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Debunking Beheaded Babies, Concert Rapes, And Human Shields: Hasbara Words That Work For Israeli War Crimes, Apartheid, And Genocide


Israel Palestine
  • This is a lengthy piece rebutting pro-Israel misinformation – you can review the intro / tl;dr if you just want a quick summary.
  • If you only read one section in detail, the most important is Section 4 on “human shields” as this is the biggest unchallenged repeated lie.
  • I would also recommend reviewing Section 2 on how pro-Israel talking points were created, and how they are deployed to frame arguments – this will teach you both how they think about issues as well as learn what they know are their own weaknesses and try to avoid.

Introduction and tl;dr

Many of you wonder with justified horror at how the American media consistently favors the Israeli narrative of their victimhood vs the Palestinian case. You look at international media and don’t see the same blackout of Palestinian voices, counterpoints, and humanizing stories. Much of this can be attributed to the organizing power of the Israel Lobby (many of you will think AIPAC, but it is more sophisticated than this and space doesn’t allow for further discussion) and its connections within media, government, and industry (especially the military industrial complex).

The following piece will focus on rhetoric and messaging used by these lobby groups and those they have influence over in government and media, specifically the calculated nature of the words and framing of issues to divert from speaking of Israel’s problems and instead inventing or exaggerating problems on the Palestinian side that are in reality magnitudes of order far worse on the Israeli side. Specifically, we will look at the following:

  1. The Global Language Dictionary aka the Hasbara Manual created by pollster Dr. Frank Luntz and commissioned by “The Israeli Project” media relations lobby and the impact this has had on messaging and framing issues for the American public. We’re providing the full pdf to download and encourage readers to review it (it’s about 116 pages, but it isn’t dense reading).
  2. We will examine claims of beheaded babies and raped women, and whether they have been substantiated (tl;dr they haven’t been, and you can skip to section 2 that provides media coverage on this).
  3. We will examine claims that Hamas is using their people as human shields (they’re not, check out section 4), and show that not only is Israeli army, the IDF, guilty of doing this openly in the past, they have been told to stop by their own high court and continue to do so even now.
  4. While conclusively rebutting these unsubstantiated talking points that go completely unchecked, we will examine the impact and recommendations the Hasbara manual provides either directly or indirectly to monopolize the narrative.
  5. We conclude with recommendations for how to deal with the Hasbara manual and use its findings to our advantage, both in the short-term and long-term, in order to challenge these illegitimate narratives.

At each point, evidence will be provided from independent journalists on the ground, reports from 3rd party human rights groups such as Amnesty International and B’Tselem. While we will share quotes and excerpts from articles and reports, we will provide the links so that if there are any gaps or apparent misrepresentations of context, readers are free to call them out in the comments below.

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In some cases, we will quote a full page of text because the information in reports are in pdf documents that aren’t a simple google search away. This will provide better SEO for others to find this content and perform deeper and more extensive research on these matters.

Finally, if in this research correct attribution is missed, there is no intent to do so – please let us know and we will gladly give credit where credit is due.

The Beginnings of “Words that Work” for Israeli State Terror

On the historic night Americans elected its first Black President, Israeli soldiers raided the Gaza Strip, killing six Hamas soldiers, violating a 6 month ceasefire. This would lead one month later to Operation Cast Lead, a brutal Israeli offensive that killed over 1400 Palestinians and wounded over 5500 more, the vast majority of whom were civilians. In contrast, Israel reported 13 fatalities (4 of whom were from friendly fire). Oxford Professor Avi Shlaim, writing for the Guardian, states:

On 27 December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, pounding the densely populated strip from the air, sea and land for 22 days. It was not a war or even “asymmetric warfare” but a one-sided massacre. Israel had 13 dead; the Gazans had 1,417 dead, including 313 children, and more than 5,500 wounded. According to one estimate 83% of the casualties were civilians. Israel claimed to be acting in self-defence, protecting its civilians against Hamas rocket attacks. The evidence, however, points to a deliberate and punitive war of aggression. Israel had a diplomatic alternative, but it chose to ignore it and to resort to brute military force.

Frank Luntz: “Words that Work” and “Words that don’t Work”

Due to the PR fallout of Operation Cast Lead, Washington-based think tank “The Israeli Project” (TIP) specializing in media relations contracted the services of Frank Luntz to research and provide the best rhetoric to sell all aspects of Israel’s genocide to the American people in favorable, relatable ways. The document wasn’t meant for distribution and was leaked almost immediately to Newsweek (which is why we know about it). The end goal was to make Israel, its war crimes, settlements, ambiguous borders, and more seem nothing more than the actions of a victim defending itself while making the Palestinians seem like unreasonable aggressors.

For example, in Luntz’s research, he found that “78% of Americans supported a two-state solution”, which of course the Israeli government doesn’t. Therefore, in order to manipulate public perception, Luntz encourages positive messaging, agreeing to this goal, but saying the first step is peace and only then two separate states.

