Human Shields, Progress, and Agency on the Roof

This essay is part of a symposium on Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini’s Human Shields. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, is a detailed and effective mapping exercise introducing the reader to a growing field of legal and political interactions that center on the unstable dichotomy between killing and protecting civilians in war. Each of its 22 short chapters meticulously contextualizes a particular incident, a set of stories or an interface that illustrates the conditions underlying this field and clarifies many of its ambiguities. All in all, the picture that comes out of this tremendously helpful mapping exercise is bleak: in the “new,” global, and never-ending war, a vast amount of legal work is invested in framing protected civilians as legitimately targetable and justifiably killed. Moreover, the bodies who are being targeted and killed under such legal maneuvers are overwhelmingly brown bodies, ex-colonial subjects whose attempts to integrate as equals into an international legal order are being continuously and violently undermined (168–9). Finally, the logic that denies civilian protection in war zones, is informing attacks on marginalized and racialized citizens participating in protests from the Americas to Europe and the Middle East, from Asia to Australia: “The almost complete erosion of the civilian in Gaza is an omen, a sign of the increasing precarity of citizenship and the protections that it promises” (217).

Appropriately, the book ends with this dark and devastating prophecy. But along the way, the authors also tell compelling stories that detract from it, stories about the cracks in this necropolitical logic and how they can and are being used by strategic actors to take hold of their own, to fight back, and to resist. I want to focus here on one such story to highlight the limit of the logic of human shields and the chances of overcoming it. I would like to argue that this too is an important takeaway from the book: like in any other field of legal politics, in contestations over the legal and political consequences of “human shielding,” there’s never full control over outcomes and significations; within the cracks, civilians who are targeted as “human shields” are creating and inhabiting places of liberation.

The example I’d like to focus on is that of “tapping” or “knocking” on the roof, a warning technique that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) introduced in recent Gaza wars to warn civilians who live in proximity to military targets of an impending attack, a procedure that the US has been mimicking in Iraq. According to the procedure, following a decision to destroy a building in which Hamas members are said to be hiding or ammunition stocked, an IDF communication system places calls to the cell phones or land lines of all residents of the building with an explicit warning. When the residents climb on the roof with the intention of preventing the bombing, the IDF shoots a small missile with limited impact targeting the edge of the roof and causing parts of it to collapse. The people on the roof are expected to understand the seriousness of the warning, run off and allow the IDF to move ahead with its plan and destroys the building. If they do not, they are framed as guilty of blurring the threshold between civilians and combatants and positioning themselves as human shields (177). IDF video clips and military propaganda news items express this message. One of the videos, shot from a drone’s eye shows how after the “tapping” blast, some civilians—tiny moving dots on the screen—run off; suddenly a group returns to the building climbing on the roof to prevent its targeting. “IDF Avoids Civilians Casualties in Gaza, Hamas Increases Them,” is the title of the video. When the little ant-like figures congregate on the roof a message appears: “The IDF avoided striking the building, to avoid civilian casualties.”

In this thanatopolitical procedure, the IDF is positioning itself as the protector of civilians, alerting them to the danger and thus guarding the distinction between civilian and combatant—if they escape as they should, they are worthy of protection. If they do not escape, they become, by default, voluntary human shields—accountable for their own death—justifying their targetability. And thus, as Gordon and Perguini show, while designed to create a façade of protection, to fit well within proportionality tests, to maintain a strict legal distinction between civilian and combatant, the “tapping” technique turns civilians into figures who occupy the threshold and thus blurs the distinction. The residents of the targeted building become “human shields” only after their building is targeted and only because they refuse to follow the course of action communicated to them by an immediate threat of bombing.

But it is here that one can start to see the cracks in the necropolitical logic.

Human rights organizations, the UN, media outlets, scholars and practitioners, have all criticized the technique widely. They claim, for example, that communicating with civilians by bombing them cannot count as warning them, that such warnings are not effective, that they do not reduce casualties, and, in any event, that they cannot affect the status of persons or objects as civilians, that they are used as psychological warfare, that there’s no evidence that Hamas is using Palestinians as human shields, and that even if there was, it would not legally justify Israeli bombing of areas where civilians are known to be present. Inflicting eerie terror on civilians the technique’s cold brutality is also depicted defiantly in Palestinian popular culture, movies, music, and poetry.

From a legal theory perspective too, the dialogue that the “tapping” procedure embodies is full of compulsion. It was designed by IDF lawyers to comply flawlessly with a three-pronged proportionality test that the Israeli Supreme Court articulated as a constitutional principle governing decisions made by officials and policy makers dealing with security interests as well as every other field of policy. It is this careful work of balancing that led to the discard of the people on the roof—their lives and their security can now be legally put to risk by clearly constructing them as rational beings who should be persuaded to get off their targeted home.

But this is hardly the end of the story. There is a multilayered contradictory messaging going on between the different actors and it is full of legal compulsion. At every point, the rational logic aimed at strengthening the support for future violent attacks in Gaza can collapse, fail, radicalize resistance, and expose the utter breakdown of the protector’s façade. In particular, this instability—the inherent ambiguity of the procedure between protecting and killing civilian populations—opens a site for resistance and mobilization. The civilians are standing on the roof as a way to stop the targeting of their home but also as a way to fight back. This is communicated by the military as a “human shielding” technique which serves to legitimize the growing numbers of civilian casualties in the spiraling wars in Gaza. But in the eyes of Palestinians and their allies, in the eyes of those people who are the objects of the procedure—those on the roof and their supporters all over the world—construing civilians as shields to make a legal claim about their targetability is a sham, a cover up, and a failed attempt to excuse atrocity—an utter collapse of law and legality. The military, they conclude, is solely responsible for the harm that it attempts to justify. And from this perspective, from an internal perspective of the people standing on the roof, it is their agency, their participation, their bravery, their risk and sacrifice, their daily attempts to protect their home, their neighborhood, and their city that cannot be taken away from them. And that is triumphant.

