Hamas’ newest innovation: The human shield-wall

It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when blinded by the smoke from tire fires. Since March 30, 2018, Palestinian rioters have marched daily on the Israel-Gaza border.

Beyond rhetoric, the riots represent a tactical innovation by Hamas. It’s important to address this tactical pivot, not only to recognize its immoral character, but to reject it before it becomes a trend.

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Since the Second Intifada, Hamas and the IDF have been engaged in a learning competition. In a learning competition one attempts to understand and counteract the opposition’s actions. The process is repeated as both sides attempt to overcome the other’s maneuvers. The player that adapts the quickest is the victor. For a pop culture reference, think of the “Spy vs.Spy” comic strip, in which the titular monochromatic characters continually develop and employ comically outlandish attempts on each others lives.

Hamas has two goals in this game: destroying Israel and maintaining effective authoritative control. The first is to be achieved directly by killing Israelis and/or making their lives unbearable, and indirectly drawing in economic, political and legal action against Israel through propaganda. Death and propaganda bring legitimacy and support from the Palestinian people and foreign financial backers. The financial support in turn provides for salaries and social programs, allowing Hamas to retain control of Gaza.

Israel’s government’s goals are to defend Israeli citizens, and to maintain political legitimacy as protectors. Neutralizing apparent threats in the near term and long term achieves this goal.

The withdrawal of IDF troops and Israeli citizens from Gaza robbed Hamas of its prime targets. Hamas pivoted to an increase in mortar and rocket attacks. When the Iron Dome anti-missile system neutralized much of the efficacy of Hamas’ rockets, the terrorist group pivoted to its proven tunnel program. Recently, the tunnels have been rendered ineffective by IDF innovations in tunnel detection, destruction and prevention.

Desperate to develop a disruptive innovation, it is only with the riots Hamas has been able to facilitate its militancy.

Originally a grassroots project, Hamas quickly realized the riots’ potential. They built camp sites for rioters, and contracted buses to transport them. They also pay rioters for violence, with increased sums for wounds or fatalities.

Hamas cannot go under the barrier, nor easily approach it – so it marches to it by hiding in plain sight inside a civilian “protest.” With thousands massed on the fence, it’s difficult to tell a plainclothes militant from the crowd. In this way, Hamas has approached the fence and laid IEDs and sabotaged the barrier for later infiltration attempts. Under cover of the crowd, Hamas also launches direct attacks with firearms. While this tactic has not yet led to the death of Israelis, the number of infiltrations has spiked; it’s only a matter of time before the tactic is refined.

This tactic is an architectural innovation of the previous Hamas human shield tactics, now a “human shield-wall.”

The wall is more than shield coverage. The participants make a civilian phalanx, involved in the violence using firebombs, smokescreens and explosives. This prevents the IDF from getting close to the fence, even for repair.

Further, the shield-wall is effective in the propaganda realm. The standard assumption in the West is that protests are peaceful and just. Hamas capitalizes on this sentiment, and deaths are milked as martyrdoms for free speech. This narrative building has been successful. Despite large proportions of terrorists among the dead, politicians such as Bernie Sanders have decried Israeli actions as “excessive.”

Deaths draw sympathy and outrage from Palestinians and foreign financial supporters.

The Gazan civilians are expendable pawns, cynically exploited by Hamas to stay in the learning game.

Terrorist groups are learning organizations. Other groups will likely adopt this new tactic.

It’s therefore not just an Israeli problem. All states have borders and secure installations that can be attacked under the cover of protests or riots.

To counter this tactic, new military innovations must be developed for cross-barrier action. In the meantime, it falls on leaders of all stripes to neutralize the propaganda effects of the “human wall.”

To do this they must acknowledge that Hamas is perverting cornerstones of liberal democracy: free speech and right to peaceful protest. Doing so will reduce the appeal and effect of such tactics and discourage emulation by other terrorist groups. Consequently, this will not only save other states from facing the human wall themselves, but also save countless exploitable civilians.

Leaders and readers can’t be blinded by the smoke – it’s part of Hamas’ game.

The author is a former IDF sniper and currently studies political science, diplomacy and leadership in the Argov fellowship at IDC Herzliya.