He writes this knowing the reason there is no peace is because Israel is an occupier building illegal settlements – how can there be “peace first” when the IDF and settlers are actively sabotaging the thing they claim they want? Luntz writes:

“Peace before political boundaries” sets up the perfect dynamic for you. It elevates the need to stop the rockets, stop the bombings, and create a ceasefire, while subtly downplaying the importance of a two-state solution by calling it “political boundaries.”

Peace always beats politics in the opinion elite’s mind. Always.”

He went on to produce a 116 page document filled with how to position issues in such a way that Israeli’s are a positive, hopeful people that want nothing but peace and the two state solution when in reality, they have no such goal. I encourage you to read the full report here and a second report he did 5 years later here.

Luntz Created the Hasbara Manual to Manipulate What Americans Hear

Luntz contributed to what is known in hebrew as “hasbara” or literally “to explain”, though it is synonymous with “propaganda. When you hear politicians, media personalities, activists, and commentators repeating the same language and rhetoric across different mediums, this isn’t by accident – through a coordinated effort by various lobby groups, the advice in this document is taken to heart and used to maintain Palestinian oppression by monopolizing the public narrative. For example, in this recent escalation when Ali Velshi spoke both about the situation in Israel as well as in Gaza, the ADL came on the network and publicly rebuked any coverage favoring the Palestinian narrative and to only focus on Israeli victims on MSNBC. They further demanded the focus should only be on “terror” from one side. MSNBC has since removed 3 Muslim journalists – Ali Velshi, Mehdi Hasan, and Ayman Mohyeldin as covered by Max Tani of Semafor.

Breaking Points with Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti also covered their removal here:

This isn’t the first time Luntz’s pollster research and reframing of words, issues, and situations was deployed effectively and collectively upon the American psyche. In his book “Words that Work”, he outlines in detail how his work was instrumental in overturning a 50 year democratic majority to a republican-controlled congress in the 90s by helping wordsmith the ideas found in the “Contract with America.” The main point of his book is that in attempting to persuade people “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” and how to effectively control what people hear through the careful choice of words that are used.

And how does he figure out the right words and framing? He puts together focus groups and tests them by asking the same question using different words or showing videos in varying order. After reviewing responses, he determines which words and video sequences best produce the desired outcomes and conclusions. In other words, he’s not interested in what people think about it in principle, but rather how to shift the framing for the average “persuadable” (a person who is basically on the fence) to see whoever has hired him out as the side to be on. Once he figures out the best messaging and framing, all politicians and media personalities will follow the same script using the same words. You may notice when confronted with a question that demands more than a reductive sound bite, rather than answer the question, they return to the sound bite.

As an aside, Luntz has also been involved in helping Israeli lobby groups work on messaging to damage the BDS movement and more about this can be read on the Electronic Intifada here:

Newsweek Calls Out Luntz’s Hasbara Manual on Illegal Israel Settlements

The manual was leaked to Newsweek in 2009 (a time when social media and internet usage wasn’t anywhere near what it is now), and they wrote in their article, “How to Sell Americans on Israeli Settlements”:

Luntz, who has advised mostly Republican candidates, appears to have tested a variety of messages on the focus groups. He concludes that “public opinion is hostile to the settlements,” even among supporters of Israel. “Nothing is tougher to articulate effectively to neutral Americans than a message in favor of the settlements,” Luntz writes.

“Let me be clear about this conclusion. Plenty of Israeli and American Jewish leaders have tried, but American and European audiences rejected almost everything we tested.” Luntz did not respond to NEWSWEEK’s request for comment.

After detailing why three common arguments Israelis use are failing pathways for persuasion, he writes his research indicates the best language is the following (this is quoted from the Newsweek article):

In the report, Luntz describes the “best settlement argument” as one that draws a parallel between the Arab communities in Israel and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank—and refers to the idea of evacuating Jews as racist. “The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can’t be any Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea.”

Instead, he suggests saying. “We don’t say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews. We don’t accept it. Cleansing by either side against either side is unacceptable.”

It matters little to Luntz there’s a substantive difference between people who have legitimately bought and owned property vs those who are trespassing, stealing, and squatting ie occupying land that isn’t their own (as shown the tweet below) – what matters is manipulating what people hear.

The Independent Calls Out the Hasbara Manual on Media Manipulation

In addition to Newsweek, Patrick Cockburn of the UK edition of the Independent wrote in 2014 “The Secret Report that Helps Israel Hide Facts”, after the brutal massacre that occurred during Operation: Protective Edge in which over 1000 civilians were killed compared to 3 for the Israelis:

On every occasion, the presentation of events by Israeli spokesmen is geared to giving Americans and Europeans the impression that Israel wants peace with the Palestinians and is prepared to compromise to achieve this, when all the evidence is that it does not. Though it was not intended as such, few more revealing studies (ie the Hasbara Manual) have been written about modern Israel in times of war and peace.

