CNN has a problem with Israel. The host of the network’s main news show, Christiane Amanpour, displays her antipathy to Israel every chance she gets. CNN’s Israel correspondent Frederik Pleitgen is similarly unsympathetic. And CNN’s Isa Soares, host of another news show, has shown a similar animus toward the Jewish state. On May 10, she interviewed former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on the PIJ’s practice – which is also the practice of Hamas – of hiding rockets, rocket launchers, and fighters in civilian areas, in or near apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, and other non-military targets. The civilians in them are used by the PIJ as civilian hostages, whose presence is meant to deter Israeli attacks. More on Soares’ remarks during that interview can be found here: “CNN International Host Blames Israel for Terrorists Using Human Shields,” by David M. Litman, Algemeiner, May 12, 2023:
CNN’s Isa Soares has a problem with human shields, but not with those who use them.
During an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on May 10, 2023, the CNN International host pinned responsibility for the death of human shields used by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) on Israel — instead of those who intentionally hide behind civilians.
She asked: “Now I’ve heard the argument often made that militants — and you hinted there — use civilians as human shields. But doesn’t Israel have an obligation to work around those shields here?”
Just how should Israel “work around those shields”? Presumably, Isa Soares thinks the IDF should not attack wherever those human shield are present. That would mean the IDF would refrain from attacking almost everywhere in Gaza, given the omnipresence of those civilian shields around every military target. That would create a situation where PIJ operatives would continue to launch rockets into Israel – by May 13, the PIJ had fired almost 1000 of them into Israel, aimed deliberately at civilian towns and cities – while Israel would be constrained from responding with fire of its own to halt those PIJ attacks, lest it hit those Palestinian human shields.
A journalist needing a review of why using human shielding is unlawful and morally wrong is in itself concerning.
As explained by Michael N. Schmitt, a renowned expert and professor on the laws of armed conflict, the basic presumption behind the use of human shields is “that the prospect of killing civilian shields may dissuade an attacker from striking.”
That deterrence can work in the form of moral concerns, but it can also work such that the “intended operation would be prohibited due to the presence of sufficient numbers of civilians” or where “the attacker’s operations might be perceived as unlawful.” As Schmitt elaborates, “images of dead and injured civilians transmitted across a globalized media (which often pays little heed to the military rationale of an operation) can make it appear as if the attacker has mounted inhumane operations,” [emphasis added]. This reality may also force a party to abandon a strike because of “possible negative communicative consequences.”
And indeed, Israeli pilots have refrained from airstrikes when they have noted the presence of “too many” civilians. But they have to weigh the significance of the target, as well as the likelihood, and estimated number, of civilian deaths. In the case of the three senior commanders killed on May 9, the three men targeted were considered sufficiently important to take out, even if their wives and children would also die in the airstrike. But Israeli pilots have refrained from carrying out missions when they have spotted civilians, especially children, too near to the target.
This is exactly what terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad and Hamas hope for. Indeed, it is well known that Hamas extols the virtue of human shielding to its fighters because the death of human shields “increases the hatred of the citizens” against Israel, and because the IDF “must limit their use of weapons and tactics.”
This is a classic example of lawfare, as articulated by Major General Charles J. Dunlap: “the strategy of using — or misusing — law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective.”
By placing the responsibility [for civilian deaths] on Israel, Soares feeds directly into the narrative that terrorist organizations like Hamas have sought to create.
It is an uncontroversial position that the responsibility for harm to civilians in a case of human shielding is assumed by the party engaging in the practice (see section 5.16.5 of the Department of Defense Law of War Manual). It is true that the attacking party still has an obligation to take feasible precautions. Similarly, the principle of proportionality still applies, and may render certain strikes unlawful regardless of the other party’s cynical exploitation of civilians (“However,” according to the DoD, “the enemy use of voluntary human shields may be considered as a factor in assessing the legality of an attack”).”
The party that deliberately uses human shields is the one responsible for their deaths. This does not mean that the attacking party has no responsibilities. It must take “feasible precautions.” How easy is it to call off a mission in time? A pilot can abort a mission if he spots too many civilians, but what if the attacking party can’t see the target, but is shooting rockets into it from a considerable distance? Who decides what constitutes an “unacceptable” level of civilian casualties? We know that between May 9 and May 13, in five days of fierce fighting, Israel has managed to keep Palestinian civilian deaths to below 30, an astonishingly low figure. That suggests it has met its responsibility to take “feasible precautions” to minimize civilian deaths.
But even assuming Soares understands how the laws of armed conflict work, her question completely erases the fact that responsibility always ultimately lies with the party using human shields.
