September 29, 2020 | Policy Brief

Netanyahu Highlights Hezbollah Use of Human Shields

September 29, 2020 | Policy Brief

Netanyahu Highlights Hezbollah Use of Human Shields

In his speech to the UN General Assembly today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provided three detailed examples of Hezbollah’s use of Lebanese civilians as human shields, which is a war crime. This evidence strongly supports imposing sanctions on Hezbollah pursuant to the Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act (Shields Act), which passed Congress unanimously and became law in December 2018.

Netanyahu’s address, and associated material released today by Israel, specifies three locations in which Hezbollah, with assistance from Iran, has located missile factories directly under or adjacent to civilians.

One factory for producing precision-guided missiles (PGMs) is located underneath a seven-story apartment building home to 70 families in Beirut’s Laylaki neighborhood. A second factory for producing PGMs is located underneath a five-story apartment building home to 50 families in Beirut’s Chouaifet neighborhood. A third factory for producing PGMs is located in Beirut’s Janah neighborhood, near civilian homes and adjacent to two gas companies and a gas station.

PGMs are equipped with highly advanced navigation systems, which would enable them to evade Israeli missile defense systems and strike targets with an accuracy of a few meters. Because they are significantly more precise than prior Hezbollah missiles, which often missed their targets, they are considered particularly dangerous to Israel. After several unsuccessful attempts to transfer ready-to-use PGMs, Iran has been sending PGM parts to Hezbollah for assembly at locations such as these in Lebanon.

The Shields Act requires the president to submit to Congress a list of, and impose sanctions on, each foreign person involved in Hezbollah’s or Hamas’ use of “civilians protected as such by the law of war to shield military objectives from attack.” In light of the threat posed to Israel by these PGM factories, they are a legitimate objective for the Israeli military. Hezbollah’s use of civilians to shield such military objectives from lawful attack or to deliberately cause civilian casualties is a war crime, which violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. Use of human shields is among the most pernicious tactics employed on the modern battlefield.

U.S., Israeli, and other allied armed forces have repeatedly been confronted with human-shields use by terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State. Terrorists hide behind human shields in order to (a) cause Western armed forces to self-impose restraints that render them less effective, and (b) delegitimize lawful military operations, erode the Western will to fight, and spur anger at the West, by generating civilian casualties for which the terrorists can blame Western militaries. Terrorists engage in the actual war crime of using human shields in order to facilitate falsely accusing U.S., Israeli, and other Western armed forces of engaging in war crimes such as the deliberate killing of civilians.

Hezbollah’s use of human shields has been remarkably effective in achieving these objectives. It also puts civilians in danger of explosives accidents, such as those that recently decimated the port of Beirut and detonated a Hezbollah arms depot in the Lebanese village of Ain Qana.

Yet Western countries have not yet responded by penalizing, prosecuting, or otherwise holding Hezbollah, other terrorist groups, and their leaders and material supporters accountable for using human shields. Doing so would help counter the terrorist narrative, including by demonstrating that officials of these terrorist groups are war criminals – a particularly important fact as the United States pushes to have Hezbollah declared a terrorist group by the European Union.

Holding terrorist groups accountable would also help educate the media and public about the use of human shields and who is responsible for resulting harm to civilians. It may also deter some material supporters from involvement in human-shields use. These supporters could include municipal officials who knowingly provide permits for PGM factories under residences, or businesspersons who knowingly construct them under residences.

Hezbollah’s use of human shields is not limited to these three missile factories in Beirut. In a 2018 op-ed published in Arabic, Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Brigadier General Ronen Manelis wrote, “[O]ne in every three or four houses in southern Lebanon is a headquarters, a post, a weapons depot or a Hezbollah hideout.”

Despite considerable prior evidence, the Trump administration has yet to impose any sanctions under the Shields Act, which became law nearly two years ago. The exceptionally strong evidence released today should prompt the administration to act.

Orde Kittrie is a law professor at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). He previously served for a decade as an attorney in the State Department Legal Adviser’s Office and is the author of Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War (Oxford University Press, 2016). For more analysis from Orde, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Orde on Twitter @ordefk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Al Qaeda Hezbollah International Organizations Iran-backed Terrorism Islamic State Israel Jihadism Lawfare Lebanon Military and Political Power Palestinian Politics Sanctions and Illicit Finance