If we shift focus from the drone’s eye to the perspective of the civilians on the roof, the story told by the IDF video mentioned above is cracked open and turned upside down. On the same day that the video was taken, testimonies were made by neighbors who climbed on the roof; they too expressed themselves as “human shields” but utterly transformed the meaning of the term from a sign of weakness and abuse to that of strength, unity, and solidarity. “This new phenomenon [of human shields] began,” explains Yousef Alhelou reporting in The Electoronic Intifada,

when Muhammad Baroud, 29, a leader in the Popular Resistance Committees [PRC], received a warning phone call at 8 PM from the Israeli intelligence service ordering him to evacuate his house within 10 minutes because the Israeli air force was going to destroy the house. But he ignored this threat and said, ‘We are not leaving our house.’ Once again his mobile rang, and Muhammad again ignored the warning.

“Muhammad and I,” recalled Baroud’s brother, “went to the rooftop of our house and started chanting slogans ‘Death to Israel! Death to America!,’ and we started shooting in the air. A few minutes later an Israeli F-16 was hovering in the sky above our heads,” he said,

This area is very crowded, and we managed to assemble many people after a man went to a mosque nearby and called people via a loudspeaker to go and support the family and prevent the bombardment of the house. People began to gather around the house, which is a three-storey building and houses five families. We remained inside the house. We were about 1,000 people—men and women—and some of us were on the rooftop and others inside the house and on the street… The whole world and the international community turned a blind eye and failed to protect us from the continuous Israeli attacks. We have to do something, so we are facing the threats of the Israeli F-16 fighter jets. We are ready to be killed and martyred for the sake of God and freedom. We don’t fear the Israelis. We are no better than the children of Beit Hanoun, who were slaughtered while they were sleeping, in the latest Israeli massacre in Beit Hanoun…[1]

This testimony could be read as a confession that fits the IDF narrative, militants are sending civilians to protect a military target. But Baroud’s brother’s story is insubordinate to this narrative. In his story the warning calls set the stage for defiant civilian activism. A whole community is mobilized to resist the attack. The residents go on the roof, chant slogans and shoot in the air, the crowded neighborhood is getting ready, a man goes to the mosque with a loudspeaker to announce that the enemy’s planes are coming, men and women gather around the house and on the roof, and others flood the streets. They have no fear, and they are not dependent on outside help. They are taking on a mighty army with their bare bodies; they vow to protect their homes and the safety of their sleeping children who are victims of the enemy’s raids.

The narrative of civil resistance continues, told by another participant in the demonstrations that day, 31-year-old Issa Radwan:

We came here to protest and to send a message to the Israelis that it does not make a difference for us if we live or die. The Israelis have deprived us of our freedom and [they] still kill us every day, destroy our houses and impose a tight siege on us. They are punishing all Palestinians because of a few individuals…Don’t be surprised if more people become militants and join resistance factions…My message to the international community, especially the Americans, is: Once again you failed to force Israel to halt its attacks and protect us, the civilians. You are always pro-Israel, so don’t be surprised when you know that all Palestinians hate you despite your financial support.[2]

A message is communicated to “the world”: if you don’t protect us, we will do so ourselves. And another neighbor, Um Asa’ad, explains why she and others joined the crowds: “We came here to give our support to Baroud’s family not because he is a commander or because he belongs to a specific faction, but because our houses surround Baroud’s house and for sure will sustain damage.”[3]

A whole neighborhood is rising, men and women, forming barricades with their own bodies in the streets and on the roof, to protect against the brutality that is approaching from the sky. The news item ends with the Israeli military spokesman confirming that the raid had been called off because of the gathering of people. “We differentiate between innocent people and militants,” the spokesman said and accused gunmen of using civilians on the roof as human shields.

But the civilians on the roof have already announced their victory. They used their bodies to stop the mighty forces that came to drop death and destruction on their neighborhood. They cracked the mechanism that was made to justify their targeting. That is—if they are not killed but live to tell the story, and if others listen, support them, learn from them, and pass the message along.

That is—if they are not killed.

The story of the people on the roof, and many other such stories in Gordon and Perguini’s book remind us that the brutal logic of human shields is never in full control of its own narrative and signification. If progress is possible in this area it is not in the hands of lawyers who imagine sophisticated ways to legally frame civilians as “human shields” and legitimate their collateral killing. Rather it is in the hands of those who are struggling for their liberation and find creative ways to live in the cracks, and to resist.


[1]Yousef Alhelou, “Palestinian Mass Resistance Blocks Israeli Air Strike,” The Electronic Intifada, November 20, 2006,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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About Karin Loevy

Karin Loevy is an Emile Noël Fellow at NYU School of Law where she leads the IILJ History & Theory of International Law workshop series and manages the JSD Program. Her first book, Emergencies in Public Law: The Legal Politics of Containment (CUP, 2016) examines emergencies as an area of legal and institutional mobilization and normalization. Her current project, a history of international law in the Middle East, unravels layers of non-sovereign territorial imagination in legal and diplomatic instruments on the way to the mandate system (1915-1923). An overview of this project won an ILR Prize for unsolicited articles.