By launching rockets from densely populated civilian areas, we are told, Hamas is guilty of using "human shields." It is deliberately conducting military operations near civilians in order to deter Israel from responding, for fear of killing civilians. There is one problem with this formulation: Israel has not been deterred. The humans are not shielding Hamas. The Israeli Defense Forces are killing them. They're not "human shields." They're just dead.

"They're deliberately and indiscriminately targeting our civilians and they deliberately hide behind their civilians," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday. "The terrorists target our children and they use their own children as human shields."

It is obviously true that Hamas deliberately positions its rocket launchers and weapons caches near civilians in order to protect them (though it's also true that it's virtually impossible for Gazan civilians to stear clear of all Hamas-affiliated facilities). It is also obviously true that this tactic has failed miserably.

The concept of a human shield is simple: In lieu of an actual shield, or other defensive resource, a combatant protects his positions by relying on his enemy's reluctance to kill noncombatants. "You can kill me if you like, but you will also kill this child, which your moral and legal precepts prevent." The attacking party, faced with a choice between killing civilians and tolerating the persistence of a legitimate military target, chooses not to strike. The target is thereby shielded from attack. (Hamas' utter lack of moral and legal precepts with respect to civilian casualties renders such a choice moot for them.)

This arrangement breaks down when the attacking party decides to go ahead and kill noncombatants anyway. The "shield" element fails. Which is why Netanyahu's use of the term "human shield" is imprecise. You don't get to call them shields after you've decided to kill them.

I am quite sure that there is a limit to Israel's tolerance for civilian casualties—there are certainly some legitimate targets that it has foregone because the number of noncombatants killed would be too high. And the IDF takes steps that it views as mitigating civilian casualties, for instance by dropping leaflets warning of imminent strikes. But the numbers are the numbers: According to the Associated Press, more than 140 people have been killed—and thousands injured—in Operation Pillar of Cloud thus far. The number of those people identified by Israel as combatants is unclear, but as of two days ago CBS News reported that roughly 60% of those killed by IDF operations in Gaza thus far were civilians.

They obviously did not make an effective shield. We should stop calling them that.

(It should be noted that the IDF takes the use of human shields very seriously. When two of its soldiers were convicted of forcing a 9-year-old Gazan boy at gunpoint to open bags the soldiers believed may have been booby-trapped during 2009's Operation Cast Lead, they received two years' probation.)

[Image via Getty]