French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian recently made an essential statement about the war against terror and the difficulties it involves for Western countries.
Daesh [ISIS] is organized in such a way that children, women, civilians are being put on front lines. Its leadership is hiding in schools, mosques, hospitals, making the action of the coalition in Iraq and the action of France and other partners in Syria difficult, because we don’t want civilian casualties. We pay as much attention to the targets we select as to the need to combat Daesh.
This is a frank admission of the “human shield” tactic practiced by Islamists, and their crippling effect on Western fighting.
Undoubtedly, Le Drian is aware that the United States and other Western partners in the coalition against ISIS are facing the same challenge, and that Israel faces similar difficulties when counter-attacking organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and Fatah-affiliated terror groups.
What remains to be seen is whether he and the French government, now having this experience with human shields, will reconsider their foreign policy regarding Israel.
We asked Colonel Richard Kemp, the former British commander in Afghanistan and an expert about war ethics, to comment on Le Drian’s no-nonsense statement.
PJM: Do LeDrian’s remarks come as a surprise to you?
Kemp: Not in the least. The Islamic State (ISIS) are adept at using human shields and locations protected under the Geneva Conventions. They are war criminals. The comments by Jean-Yves Le Drian are understandable and it is right that so-called collateral casualties are avoided as far as possible; but his comments also indicate the danger of the Western response to Islamist terrorist use of human shields, which often serves to encourage greater use of this tactic and leads to more and more civilian deaths.
PJM: Is the use of human shields common practice among Islamist terrorists?
Kemp: Islamist terrorists everywhere use innocent men, women, and children from their own population as human shields. They also use protected buildings such as hospitals, mosques, and schools to shelter their fighters in, to store munitions, to locate command centers, and to attack from. All of this is illegal under the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC). Islamist terrorists have no interests in LOAC except to the extent that they can exploit their enemy’s — such as French, British and Israeli forces — adherence to it.
Islamist terrorists have no interest in protecting their civilian populations. They are happy to use them as human shields, to terrify them, to risk and to sacrifice their lives. Whatever happens, the terrorist who uses human shields wins. If he deters Western forces from attacking his terrorists and his munitions, then he scores a tactical victory. He can attack our troops with impunity.
On the other hand, if we attack him and kill or wound his human shields, then he exploits this in the world media and there is an outcry. He has gained a strategic victory.
PJM: Did you witness such use in Afghanistan or other places?
Kemp: The Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan frequently use human shields. They drive innocent local people between NATO forces and the terrorists who are attacking them. They force them to stay in place when they know Western forces will counter-attack into that location. They use young boys of 14 years old to throw grenades at NATO troops knowing that we will be reluctant to shoot a child. They have killed British soldiers by booby-trapping mosques and schools, and by attacking them from protected locations and from behind human shields.
PJM: The Israelis say that Hamas constantly resorted to similar tactics in Gaza in the 2009 and 2014 wars, and that most Palestinian civilian casualties were killed in such a context. Is that correct?
Kemp: Hamas have become the masters of human-shield use. Many other terrorist groups have learned from their effectiveness. Hamas know that they cannot do significant damage to Israel by firing rockets at their civilian population or by attacking them from tunnels.
These tactics, combined with extensive use of human shields, are merely designed to force an Israeli defensive response which will inevitably result in Palestinian civilian deaths. They then exploit these deaths in the media to bring international condemnation down onto Israel.
This is the only way they can inflict damage on the State of Israel — and it works.
It works through the isolation of Israel in the world community, the branding of Israeli soldiers and leaders as war criminals, pressuring international bodies such as the UN and International Criminal Court to launch damaging investigations, economic harm to Israel through the BDS movement, worldwide demonstrations against Israel, and increased anti-Semitism around the world which hurts Israel and hurts Jews everywhere.
PJM: What is the appropriate response to such tactics?
Kemp: The international community — national governments, world bodies such as the EU and UN, human rights groups and the media — all take precisely the wrong response to the use of human shields. This has been nowhere stronger or more damaging than in relation to Israel and the Gaza conflict.
Instead of condemning the use of human shields by Hamas, the international community and media condemn Israel out of hand and often without any investigation or consideration of the reality. This plays absolutely into the hands of Hamas.
And the consequence of the international community’s response? To further encourage the use of human shields by Hamas and by terrorists everywhere.
Hamas increased their use of human shields after each conflict when they saw the consequences of doing so.
Hezbollah have learned from Hamas’s success, and have embedded 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel in the civilian communities of southern Lebanon.
By condemning and pressurising Israel rather than Hamas — who are actually responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths — the international community has blood on its hands. This approach ultimately results in more human misery, suffering, and death.
The proper response to human shields is strong condemnation and sanction against anyone who uses them. The international community should not allow the use of human shields to pay.
In military terms, forces should not allow themselves to be deterred by the use of human shields. To do so again plays into the hands of the terrorists and encourages their further use of human shields, ultimately resulting in greater numbers of casualties. Of course they can’t attack without consideration of civilian casualties and they have a duty to minimise civilian casualties in every situation. Under LOAC they must only ever risk inflicting civilian casualties when proportionate to the overall military gain.
If armed forces and politicians continue to allow themselves to be deterred from effective action by human shields, then their use will expand even further, and it will become impossible for Western forces to prosecute military conflict and to defend their countries and their interests. This is, of course, the terrorists’ objective as well as the objective of many activists and supporters in the West.