Cockburn advises the rest of the media (and I advise everyone reading this to take his advice) to read the document, stating:

These are highly illuminating about the gap between what Israeli officials and politicians really believe, and what they say, the latter shaped in minute detail by polling to determine what Americans want to hear (emphasis mine). Certainly, no journalist interviewing an Israeli spokesman should do so without reading this preview of many of the themes and phrases employed by Mr Regev and his colleagues. The booklet is full of meaty advice about how they should shape their answers for different audiences.

The last quote with needs to be emblazoned into everyone’s minds as we delve into the widespread media and political misinformation campaign being waged both now and in the future. Cockburn’s further adds:

Every one of the 112 pages in the booklet is marked “not for distribution or publication” and it is easy to see why. The Luntz report, officially entitled “The Israel project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary, was leaked almost immediately to Newsweek Online, but its true importance has seldom been appreciated. It should be required reading for everybody, especially journalists, interested in any aspect of Israeli policy because of its “dos and don’ts” for Israeli spokesmen.

We know most journalists have not or will not heed this warning. It’s on the rest of us to be aware of these manipulations to bring the discourse back into the realm of substantive examination of the facts rather than the magician’s art of misdirection to take our focus away from where the real problems occur.

Israel’s Biggest Public Weakness and Luntz’s Recommendation: Say “Terror, Not Territory”

Luntz writes in his manual the following discovery from this research:

We asked American opinion elites a simple question: “Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose a two-state solution in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians, where both have independent nations?” (Luntz National Survey, January 2009) We received a very clear answer: Fully and exactly 50% of Americans strongly support a two-state solution. Combine this with the 28.2% who somewhat support it and you have the formula for a landslide in support of giving the Palestinians their own land and their own government. Again… Over 78% of Americans support a two-state solution. So when you’re talking to Americans, you need to know that when you don’t support a two-state solution you risk having a major public relations challenge in America and Europe.

Keeping in mind that Luntz has told the Israelis that the question settlers is a losing issue even with pro-Israel supporters among Americans polled, his recommendations around “terror, not territory” are to keep the focus on delaying territory talks (and Americans largely favor Palestinians keeping their territory) until the terror part of the equation is removed, namely Hamas.  Therefore, the focus should be on peace, then boundaries.

How does this figure into the current media narrative – it amps up the focus only on Hamas, only on Israeli civilian casualties, and attempts to further entrench a terror narrative, of being on the defensive, when in fact the opposite is true. We will return to this after reviewing the unsubstantiated allegations spread irresponsibly by journalists and politicians.

Did Hamas Behead 40 Babies or Rape Women?

President Joe Biden stated, “I never really thought that I would see, have confirmed, pictures of terrorists beheading children.” The White House quickly walked these comments back stating the President meant that he had heard about it. Aljazeera reports:

Unverified claims about the beheading of Israeli children and sexual assault of hostages by the Palestinian armed group have gone viral on social media in the days following Saturday’s attack.

In a response to questions by The Washington Post, a White House spokesperson said the president’s comments were based on news reports and claims by the Israeli government.

This claim has been repeated all over both traditional and social media by pro-Israel advocates, screaming with indignation that Israel “has a right to defend itself” as well as “we have no choice but to strike back” as well as “what would America do if the equivalent of 36,000 of its own people had been killed?”

All of these responses are part of Luntz’s Hasbara manual. It is within the chaos of these events that are still unfolding that in addition to deploying their usual PR tactics, they have added a new twist – allegations that babies were beheaded “ISIS Style. These talking points have been repeated again and again and again as though they are facts on the ground that have already been verified.

You would expect evidence would surface showing at least one beheaded baby, but the best anyone could find was an AI generated burned baby photoshopped over an animal rescue image, and shared by Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire.

Attempts to get corroboration from the Israeli government, the IDF, or anyone making the claims yielded no results. CTV wrote in the article they originally entitled “Israeli Official Says Government Cannot Confirm Babies Were Beheaded in Hamas Attack” but then changed to “Israel releases horrific images of slain children after Hamas attack”:

There were no images to suggest militants had beheaded babies — a particularly explosive accusation that first emerged in Israel’s media and initially confirmed by Israeli officials.

It’s telling that CTV changed the title of the article, as many media contacts relay the immense pressure they are under to not give any coverage to Israeli untruths calling out misinformation.

NBC News did better and maintained the title of their own article “Unverified reports of ‘40 babies beheaded’ in Israel-Hamas war inflame social media” in which they write:

A series of shocking reports have spread horrific claims of baby beheadings by Hamas militants across social and mainstream media in recent days, adding a particularly incendiary element to an already violent and bitter war. But the reports are still unconfirmed, and in some cases have been retracted.

