As the Israeli military campaign against Gaza rages on, the propaganda campaign on both sides has been forced to focus once again on the issue of Hamas' using Palestinians as human shields and civilian structures as military structures. As much as the practice of using human shields is reprehensible, the defenders of Israel forget the simple fact that there is no moral defense for targeting civilians just because they have been used, willingly or not, as human shields. As Amnesty International, puts it, "Under international humanitarian law even if 'human shields' are being used, Israel's obligations to protect these civilians would still apply."
Notice that they put the term human shields in scare quotes. This is because the term is so loosely defined that is almost impossible to pin down. Consider the wording of The Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977:
General protection of civilian objects
1. Civilian objects shall not be the object of attack or of reprisals. Civilian objects are all objects which are not military objectives as defined in paragraph 2.
2. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.
3. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.
The slippery term is found in items 2 and 3 in the word effective. It seems the attacker considering whether to bomb a civilian object is free to decide what shall be judged an "effective contribution to military action… leading to a definite military advantage." As the attackers consider this decision, they are also sure to think about how likely it is that they would be condemned in an international tribunal and penalized for their decision, according the terms of Article 52. The terms are so vague and fluid that there could be a way to defend almost any decision to destroy a civilian object. Call it the "we felt threatened" defense.
But the loose definitions work both ways. The rationale for placing weapons and soldiers inside or in proximity to civilian objects can be justified if the political entity defending itself is such a small territory that civilian and military objects have to exist side by side. Besides, the boundary between civilian and military objects is always fuzzy. Ever since WWII, the targets of bombing campaigns have been anything that adds to "the enemy's ability to wage war." This includes factories, infrastructure, and, taken its logical end, women who give birth to the next generation of soldiers. As one Israeli MP, a member of an extremist minority party, recently put it, Israel needs to kill all the mothers who give birth to the “little snakes” who grow up to be the next generation of Palestinian fighters.
Nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants have a major role in this discussion of human shields and civilian objects because wherever they exist they threaten the civilians who live near and far from them. Just as the Israel Defense Forces now feel justified in destroying a hospital where they believe Hamas' weapons have been buried, there could be other entities who feel threatened by a neighboring state's possession of nuclear weapons. Or they might feel that their neighbor's nuclear power plant is really a weapons factory. Or they might just have a bad feeling that the country next door is managing its nuclear reactors so unsafely that they wish they could destroy them in a preemptive raid. But look, the sly, devious scoundrels have put their nuclear facilities right in the middle of civilian populations that would be blanketed in fallout! What to do? Of course, the only moral thing is to forget about the raid and spare lives. It may be frustrating to accept, but the enemy's use of human shields has foiled any plan for a preemptive attack.
As it turns out, Israel is one of the worst examples of this phenomenon because it is small and densely populated. Its military installations are scattered throughout the civilian population. Hamas could rightly accuse Israel of turning its entire population into human shields. Furthermore, the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel’s undeclared nuclear bomb factory, is only about 50 km from the city of Beersheeba, population 200,000. With an enormous hazard like this existing in the theater of military operations, it becomes somewhat pointless for one side or the other to point fingers about the abuse of human shields.
For further information on Israel's secret programs for developing weapons of mass destruction, see the website Armagedon, especially its page on nuclear weapons development at Dimona. The website was created by a group of "Israeli journalists, writers, philosophers and activists who oppose WMD." They have used the Internet to challenge the veil of secrecy that has existed in Israel for sixty years. Their website is hosted in New Zealand, and they defend their actions by adding that nothing they have published is a state secret. They are merely commenting on and promoting information that has already been published in various places throughout the world.