US Congress to sanction Hamas, Hezbollah for use of ‘human shields’

Although the bill enjoys widespread and bipartisan support, it is unclear whether the House of Representatives will act on it.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Palestinian men watch as fighters from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas movement, take part in a military show in Khan Yunis, last December. (AFP)
Civilian cover. Palestinian men watch as fighters from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas movement, take part in a military show in Khan Yunis, last December. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The US Senate unanimously approved a bill that would sanction terrorists and terrorist groups that hide among non-combatants — so-called “human shields — to avoid being attacked by forces whose military codes include avoiding civilian casualties.

Although the bill enjoys widespread and bipartisan support, it is unclear whether the House of Representatives will act on it. The House is in recess and will not return until November 13 for a brief period of legislative action before the end of the year. If the bill is not approved by the end of 2018, it would have to be reintroduced.

The use of “human shields,” barred under the Geneva Conventions, is allegedly widespread among Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, where civilians are used as cover against strikes by Israel.

“Terrorists’ use of human shields is a remarkably effective tactic against countries like the United States and Israel, whose ethical and military codes require avoiding civilian casualties,” Orde Kittrie, a former US State Department official, and Middle East expert Mark Dubowitz wrote in a recent commentary that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

“The US government currently has no provision to impose sanctions specifically for using human shields,” Kittrie and Dubowitz wrote. “Terrorists and their sponsoring regimes must be held accountable for their brutal practice of using civilians as human shields. Doing so would save civilian lives and give democracies the freedom to fight without both hands tied behind their backs.”

The bill that the Senate passed would require the US Treasury Department and Homeland Security Department to punish people who use human shields with economic and travel sanctions that would prevent them from owning assets in the United States and from entering the country. The measure would pressure the United Nations to condemn the tactic and to impose multilateral sanctions against groups that employ it.

US Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the United Nations and other international groups “incentivise” the use of human shields “by blaming civilised countries, [which] do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, for whatever civilian casualties that do occur.” Cruz was referring to UN resolutions that condemned Israel for civilian deaths that occurred during clashes between the Israel Defence Forces and Gazans.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, called for the UN Security Council in April to address the use of human shields, which she said “is reaching epic proportions” in the Middle East. “It is present across the Middle East in virtually every conflict,” Haley said, citing the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Groups that Iran has sponsored or supported have perfected the tactic of using human shields,” Haley said. “This is part of Iran’s overarching efforts to destabilise the region.”

The bill was strongly supported in Washington by pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Conference, the World Jewish Conference and Christians United for Israel, which called the bill “our top priority” for 2018. The group said its members sent more than 34,000 e-mails to members of the US Senate asking them to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill, which is called the “STOP Using Human Shields Act.”

“The appalling practice of hiding behind the skirts of women and the bodies of children in order to attack neighbouring innocent civilians must be condemned, undermined and thwarted at every turn,” Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, said in a statement.

The bill was co-sponsored by 35 Republicans and 16 Democrats — 51 members of the 100-seat Senate. The bill was sent to the US House of Representatives for consideration.

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