Blaming Iran and Hezbollah for “sowing strife” in the region, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on Saturday during a visit to Saudi Arabia. The following day the Saudis accused “Iran-backed Hezbollah” of being behind the firing of a missile towards their capital Riyadh, calling it “an act of war”. As the regional divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia widens, Lebanon has suddenly found itself on the front lines.
While this escalation has been brewing for some time now, its intensification could already be detected a week earlier in a series of laws passed by the US House of Representatives. Among these was a bill that mobilised international law’s human shields clause to deepen US sanctions against Hezbollah. The bill, however, does much more than simply expand sanctions and should thus be understood within the context of the changes in US foreign policy under US President Donald Trump.
Introduced by Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, the “Sanctioning Hizballah’s Illicit use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act,” stipulates that “the mere placement of military assets in the vicinity of civilians fulfils [the international law’s] requirement” for war crimes. It then provides a brief history of Israel’s wars in Lebanon, claiming that since the 1980s many civilian houses and public facilities in South Lebanon and Beirut have been used by Hezbollah to conceal weapons.
Echoing a report published by an Israeli think-tank, the bill goes on to note that during the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah forces deployed “human shields to protect themselves from counterattacks by Israeli forces.” Finally, it observes that “a recent State Department report cites Israeli estimates that Hizballah [sic] has a stockpile of 100,000 rockets and missiles, including advanced anti-air and anti-ship missiles.
President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are the outliers, scrambling, as it were, to find new weapons to unravel the Iran deal.
“The missiles were principally provided by the Iranian Government and are concealed in Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon, often beneath civilian infrastructure.” This, the bill stresses, is in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament.
The bill requires the president to “identify and impose sanctions on foreign people or entities affiliated with Hizballah that he determines have used civilians as human shields or have provided, tried to provide, or facilitated the provision of material support to that terrorist group.”
Two points are particularly noteworthy about this bill.
First, Israel’s signature is everywhere. The bill’s rationale for deepening the sanctions is Hezbollah’s potential threat to Israel and its citizens rather than to the United States. The information about Hezbollah’s weapons and ostensible use of shielding strategies was supplied by Israeli intelligence, which, as we have shown elsewhere, has played a crucial role in spreading the accusation of human shielding in the region.
Second, the unprecedented use of human shields as a foreign policy tool has a duplicitous character. Even if one were to take the bill’s human shielding argument at face value, Hezbollah’s alleged use of human shields is not new, and there is no apparent political reason to add a new layer of sanctions against the organisation at this historical juncture. A close reading of the bill reveals that its main target is actually Iran and not its Lebanese ally.
The use of the human shields argument by the House of Representatives to deepen sanctions must be understood within the context of an international consensus – which includes both the US and Israeli militaries – that the Iran deal is good and that the Islamic Republic is fulfilling its obligations towards the deal.
President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are the outliers, scrambling, as it were, to find new weapons to unravel the Iran deal. This time their supporters in the House have pulled international law’s human shield clause out of the hat.
Their objective is to inject a new moral argument against Iran, one that insinuates that the Islamic Republic promotes the violation of the laws of war and therefore the deal’s fifteen-year prohibition from enriching uranium and engaging in, or research on, spent fuel reprocessing is insufficient.
Human shields are thus being put to use by warmongers who wish to open the door to military confrontation.