The human shields of Mosul


How the international coalition is framing civilians in Iraq as ISIL’s human shields.

Iraqi firefighters look for bodies buried under the rubble, of civilians who were killed after an air strike against Islamic State triggered a massive explosion in Mosul, March 27 [Reuters]
Iraqi firefighters look for bodies buried under the rubble, of civilians who were killed after an air strike against Islamic State triggered a massive explosion in Mosul, March 27 [Reuters]



Nicola Perugini is lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.



Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme visiting fellow at SOAS, University of London.

In the past few months the Iraqi army, backed by the US military, has intensified its efforts to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL).  Given the urban context, civilians are paying an extremely heavy price. Indeed, as many as 200 civilians died in mid-March following a US air strike on Mosul al-Jadida neighbourhood. Rescue teams were digging out bodies from the debris for days in what residents described as a “hellish onslaught” and Iraqi officials referred to as the worst US-instigated civilian toll in Iraq since 2003.

In the wake of the Mosul massacre, the military began an investigation into what went wrong. In a press conference, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis claimed that the “enemy hides behind women and children”, intimating that ISIL (also known as ISIS) deploys civilians as human shields – an egregious crime according to international law. What Mattis ultimately meant, however, was that the US and Iraqi militaries abide by the laws of war, while ISIL is actually the one to blame for the high civilian death toll in Mosul.

This accusation has become a common refrain in many contexts of contemporary urban warfare where the mere proximity of civilians to the fighting effectively transforms them into human shields. It has served as the justification for the murder of civilians when the joint Russian-Syrian regime bombed hospitals in Aleppo as well as in the Saudi-led coalition bombings in Yemen, while Israel has invoked the same argument time and again, both in its war in Lebanon and, more prominently, in the last two wars in Gaza.

Given that warfare is increasingly taking place in urban spaces, more and more civilians living in besieged cities are being framed as shields in order to justify high civilian casualties. Indeed, when men, women and children decide to stay in their homes during the fray they can easily be converted into human shields and, as a consequence, can lose some of the protections bestowed upon civilians by international law.

Like colonial subjects

In order to make sense of how and why human shields clauses are being invoked so widely by a range of different actors, we need to understand the intertwined history of colonialism and international law.

In the past, when colonial militaries killed the indigenous population, they did so with impunity, since the colonised were considered outside international law’s sphere of application.

First, the coalition framed them as human shields who were being exploited by ISIL. Next, the coalition dropped leaflets asking these same residents to remain in their homes. Finally, the coalition bombed the area where it dropped the leaflets.

Following decolonisation, the category of civilian and the distinction between civilians and combatants were extended to the ex-colonised, who were then guaranteed protection under the laws of war. Thus, for the first time in modern history the killing of civilians in Africa, the Middle East and in other previously colonised regions was considered a crime according to international law.

Accordingly, within our current postcolonial era international law applies to all civilians, even as most fighting takes place in civilian spaces often located in the ex-colonies. It is precisely within this context that we must situate the emergence of the legal phrase human shields, since it, in effect, helps transform civilians into legitimate targets – often along racial lines.

During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, Israel maintained that it took all necessary precautions to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties. Israeli military and legal experts claimed that since the Israeli army dropped leaflets and used other warning methods in order to allow civilians time to leave, those who remained were either belligerents or human shields and therefore the use of lethal violence in the area did not violate the laws of war. Indeed, according to Israel, Hamas was to blame for the civilian deaths because it forced the Palestinian population to stay in their homes and fired rockets from civilian areas.

The evisceration of the civilian

The events unfolding in Mosul, however, are even more complex than those that took place in Gaza and other urban settings. While it is true that the same refrain – ISIL is using human shields – has been invoked not only by the US and Iraqi militaries but also by such actors as the United Nations in an effort to legitimise the latest causalities, the recent massacre signifies a new and extremely troubling development.

According to Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser Donatella Rovera“Iraqi authorities repeatedly advised civilians to remain at home instead of fleeing the area” targeted by the coalition, thus clearly indicating “that coalition forces should have known that these strikes were likely to result in a significant numbers of civilian casualties.”

Consequently, Mosul’s residents were left with no choice, and their fate was determined in advance. First, the coalition framed them as human shields who were being exploited by ISIL. Next, the coalition dropped leaflets asking these same residents to remain in their homes. Finally, the coalition bombed the area where it dropped the leaflets.

This toxic mix of framing hundreds of thousands of people living in the areas controlled by ISIL as human shields and then warning them not to leave their homes before bombing the area, constitutes a further acceleration in the evisceration of the civilian and the loss of protections bestowed upon this legal figure by the laws of war. Indeed, a prominent characteristic of the “war against the new barbarians” is the transformation of civilians into people who can be killed legally, like the colonial subjects of old.

Nicola Perugini is a lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme visiting fellow at SOAS, University of London.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy. 


Assange: ‘Trump in Conflict with CIA Over Syria Policy’

This interview with WikiLeaks head Julian Assange might explain John McCain’s recent angry outburst over the Trump Administration’s announcement that ‘Assad can stay’ as leader in Syria. 

