Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Politics of Human Shielding: On the Resignification of Space and the Constitution of Civilians as Shields in Liberal Wars

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Politics of Human Shielding: On the Resignification of Space and the Constitution of Civilians as Shields in Liberal Wars

Article excerpt


In this paper, we use Israel/Palestine as a case study to examine the politics of human shielding, while focusing on the epistemic and political operations through which the deployment of the legal category of human shield legitimizes the use of lethal force. After offering a concise genealogy of human shields in international law, we examine the way Israel used the concept in the 2014 Gaza war by analyzing a series of infographics spread by the IDF on social media. Exposing the connection between the re-signification of space and the constitution of a civilian as a shield, we maintain that the infographics are part of a broader apparatus of discrimination deployed by Israel to frame its violence post hoc in order to claim that this violence was utilized in accordance with international law. We conclude by arguing that the relatively recent appearance of human shields highlights the manifestation of a contemporary political antinomy: human shields have to continue to be considered protected civilians, but since they are considered an integral part of the hostilities they are transformed into tollable subjects.


Human shields, civilian, urban warfare, social media, principle of distinction, international humanitarian law, Israel, Palestine

The meaning of the distinction between legitimate violence and illegitimate violence is not immediately obvious.

Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence

A shield literally denotes an object of variable dimension and shape, which is used as an instrument of protection. As a basic military concept, the word shield refers to a universal

The authors acknowledge equal contribution. Their names appear in alphabetical order. and cross-cultural instrument utilized in different contexts in order to provide defense and preserve the human body from being injured. On the one hand, then, a shield is a protective tool, one that reminds us that human beings, even the most capable and brave, always remain vulnerable subjects who can be injured or killed. On the other hand, since almost every offensive is dependent on some sort of protection, the shield also functions as a necessary instrument of combat, making it easier for its possessor to injure or kill the enemy. The shield, in other words, serves as a physical and conceptual threshold. It epitomizes the dialectic between armed offense and defense within the framework of violence and war.

The issue becomes even more complex--evoking the Benjaminian (1978) question about the meaning of violence--when the adjective human is tied to the word shield, forming the phrase human shield. Generally speaking, this phrase refers to those situations in which civilian bodies acquire a protective function in the midst of fighting; willingly or unwillingly these bodies are transformed into a technology of warfare--in the Foucauldian (1988) sense whereby technology can be a form of human action--and, like inanimate shields, they embody a dialectic between offense and defense. But in spite of the similarities between inanimate and animate shields, three crucial distinctions need to be stressed in order to understand the specificity of human shielding.

First, unlike the inanimate shield, the human shield is predicated upon a value that is ascribed to a living human being who is defined as a civilian and as such protected according to international humanitarian law (IHL). Put differently, the materiality of the human body does not really lend itself to shielding and therefore if the human was conceived to be a mere inanimate object lacking the value assigned to the human qua civilian it would not be useful as a shield; a human body thus becomes a shield by virtue of its definition as a civilian. The central category of civilian in IHL (Kinsella, 2011) is, in other words, the condition of possibility of human shielding.

Second, as opposed to the inanimate shield, which is ultimately conceived and produced in order to protect human vulnerability in war, in the case of human shields vulnerability itself becomes the means of protection. …

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