Likewise, the Intercept’s Alice Speri wrote in her piece “’Beheaded Babies’ Report Spread Wide and Fast – But Israel Military Won’t Confirm It”, dealing with journalists on the ground such as Oren Ziv, neither did he witness any beheaded babies, nor could he get any corroboration around it:

According to Oren Ziv, a journalist who participated in the tour, “journalists were allowed to speak to the hundreds of soldiers on site, without the supervision of the army’s spokesperson team.”

The IDF spokesperson told The Intercept that a soldier told journalists “that this is what he saw” but that the military had not independently confirmed the claim.

From the same piece, Sana Saeed states:

“From unsubstantiated accusations of Palestinian fighters raping Israeli women to unsubstantiated accusations of Palestinian fighters beheading babies: These claims have spread like wildfire especially thanks to many journalists who are repeating things without any semblance of critical thinking or journalistic caution.”

Likewise with allegations of rape, no proof was offered even though this claim was made by President Joe Biden in the aforementioned press conference in which he alleged child beheadings, stating that women “were raped, assaulted, paraded as trophies.”

Arno Rosenfeld of the Jewish publication The Forward writes:

A White House spokesperson told the Forward that this assertion was based on a phone call earlier that day in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told Biden that Israeli women had been “brutally raped and murdered.” Similar characterizations have been included in condemnations of Hamas by columnists, celebrities and editorial boards.

But the source of the rape allegation remains murky. While sexual assault is a common feature of violent conflict worldwide, the Israel Defense Forces told the Forward Tuesday night that it does not yet have any evidence of rape having occurred during Saturday’s attack or its aftermath. And most mainstream media outlets have avoided mention of rape, with the Los Angeles Times and NBC News specifically stating they have been unable to verify the claims.

One CNN reporter, Sara Sidner, apologized for unintentionally spreading misinformation:

Terror, not Territory Revisited

It is worth noting that documented evidence has allegedly been provided of civilian casualties and the beheadings of soldiers on the Israeli side during the Hamas raid to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and NATO defense ministers.

Hamas has responded to the allegation that they were targeting civilians, quoted in this CTV piece as stating:

Deputy Hamas chief, Saleh Al-Arouri, said the group’s fighters had only aimed to attack the Israeli military and had been surprised by the swift collapse of army units. “The plan was to target the army’s Gaza team and fight occupation soldiers only,” Arouri said in quotes published by Hamas.

This provides an interesting stalemate on an oft-repeated Luntz talking point – that there is no moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas, that the former aims at military targets and hits civilians as part of war while Hamas targets civilians. For a reference, see the following quote in his Hasbara Manual:

Deliberately firing rockets into civilian communities”: Combine terrorist motive with civilian visuals and you have the perfect illustration of what Israel faced in Gaza and Lebanon. Especially with regard to rocket attacks but useful for any kind of terrorist attack, deliberate is the right word to use to call out the intent behind the attacks. This is far more powerful than describing the attacks as “random.”

Regarding the people of Gaza, he also says:

to Americans there is a vital distinction between the Hamas leadership and the Palestinian people that you must appreciate and weave into all of your language about Gaza. To them Hamas is evil and hostile. But the Palestinian people are poor, unrepresented, and therefore without hope of peace. For now, your rhetorical quarrel needs to be with Hamas, not the people of Palestine.

As much as we all hate war, it is considered “acceptable” (if anyone can truly accept something so repugnant), that civilians may get caught in the crossfire legitimate military operations. With Hamas, the goal is to simply redesignate a resistant movement as a terrorist organization while pretending to sympathize with the Palestine’s – note the highlighted words “for now”.

For starters, you can lie about your enemy’s military objectives. You can repeatedly claim they are terrorists who target civilians as Luntz recommends repeating, while pretending civilians didn’t die from Israeli crossfire. Here is the testimony of one survivor at the Kibbutz on Israeli Public Radio stating Hamas fighters treated her and others humanely, didn’t commit violence, and from her vantage point a good number of the dead were caused not by Hamas, but by IDF crossfire:

For years, Israel has played this game of pretending to only hate Hamas and have deep sympathy for the Palestinians while kicking them out of their homes in the West Bank and East Jeruselem.

To be very clear, the intentional targeting and killing of civilians is wrong and must be condemned in the strongest of terms no matter who does it. Reporters on the ground have verified many civilians have died in the fighting. If Hamas has deliberately targeted them, then it is immoral and repugnant. The same standard applies to the Israeli army.

On the other hand, if the operating principle is that as part of warfare and one aims at military targets and civilians are caught in the crossfire, apparently that’s an acceptable cost of war, and not terrorism. This brings up further questions of who is really on the defense and who is on the offense – can an occupier by definition be on the defense when their position is already being on the offensive?