As eloquently explained by Professors Geoffrey S. Corn and Rachel E. VanLandingham in the context of the May 2021 war:
What Hamas is exploiting is a deeply embedded confusion between cause and responsibility that allows for spread of distorted legal narratives. Israeli attacks may cause damage and destruction, but the responsibility for the tragic impact on Gaza civilians belongs exclusively to Hamas. This is because the terror organization pervasively and illegally exploits the presence of civilians to shield its targets and complicate IDF attack decisions. And Hamas knows that no matter the attack decision the IDF makes, it wins: If the IDF exercises restraint, Hamas wins a tactical benefit, but if the IDF launches the attack, Hamas wins a strategic information benefit by exploiting the attack’s collateral civilian impact.
Hamas in 2021, and PIJ in 2023, have both made extensive use of human shields in Gaza. The calculation is simple: if the IDF calls off an attack because of its desire to limit civilian deaths, the terror group that avoided being attacked has won a victory, and may continue to keep its weapons and fighters in the same place, surrounded by the same human shields; if, on the other hand, Israel attacks the target, unavoidably causing some civilian deaths, the terror group in question can paint Israel as a villain “deliberately” killing civilians, a charge that the army of Israel haters are quite ready to accept.
This is not to say that Soares can’t or shouldn’t ask Israeli leaders hard questions. But journalists should not serve, unwittingly or not, the strategic objectives of those who deliberately put civilians in harm’s way. As the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states, “journalists should balance the public’s need for information against potential harm.”
By playing directly into the hands of PIJ, Soares is only encouraging the terrorist organization to continue engaging in its cynical exploitation of its own civilian population. Moreover, the use of human shields doesn’t just threaten Palestinian civilians. As we’ve seen in just the last few days, it often forces the IDF to call off strikes, inhibiting its ability to protect Israeli civilians who are being indiscriminately targeted by Palestinian rockets.
Soares makes no criticism of the use of human shields by the PIJ, nor does she praise Israel for having called off some airstrikes because of the likelihood of civilian deaths. She is intent on blaming the IDF alone for civilian deaths, never those who have deliberately put those civilians in harm’s way.
Unfortunately, the benefit of the doubt — that Soares’s inquiry was borne out of ignorance of the law rather than malice toward Israel — becomes academic when one examines how Soares followed up on the question.
Soares: Now I’ve heard the argument often made that militants — and you hinted there — use civilians as human shields. But doesn’t Israel have an obligation to work around those shields here?
Bennett: Israel has an obligation to defend its people. What would you do, Isa, with your kids? Would you allow them to be next to rocket launchers?
Soares: No, I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t target civilians, sir. And this is my question to you.
Bennett: No, nobody’s targeting civilians, Isa. Nobody is targeting civilians.
Bennett misspoke. What he should have replied is this: “No Israelis are targeting civilians. We are always trying to minimize civilian deaths among the enemy. It is the PIJ that wants more civilian deaths, both among its own people, and among the Israelis. It uses human shields to ‘protect’ its weapons hideouts and PIJ fighters, indifferent to the deaths of its own civilians, to accomplish the first, while wantonly hurling rockets into civilian areas of Israel to accomplish the second.”
Soares: So are you accusing Mr. Bennett, are you accusing those children of being part of this?
Bennett: No, I’m accusing Islamic Jihad of murdering its own children by cynically shooting rockets at Israeli children, but surrounding their own weapons with civilians in Gaza. There is no method that is more cowardly than what they’re doing, and shame on them.
Soares goes from acknowledging that civilians were human shields to suddenly claiming they were the targets. It’s a partisan charge that accomplishes little more than exposing Soares’ inability to be objective on the subject. She only compounds her reprehensible partisanship by putting words in Bennett’s mouth and suggesting he accused “children of being a part of this.”…
Soares twists the facts to suggest that the human shields – the Palestinian civilians – are being “targeted” by Israel, when she tells Bennett that “I [as opposed to you] wouldn’t target civilians.”
She still doesn’t get it: it is the PIJ that puts its own civilians, especially children, in harm’s way. It is Israel that recognizes its responsibility to minimize civilian casualties, and does so by halting missions if, in the opinion of the pilots involved, the number of civilian deaths is likely to be unacceptably large. The final response to Soares should be this: after five full days of fighting, when Israel hit 197 targets all over Gaza, fewer than 30 Gazan civilians have died. There is not an army anywhere that comes close to Israel in minimizing civilian deaths. What can the execrable Isa Soares possibly reply?