justice, etc.), with two choices; either they do not respond at all to Israel (which would require on their part either immense self-restraint or that their will has finally been broken – with God’s will this will not happen) and continue with their slow-death, or they do so in the form they are doing now (unless it can find a more efficient military strategy to attack Israeli forces inside Israel, a difficult task considering the restrictions. again, would people prefer if they had an airforce?) Considering the amount of hell they’re living in and considering the amount of anger and feeling of nothing to lose, is the first option realistic (yet alone just) for everyone to accept these constant massacres with no hope of justice, with the best they can hope for being a (routinely-violated) ceasefire and the continuation of a slower death? This is why we put the onus on Israel, because as opposed to most guerilla liberation movements which have their faults and are often engaged in controversial things (look at the ANC during the 1980s), the ultimate source of the problem, as always, remains the colonising occupier who is attempting to wipe a people off the face of their map, and has forced them along with everyone else into this situation. And until the oppressed are liberated from their oppression, we are tied to them by our humanitarian bonds for justice.