In this current escalation, the Israel Lobby groups are again attempting to further deepen the “terror” narrative and associate Hamas with ISIS, linking them to crimes the latter is well-known for – beheadings and rape. Nur Ibrahim writes on her piece for Snopes “Were Israeli Babies Beheaded by Hamas Militants During Attack on Kfar Aza?

People should be wary of claims that echo Islamophobic rhetoric, or statements that compare the violence in Kfar Aza to “ISIS-style” killings — i.e., beheadings that have taken place in a different context and were committed by a different group. Such rumors that emphasize specific, unverified acts of brutality against infants and that attempt to connect them to patterns of violence carried out by unconnected Islamist groups have the potential to become dangerous propaganda.

As Ibrahim fears, the propaganda isn’t just potentially dangerous, it is genocidal. It allows Israel an opportunity to capitalize on its ambitions of annexation both of the West Bank and Gaza by wiping out one population in the latter entirely unchecked without a humanitarian corridor, water, or electricity using both bombs and white phosphorus on the civilian population, as reported by Reuters via Human Rights Watch and returning to occupy Gaza again.

This isn’t conspiracy or speculation – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to the UN with a map that shows Israel having completely wiped Palestine off the map as part of normalization with the other Arab regimes as reported by Tovah Lazaroff in the Jerusalem Post in the piece “Netanyahu under fire for using Greater Land of Israel map at UN” all while following Luntz’s recommendations to continue to speak about how this will all bring about peace in the region.

Does Hamas Use Civilians as Human Shields?

As mentioned earlier, the manual advises Israeli spokesman and their supporters to be careful to separate Hamas from the Palestinian people, to demonstrate that Israel truly cares for them. It is simply Hamas, the terrorist organization, that they are targeting. The Palestinian people, are meant to be shown as victims of Hamas’s reign of terror by using them as human shields.

We hear this repeated everywhere, and even pro-Palestine media commentators take this as a statement of fact that never gets checked. Perhaps they believe it’s better to leave this point unchecked for the purpose of optics ie they don’t want to be seen sympathizing with those everyone considers “terrorists”. Even a strong, confident debater like Mohammed Hijab avoids this point when asked about Hamas fighters embedding within the population, even as he skillfully deconstructs other types of framing in this interview with Piers Morgan:

Whatever the reason, leaving this assertion unchecked means that rhetorically the Israelis will be able to continue claiming they are “acting in self-defense” and as Luntz advises, to state that “we use rockets to protect people, they use people to protect rockets”, a simple yet effective statement to ensure that when Israeli bombs and white phosphorus falls on Palestinian civilians, there is no moral culpability or accountability. Everyone in Gaza is either a militant or a human shield, and therefore a legitimate military target.

The first question we should ask is whether any reputable organization has independently corroborated the human shield claim? Amnesty International investigated such claims during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and found them to be false. The same claims we see now were used then – on page 47 of their report, they say the following (which we’re reproducing in full below because it’s that important):


During and after the hostilities, the Israeli authorities repeatedly stated that Hamas used Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip as “human shields”. At different times during the fighting, Israeli officials pointed to numerous actions by Hamas and Palestinian armed

groups as examples of using civilians in Gaza to shield military activities. These included basing fighters within residential areas; urging civilians not to leave their homes after warnings from Israel; using civilian structures for military activity; storing rockets and other weapons in civilian structures and within populated areas; firing rockets from within or in close proximity to civilian buildings; taking cover in civilian buildings after firing; and building tunnels within civilian areas or under civilian structures.

Several of these actions which have been discussed above, such as storing munitions in civilian buildings or launching attacks from the vicinity of civilian buildings, violate the obligation to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attacks. But they do not necessarily amount to the specific violation of using “human shields” under international humanitarian law, which entails “using the presence (or movements) of civilians or other protected persons to render certain points or areas (or military forces) immune from military operations.”

The practices most commonly condemned as such have involved actually moving civilians to military objectives in order to shield those objectives from attack. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), “the use of human shields requires an intentional co-location of military objectives and civilians or persons hors de combat with the specific intent of trying to prevent the targeting of those military objectives.”

Amnesty International has not been able to verify specific statements which the Israeli authorities have cited as made by Hamas officials during the hostilities encouraging civilians in Gaza to ignore IDF warnings to evacuate.

However, the reported statements were directed to civilians in general or in large geographic areas; for example, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Iyad al-Buzm’s call on people “in all parts of the Strip to ignore the warnings… as these are part of a psychological warfare”.

