Inhuman Shields: The Relativity of Evil in the Terror War

We are often told how the evil insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan use "human shields" as a cowardly way to avoid attacks on their own forces. This is indeed a heinous, inhuman practice – a war crime, in fact, worthy of the sternest punishment. (Just as dropping thousand-pound bombs into civilian areas and later claiming that all the "collateral damage" was the result of the "enemy using human shields" is an egregious war crime.)

But it seems that it is not only savage and fanatical terrorists who use this foul practice. As Haaretz reports, the Israeli Defense Force is still using involuntary human shields in its incursions into Palestinian areas – despite being explicitly forbidden from doing so by Israel's High Court of Justice.

The IDF likes to grab a Palestinian and force him to search a nearby house, so the "human shield" will be the one who gets killed if a militant is lying in wait inside. Two years ago (yes, in the fifth year of the 21st century), the High Court finally ruled – after "a long and drawn out legal debate" – to outlaw this barbarity. The IDF solemnly pledged to go and sin no more. But three months ago, foreign news crews filmed IDF forces once again thrusting civilian bodies into suspect houses and letting them draw the heat.

The IDF's criminal investigation unit has begun a probe of these violations, which, Haaretz notes, could have "repercussions." Criminal repercussions? Judicial repercussions? Moral repercussions? Not so much. The main danger of the investigation, we're told, is that it "could have repercussions in the next round of general staff appointments." Imagine that. You see, it seems that "in the past, Brigadier General Yair Golan, the commander of the forces in the West Bank, has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Major General Gadi Shamni as the prime minister's military secretary. However, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi decided that Golan would not be among the candidates for the job. Though it is believed that Ashkenazi didn't really want to appoint Golan to the post in the first place, sources in the IDF believe that the investigation has eliminated Golan's chances of getting the promotion."

So there you have it. If it is determined that the IDF is indeed once more rounding up innocent civilians and forcing them into service as human shields, then Yair Golan probably won't end up as military secretary to the prime minister. Now there's a fate worse than death for you.

But as the IDF did not get around to officially – or ostensibly – banning the practice until two years ago, one wonders if the use of human shields was among the panoply of "counterinsurgency" techniques in which the Israelis mentored American security organs. As the Center for Public Integrity notes in a major report by Yossi Melman, "An Interrogation Role Model," Israel has "quietly become one of the world's most important exporters of interrogation and counterterrorism methods decried by human rights groups as constituting torture and violating basic human rights." And "one of Israel's 'students,' the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has found, has been the United States."

Melman, an Israeli investigative reporter, tells a highly detailed and chilling story of mutual and malign influence flowing back and forth between U.S. and Israeli forces. The Americans – proud progenitors of the Phoenix Program, in which tens of thousands of Vietnamese were murdered in a CIA-directed program of assassination – needed no tutoring in general hardball, of course. However, with 9/11 providing the convenient greenlight for the already-planned invasion of Iraq, the Bushists knew they needed some specific expertise on the best ways to torment Arabs. This was the Israeli's bailiwick, and they were happy to oblige. As Melman notes:

While other countries have been influenced by U.S. aid, Israel has influenced its patron as well. In the post-9/11 world, the United States has turned to Israel for advice and training for urban combat against insurgents in Iraq and has borrowed controversial tactics that Israeli forces have used against Palestinians. In Iraq and elsewhere, the United States also has emulated Israel's hard-nosed methods against terrorism, allegedly including the use of torture in interrogations. The growing closeness between the two intelligence services also raises the question of just how far Washington will go in the future in continuing to apply one of Israel's most controversial anti-terrorism techniques: targeted killings.

(Melman has a companion piece on that subject as well. I wrote my first column about Bush's use of "extrajudicial killing" – or murder, as we used to call it – way back in November 2001. You can find a recent update on the practice here: Fatal Vision: The Deeper Evil Behind the Detainee Bill.)

And so with human shields -- as with torture, the slaughter of civilians, brutal repression, and aggressive war -- we see once again that nothing is evil as long as we – or our allies – do it. There is, literally, no crime that cannot be countenanced, even hallowed, if it is done in our name.