Syrianna Analysis: “On the German DW-TV channel, Julian Assange said there is a serious conflict between President Donald Trump and the CIA over Syria. The CIA and other security apparatuses don’t want him to change the foreign policy of Washington towards Syria.”


READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Syria Files

The Israel, Hezbollah Stand-Off, Who Will Blink First?

Mideast Hezbollah Recruiting For Syria
Hezbollah fighters. (Photo: YaLibnan)

Marwa Osman

“Netanyahu crawled to Moscow to beg Putin because he fears the defeat of ISIS, since a victory over ISIS would signal a failure for him and victory for the axis of the resistance”. ~ Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of the Lebanese Islamic Resistance Hezbollah, 15th of March 2017.

You walk across the border line between Occupied Palestine and Lebanon and everything seems quiet and serene, but that tranquility hides a lot of silent buzzing. In fact, the Israeli entity has been working openly and secretly in the land and the sea in preparation for a new Lebanon war and have been acting recently towards that objective.

Israeli war companies have begun testing sea-based drones to patrol regional waters and rain down high-powered missiles against land and naval targets. On March 9, Sputnik reported that the Israeli entity’s Navy had conducted its first testing of a Spike missile from an unmanned surface vehicle. While unmanned aerial vehicles have been increasingly represented across military portfolios, Israel is working now on an unmanned remotely-operated surface vehicle in those Spike missiles.

The heightened Israeli rhetoric soared after the constant Israeli aggression against Lebanese land and airspace urged Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of the Lebanese Islamic Resistance Hezbollah to warn them that any attack on Lebanese soil will result in a counter attack on new targets within the Palestinian occupied territories including a huge ammonia storage tank in Haifa, and a nuclear reactor in Dimona.

As such, recent op-ed in Haaretz concluded that Hezbollah is Israel’s “real threat.

Hezbollah’s capability comprises “the greatest challenge facing the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] and its commander,” Moshe Arens writes.

Israel claims that Hezbollah has the capacity to fire 1,500 rockets into occupied Palestinian territories each day, overwhelming Israel’s missile defense systems.

The resistance’s advanced weapons and the systems needed to launch them reportedly are embedded across a staggering 10,000 locations.

As such, Israeli war analysts keep blaming their consecutive governments for “allowing” Hezbollah’s capability to grow to this point, but now that it’s here they believe it to be the greatest challenge facing the IOF (Israeli Occupying Forces) and its commander.

Thus everyone is now preparing for the next big thing: Hezbollah and Israel are headed for war. This notion remained a matter of question until the recent escalations involving an Israeli strike inside Syria reportedly targeted a weapons shipment meant for Hezbollah. Though the desert of Palmyra would be the last route used by the resistance to transfer weaponry and though the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) issued a statement explaining that it was an SAA base that was hit, Israeli officials still insist they targeted a Hezbollah shipment.

This blatant attack by the Israeli entity prompted a long awaited response by the SAA which launched three SA-5 (S-200) surface-to-air missiles, shooting down one of the Israeli jets over occupied Palestinian land and damaging another. Israel remained discreet on the incident and emphasized that no jet was damaged. However, the conflagration was noteworthy enough for several Israeli newspapers to describe it as “the most serious incident” to occur between Israel and Syria in recent years.

As a result for the past couple of weeks, Israel has been intensifying it rhetoric and gearing up for their next battle with Hezbollah resistance forces by conducting multiple drills on several fronts.

It’s a mission the Israeli occupying forces has focused on intensely in the decade since it fought an inconclusive month-long war with the resistance and frantically bombed Lebanon causing more than 2000 civilian deaths.

Despite its military superiority and the immense amount of air raids it conducted, Israel still cannot fathom the thought that it ended the month long war with a crushing defeat. An Isreali commission of inquiry even found the military to be inadequately prepared for the battle, which broke out after Hezbollah carried out a surprise cross-border mission and captured two Israeli soldiers, and many troops acknowledged that they had underestimated Hezbollah’s capabilities.

Those same capabilities have grown massively after the intervention of Hezbollah in the war against terror inside Syria upon the request of their ally President Bashar Assad.

Although Hezbollah appears to be in no rush to engage in battle against Israel, the resistance group has gained valuable battle experience that has vastly worried Israel, which keeps nagging that Hezbollah has significantly built up its weapons stockpile since 2006 and upgraded its arsenal to more than 150,000 missiles, including longer range and guided systems capable of striking anywhere in Israeli held territories in occupied Palestine.

Israel has been, for the past 6 years, continually attacking Syria, at times killing Syrian civilians and Hezbollah commanders even though they’re not attacking Israel. At a time when Israel truly believed that the resistance doesn’t dare bomb Israeli weapons depots or go after Israeli military figures and that Hezbollah and the SAA are well and truly deterred, the precise S-200 reply hit hard inside the Israeli government’s decision making corridors. Israel kept rubbing its nose in what it imagined was the weaknesses of its enemies. Presently, it knows well it will be faced with a map changing battle.

Now there is no doubt that the “inevitable” next war will begin. The only question remaining now is: Who will strike first?


READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Syria Files


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