Public statements referring to entire areas do not amount to directing specific civilians to remain in their homes in order to render fighters, munitions or military equipment in specific locations immune from Israeli attacks. Thus, while potentially of concern, such statements would not constitute the use of “human shields”. There are no bomb shelters or protective facilities for Gaza’s 1.8 million people, and no place in the Strip was truly safe during the hostilities. In some cases, the warnings issued by the Israeli military did not specify safe evacuation routes, and in many cases, civilians who tried to evacuate came under Israeli fire. In these circumstances, the Hamas authorities instructing civilians in the Gaza Strip not to leave their homes could have been out of concern for their safety or a desire to avoid further panic. It cannot be presumed that the intention of any such statements by the authorities was to use civilians to prevent the targeting of specific military objectives by Israeli forces.

The Israeli authorities have claimed that in a few incidents, the Hamas authorities or Palestinian fighters directed or physically coerced individual civilians in specific locations to shield combatants or military objectives. Amnesty International has not been able to corroborate the facts in any of these cases. Specific assertions of the use of civilians as “human shields” by Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip should be independently investigated. International humanitarian law is clear that, even if officials or fighters from Hamas or Palestinian armed groups associated with other factions did in fact direct civilians to remain in a specific location in order to shield military objectives, it would not relieve Israel of its obligation to take all necessary precautions to minimize harm to civilians when planning and carrying out attacks on these objective.

Other reporters on the ground during Operation Protective Edge reported similar to Amnesty International. For example, the Belfast Telegraph’s Kim Sengupta reported in her piece “Israel-Gaza conflict: Myth of Hamas’s human shield. Gazans deny being put in line of fire”:

Some Gazans have admitted that they were afraid of criticizing Hamas, but none have said they had been forced by the organisation to stay in places of danger and become unwilling human-shields. The Bani Sobeila area, near Khan Younis, where the Abu Jamaa deaths took place received leaflets dropped from the air last week warning them to leave.

But almost all stayed. One reason for that was many of the houses belonged to the Abu Jamaa clan who felt there was safety in staying together. Another reason was given by a neighbour, Abdullah al-Daweish: “Where do we go to? Some people moved from the outer edge of Khan Younis to Khan Younis centre after Israelis told them to, then the centre got bombed. People have moved from this area to Gaza City, and Gaza City has been bombed. It’s not Hamas who is ordering us in this, it’s the Israelis.”

Why did they think the house targeted? “We don’t know,” said Saied Abu Jamaa, a cousin who was in his home next door when the blast took place. “Tawfiq, who is the head of the family, is a policeman, but why should he and his family and his neighbours die for that?” Tawfiq Abu Jamaa, 40, distraught figure in a brown jellabiya at the funeral was also at a loss to understand why he had lost his wife and eight children. The sole survivor has Nour, a son of four.

Channel 4 performed their own fact check entitled “Does Hamas use civilians as human shields?”, and while they claimed Hamas’s call for people to stay in their homes could potentially be a “human shield” issue, they also note in their piece that residents also do not leave either because they are killed on the way to safer areas or in the alleged safe zone, they believe staying home is safer during the bombardment, and oftentimes no warning is given before an area with civilians is hit.

CNN wrote an article on this allegation during Operation Protective Edge, consulting experts and concluded whatever scant evidence of missiles in schools and statements by leaders was not enough to prove Hamas was using their own people as human shields, stating:

…Israel’s claims that Hamas uses civilians as human shields are difficult to prove in an active ground conflict, experts say.

“It would be impossible at this point to say how much truth there is to the human shield argument,” said Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That’s not going to be possible to do in the heat of the conflict.”

Within the write-up, there is a deeper discussion that goes beyond the narrative today about Hamas’s role in Palestinian society beyond just being a terrorist organization, which further pushes back on the human shield narrative:

…Hamas is also a political organization embedded in civilian life in the Palestinian territory, Palestinian leaders say.

“Hamas is a political party after all, not just a military wing. And it has institutions, organizations, homes” in Gaza, said Hanan Ashrawi, executive committee member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the West Bank.

That means Hamas is more than its military wing, Ashrawi said. Its members are active in civilian society too.

“Several-story buildings were totally demolished and the people living there. How can you claim that Hamas is hiding anything in there? These are normal residential areas with no military or any munitions hidden there,” Ashrawi said.

“The question is that Israel is not discriminating, it is destroying the homes of people who are active (in Hamas). Now ‘active’ could mean you belong to a social service institution. Hamas has day-care centers, has schools, has hospitals; it’s a political party as well. It’s a movement.

“Hamas is not just an isolated, you know, sort of armed individuals. It belongs to a very pluralistic system. It has in Gaza many services, offices and so on. And therefore if you are going to destroy everything related to Hamas as a party, as a movement, it means that you’re going to go on the rampage against families, homes, hospitals, schools and social services,” Ashrawi said.

The reality is that it’s not the Palestinians who use or act as human shields, but rather, it’s the IDF and the Israelis that use Palestinians as human shields against other Palestinians.

