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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Hezbollah's Perverse Use of Human Shields

The Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah has embedded itself within the infrastructure of southern Lebanon, dispersing its fighters and weapons across hundreds of densely populated civilian neighborhoods, mosques, schools and hospitals. Use of the Lebanese people as human shields is a clear violation of international law, yet the group does so to take advantage of Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) practices requiring extraordinary measures to minimize civilian casualties.

Unfortunately, there are limits to how much the IDF can protect Lebanese civilians should Hezbollah attack Israel from population centers. “[T]hese are not civilian villages, they are military bases,” noted then-IDF Commander of the Northern Command (and current Chief of Staff) Gadi Eisenkot in a 2008 statement.

The Second Lebanon War

In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah repeatedly used human shields to further its attacks on Israel during the Second Lebanon War. Hezbollah indiscriminately fired more than 4,000 rockets and mortars from densely populated regions of southern Lebanon at Israeli civilian towns and villages—forcing 700,000 Israelis from towns like Kiryat Shemona, Afula and Ma’alot into air raid shelters.

Hezbollah clearly violated international law in its treatment of both Israeli and Lebanese civilians. The Geneva Conventions, which govern the rules of armed conflict, specifically prohibit the use of civilians as human shields. Article 58 of the Conventions’ Additional Protocols requires parties to a conflict to “avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.”

Despite the fact that Article 28 of the Convention permitted Israel to target Hezbollah missile sites in populated areas, the Israeli military strove mightily to minimize Lebanese civilian casualties, often exceeding its obligations under international law. Jerusalem put its own soldiers at risk by repeatedly warning residents—and thereby Hezbollah—in southern Lebanon through leaflets, phone calls and radio announcements to leave certain areas that Israel intended to hit. And, the Jewish state limited Lebanese civilian casualties while risking increased hazard to the IDF by avoiding air strikes and mounting ground force incursions against Hezbollah targets in densely populated areas.

Hezbollah’s Continued Strategy of Using Human Shields

Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has doubled down on its human-shield strategy. The terrorist group has converted over 200 Shia villages between the Litani River and the Israeli border into military strongholds in which civilian and Hezbollah facilities stand side-by-side. To acquire these areas, the militant group manipulates and coerces the civilian populations into hiding its arms and contraband. For example, it has reportedly offered reduced-priced housing to poor Shia on the condition that they allow the storage of rocket launchers in their homes.

In the small hilltop village of Muhaybib, Hezbollah has established command posts, rocket launching sites, antitank positions and underground tunnels—35 of the village’s 90 buildings are being used by the group. In the nearby larger village of Shaqra, it has fortified an additional 400 military sites and facilities. According to Israeli Air Force Commander Major General Amir Eshel, Hezbollah has even constructed underground missile sites in some heavily built-up areas of south Beirut. One Israeli defense official declared that, “The [Lebanese] civilians are living in a military compound.”

Hezbollah’s Increasingly Advanced Arsenal

To make matters worse, since 2006, Hezbollah has dramatically enhanced its weapons stockpile.  Hezbollah now deploys approximately 150,000 rockets and missiles—the vast majority of which are stored in civilian areas. Included in this total are several thousand long- and medium-range missiles equipped with sophisticated guidance systems. Hezbollah can now reach every Israeli city, town, and military installation. In a future conflict, Hezbollah could launch well over 1,500 rockets and missiles per day (compared with only 120 per day in 2006) at Israel. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens has noted that, “Hezbollah will come to the next confrontation with Israel far better prepared and more capable of bringing destruction to Israel’s cities.”

While Israel’s new multi-tiered missile defense systems, including Iron Dome and David’s Sling, would intercept some of Hezbollah’s projectiles, the sheer number of ballistic missiles and unguided rockets that the group could launch would likely saturate Israeli defenses. In that case, Israel would be compelled to destroy from the air Hezbollah’s threatening military infrastructure—underground bunkers, rocket launch sites, and tunnels.  Such attacks would be permitted under international law, but would undoubtedly result in greater civilian casualties.  Unfortunately, given the growing quantity and sophistication of Hezbollah’s expanded arms caches, IDF ground forces or special operations teams alone would be unable to neutralize such sites quickly enough to protect Israel’s citizens.

While the IDF is dedicated to limiting Lebanese civilian casualties, it must always remember that its primary duty is to protect its own citizens. “In 2006 all the long-range rockets were inside rooms in houses,” said former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin. “We already made it clear…that people in the villages do not have immunity if we have intelligence that they intend to fire at Israel. It is our duty to prevent attacks."

Despite Israel’s extensive efforts to minimize casualties, Hezbollah’s cynical use of human shields ensures that many innocent Lebanese civilians will pay the price in any future conflict. To minimize these prospective civilian losses, the Lebanese government and the international community should insist that Hezbollah take its weapons and fighters out of populated areas and spare Lebanese civilians the price of Hezbollah’s terrorist operations. 

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report