The IDF Uses Palestinians as Human Shields

During Operation Cast Lead, Clancy Chassey from the Guardian found it was the Israelis using Palestinian children as human shields:

Some of the most dramatic testimony gathered by the Guardian came from three teenage brothers in the al-Attar family. They describe how they were taken from home at gunpoint, made to kneel in front of Israeli tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing, and sent by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian houses to clear them. “They would make us go first so if any fighters shot at them the bullets would hit us, not them,” 14-year-old Al’a al-Attar said.

How bad was the use of Palestinian human shields by the IDF? The Israeli high court ruled in 2005 it was illegal under international law to do so, and the Israeli army had been doing so for a long while. Chris McGreal in his piece “Israeli high court bans military use of Palestinians as human shields” writes:

The Israeli high court yesterday ruled that the army’s long-standing practice of using Palestinian civilians as human shields in combat is illegal under international law. It said the military’s claim to have amended the procedure to allow civilians to “volunteer” to work with the army was still unacceptable because it was unlikely anyone would freely do so.

“You cannot exploit the civilian population for the army’s military needs, and you cannot force them to collaborate,” said the Israeli chief justice, Aharon Barak. “Based on this principle, we rule it illegal to use civilians as human shields.”

The case was brought more than three years ago by human rights organisations that said the army routinely forced Palestinian civilians into dangerous situations as a means to protect soldiers. Some of the most common methods were to force Palestinians into buildings to see if they were booby-trapped, or to enter the hideouts of wanted men and tell them to surrender. Soldiers also forced civilians to stand in front of them when on patrol.

Please note the language manipulation used by the IDF to circumvent the law – instead of calling them “human shields”, they wanted to get “volunteers” to help them out. Do you think anyone would accept this if Hamas did the same?

As part of the Hasbara Manual by Luntz, they would claim, “Israel is not perfect, we’re doing our best, there’s always room for improvement” to brush off their war crimes and violations of international law. Coming closer to perfection certainly wasn’t the IDF’s goal as the BBC reported in their piece “IDF to appeal human shield ban”.

Let’s keep in mind some dates – the ban from the high court came in 2005 – Operation Cast Lead occurred in 2009. The IDF was still using Palestinians as human shields while claiming without verification that Hamas was doing so.

Israel is Still Using Palestinians as Human Shields in 2023

According to the Defense for Children International organization, Israeli soldiers again have used children, including two toddlers, as human shields:

Israeli forces surrounded the Shalloun family home and used four Palestinian children as human shields around 11:30 a.m. for about two hours on March 1 in Aqbat Jaber refugee camp, near the city of Jericho in the occupied West Bank, according to documentation collected by Defense for Children International – Palestine. Israeli soldiers ordered everyone out of the house and demanded that their father, Maher Shalloun, surrender himself. While Maher stayed inside, the others complied and went outside. Israeli forces then threatened his sons Nidal, 9, and Karam, 11, in addition to his twin nephews, Ahmad and Mohammad, both two years old, and forced them to stand in front of Israeli military vehicles while Israeli forces fired tear gas canisters, stun grenades, and live ammunition at Palestinians confronting the group of soldiers.

The Israel-based human rights organization B’Tselem has documented topic areas and articles dedicated to discussing Israel’s use of Palestinians as human shields both here as well a discussion of numerous instances of the use of human shields as part of settlement takeovers, Operation Cast Lead, and Operation Protective Edge, well after the 2005 ruling. Their piece entitled “Human Shields” is written in 2017. They write:

Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, Israeli security forces have repeatedly used Palestinians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip as human shields, ordering them to perform military tasks that risked their lives. As part of this policy, soldiers have ordered Palestinian civilians to remove suspicious objects from roads, to tell people to come out of their homes so the military can arrest them, to stand in front of soldiers while the latter shoot from behind them, and more. The Palestinian civilians were chosen at random for these tasks, and could not refuse the demand placed on them by armed soldiers.

Netanyahu’s Endgame – Apartheid, Genocide, and Annexation

The best outcome for the Likud party leader is to manipulate the American public, its politicians, and the military industrial complex to give him and the IDF cover to bloody, butcher, and bludgeon all Palestinians, not just Hamas. The separation in rhetoric between Hamas and the innocents of Gaza is simply that – a rhetorical ploy to earn the American public’s approval.

The real endgame of creating an apartheid wall and laying siege while continuing to illegally and illegitimately evict Palestinians settlements in the West Bank, among other atrocities, is to simply murder or drive away all the Palestinians and then blame the only people actually protecting, imperfect as they may be, in order to re-occupy the land.

Perhaps the most telling reason the Israeli government butchers civilians and then lies about it is found in the final quote of this piece from the Guardian Clancy Chassey:

An IDF squad leader is quoted in the daily newspaper Ha’aretz as saying his soldiers interpreted the rules to mean “we should kill everyone there [in the centre of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.”

Indeed, in 2015 during an election campaign, Netanyahu revealed his true intent to voters and was promptly chastised and forced to retract his open comments about Israeli Arabs and his lack of commitment to a two state solutions. The New York Times writes:

In the days since the Israeli election, Mr. Netanyahu has been denounced for two statements he made toward the conclusion: his assertion that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, and his alarm over voting by Israeli Arab citizens. He has been trying, with limited success, to backpedal on both.

It is with this context in mind, one can understand how and why it is Netanyahu can show up at the UN with a map of Israel having completely annexed all the Palestinian territories into one Israel while on the brink of Arab normalization, and why the policy is genocide, apartheid, and annexation. Drive out the Palestinians while claiming to want the best for them, blame Hamas as a terrorist organization that causes Israel to retaliate as though they have no choice, and then eventually annex the lands as they are doing bit-by-bit with settlements.

As Palestinian human rights attorney Noura Erakat says in this Democracy Now interview, “We are being primed for genocide”.

What Can Be Done to Push Back?

  1. Read Frank Luntz’s Hasbara Manual and Learn Their Weaknesses and Our Strengths: The two manuals linked not only contains Words that Work, it contains another section “Words that Don’t Work”. It mentions issues where Americans and others sympathize more with the Palestinians than the Israelis. Where they try to divert from the main topic of discussion to one of their talking points, we should be returning back to our talking points.
  2. Challenge the Human Shield Narrative: The human shield narrative allows Israel to indiscriminately bomb Palestinians – push back by stating there is no conclusive evidence or investigation, and that it is confirmed that Israel not only used Palestinian kids as human shields, and that the Israeli courts ruled against them and they tried to appeal it, independent rights organizations confirm they continue to do so even now in the West Bank and combat zones.
  3. Challenge Unsubstantiated Allegations even if Politically Incorrect: The Israeli government are well-known and documented for lying and violating international law. This should be repeated and any claims they make should be vetted by independent, non-partisan 3rd party organizations and / or journalists on the ground. It is a clear conflict of interest to take biased investigations when the one conducting the investigation is the one being investigated.
  4. Commission Think Tanks to Conduct Our Own Studies: Pollsters like Frank Luntz have one job – take complicated policy issues and reduce them to the right reductive sound bites that persuade people to act the way you want. Notice I didn’t say that there was anything there about truth, morality, justice, etc. Whether you are right or wrong is irrelevant – what is relevant is that what people hear is what you want them to hear to act in your favor.
  5. Answer the “Proportional Response” Question Correctly: It can’t be understated enough that the “human shield” argument has to be challenged aggressively – this is how pro-Israel commentators run the table on questions of bombing civilians. The fact that Hamas isn’t using human shields, that many are killed following Israeli instructions and warnings, and that Israelis are the ones who are well-documented for using Palestinian children is something that needs to become mainstream knowledge.  In addition, the response to this offensive should be this quote from the Ha’aretz Editorial board after the attacks:“The disaster that befell Israel on the holiday of Simchat Torah is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”The right response is that you need to call for the resignation of the guy who said openly he wants to use Hamas to prevent a two-state solution. Israel requires new leadership that is serious about coming back into compliance with international law and stop aggressing on the Palestinians – they have every right to defend themselves from bullies that take their land, water, medical supplies, and basic livelihood, whether in Gaza, or in the West Bank where there is no Hamas, yet the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians continues on the regular.

May Allah (swt) free Palestine and grant Jannatul Firdaws to all who have passed, ameen.




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Siraaj is the Executive Director of MuslimMatters. He's spent over two decades working in dawah organizations, starting with his university MSA and going on to lead efforts with AlMaghrib Institute, MuslimMatters, and AlJumuah magazine. He's very married with wonderful children




    October 21, 2023 at 9:25 AM

    This is a SPECTACULAR job. I think what is ringing in my mind is Palestinian activists and spokespersons haven’t fought off the human shields argument hard enough and the first thing to do is share this at human rallies. The only piece of improvement I can advise is that burnt image is not actually AI (although it doesn’t look like a human and I think they are more likely lying than not.

  2. Spirituality

    October 21, 2023 at 9:41 AM

    Jazak Allahu Khayran for this incredibly valuable piece of work! We really need to know actual history and actual current events, so we can counter prevailing false narratives.

    I found this out when I read what I thought was somewhat a balanced attempt by the other side to ‘present both sides fairly.’ It wasn’t after reading this article that I discovered how far off even that attempt was – and that was better than most.

  3. abdullah salman

    October 21, 2023 at 9:48 PM

    we also need to address the claim made by israel that Hamas was responsible for bombing evacuating civilian’s and that the airstrikes were IEDS. I dont believe this to be true but this is another piece of propaganda we need to refute.

  4. Mahmud

    October 27, 2023 at 4:08 AM

    This article is great at debunking the notion that Israelis dont target civilians.

    They clearly do

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