Lessons From Gaza’s Most Vulnerable: Understanding Civilian Protection in Wartime

AFCENT Continues Airdrops of Humanitarian Aid to Gaza

There are as many ways to survive war as those affected by it. Since Hamas’ attack on Israel last October, Palestinians have been confronting existential decisions about how to survive the war between Israel and Hamas. When facing imminent danger, how do civilians decide whether to stay in their homes or flee? For those who stay, when do they collaborate with or resist armed groups? Are neutrality or autonomy ever viable strategies for surviving wartime violence? In short, how do ordinary people survive when war arrives in their neighborhood?

I have spent the past decade studying how civilians across different walks of life have survived foreign military occupation, insurgency, and civil war. I have found that when violence arrives in someone’s community, their first response is to draw on a set of subconscious decision-making shortcuts (heuristics) to informally evaluate the relative costs and benefits of staying versus fleeing their homes. Inputs including combatants’ ethnic or sectarian identity, their reputation in the community, and their behavior on the battlefield all inform how ordinary people make survival decisions. Scholars, soldiers, and policymakers ought to obtain a deeper understanding of civilian survival dynamics to develop and implement effective policy to protect the vulnerable during wartime.

In pursuit of that aim, I apply existing research on civilian survival in wartime to better understand the plight of ordinary Gazans. I draw on my fieldwork in Iraq to demonstrate how ordinary people survive escalating urban warfare and use these insights to investigate the war between Israel and Hamas. My hope is that this might inform a discussion of designing and implementing better civilian protection policy, both for the Palestinian Territories and future wars that implicate the West. This assumes, of course, belligerents are interested in civilian protection. In the case of the war between Israel and Hamas, unfortunately, there is not much evidence of that interest. However, international stakeholders such as the United States and the European Union should maintain civilian protection as a requirement for ongoing political, military, and financial support to Israel.



Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Ordinary people will go to extraordinary lengths to stay in their homes amid wartime violence. Individuals not only need to have the motivation to flee but also the opportunity to safely travel and resettle in a new community. They acclimate to conflict by laying low, hiding, or adjusting their movement to avoid encountering armed groups. At some critical juncture, however, nearly everyone wrestles with the decision to remain or leave. Threats of violence or exploitation against a family member, friend, or neighbor only accentuate the survival dilemma.

As I found in my research on Iraq’s war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State between 2014 and 2018, threats of ethnic cleansing and human trafficking motivated many ethnic and religious minorities to abandon their homes. Forced displacement was common in the northern province of Ninewa, especially among minority communities in the rural periphery of Mosul. Internally displaced persons faced significant danger while in transit, including financial exploitation and gender- and sexual-based violence. The Islamic State’s ethnic cleansing of Yazidi communities on Mount Sinjar in August 2014 stands as an example of genocide against non-Muslim, non-Arab populations.

Forced displacement in Gaza is widespread but also constrained to a relatively small area. Given the dense, urban geography of the Gaza Strip, as well as the Israel Defense Forces’ reliance on artillery and airstrikes, Palestinian civilians have few options for safe transit and resettlement. The high rate of indiscriminate violence — with civilian–combatant casualty ratios ranging from 2:1 to as high as 4:1 — makes calculating the risk of staying versus fleeing more difficult. Accordingly, nearly 78 percent of Gaza residents have been displaced from their homes since October 7. Despite Israeli assurances that evacuating residents will not be targeted, as Gazans flee their neighborhoods, most continue to confront Israeli air and artillery strikes that damage roads, schools, and churches, as well as temporary shelter centers and more established refugee camps. Civilians who safely arrive in southern Gaza face extreme difficulty in securing access to basic needs such as daily hygiene, fresh food, and clean water, as well as basic medical care, shelter, and subsistence jobs. As U.N. Sectary General António Guterres concluded last December: “The people of Gaza are being told to move like human pinballs — ricocheting between ever-smaller slivers of the south, without any of the basics for survival.”

Those Who Remain: Collaboration, Resistance, and Neutrality

Civilians who remain in their communities — either by force or choice — confront similar existential decisions about whether to resist, collaborate, or remain neutral from insurgents or military forces operating in their neighborhoods. By their very nature, neutral strategies — such as hiding, laying low, or commuting — are short-lived. Eventually, people run out of food, fuel, or medicine, driving desperation and competition with other community members. In western Iraq, for example, many local Sunni communities initially welcomed jihadist fighters as a welcome reprieve from exploitation by coalition forces, only later to be exploited by those very same jihadists when they failed to conform to their edicts.

Collaboration or resistance depends on whether civilians can accommodate armed groups’ demands without sacrificing their basic needs or violating their core values. In the face of extreme deprivation, most people will cooperate with whatever armed group can alleviate their immediate suffering. Those with outside options for protection — including patronage to a rival militia or exclusive access to food, medicine, or work through graft or corruption — are more likely to pursue “everyday resistance,” active opposition, and armed resistance. Those who are unable or unwilling to accommodate armed rule, but who lack viable alternatives for protection, are more likely to cooperate. The most vulnerable will passively acquiesce by complying with combatants’ demands. A select few with a high tolerance for risk — including military-age males between 16 and 35 — might collaborate with insurgents in exchange for status, a sense of belonging, or a paycheck. When conflict dynamics in the neighborhood inevitably change, people revisit whether their current strategies serve their most essential needs.

In the past four months, Gaza residents have been forced to navigate repression by Hamas militants on the one hand and victimization by the Israeli military on the other. Since their election in 2006, Hamas’ repression of local residents includes not only the construction of military facilities underneath civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and the use of human shields on residential rooftops, but also the exploitation, torture, and murder of political dissenters. Indeed, popular support for the Hamas-led government had dropped to 38 percent just prior to the October 7 attack, according to a public opinion poll enumerated in September 2023. Gazans who interact with Israeli soldiers, on the other hand, confront AI-enabled surveillance, administrative detention, sexual humiliation, as well as injury or death while pursuing humanitarian assistance. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Civilians in Gaza have been killed and injured by the Israeli military for many years, although the scale of civilian suffering in Gaza now is particularly severe.

Given pervasive civilian victimization perpetrated by both Hamas and the Israeli military, evidence of local collaboration and resistance efforts among Palestinians communities is extremely difficult to externally verify. Nevertheless, several incidents of public protest against Hamas have been recorded in the past six months, including a February 2024 protest campaign in Rafah. Regular public opinion polling throughout the conflict also provides clues as to the likelihood of opportunist forms of collaboration and resistance with local militants. Since the start of the war, public support among Gazans for Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel last fall has increased from 57 percent in December to 71 percent in March. While public opinion data are not the same thing as observing collaboration or resistance firsthand, they do illustrate how difficult it will be for any governing authority — Palestinian, Israeli, or otherwise — to rebuild legitimacy after the war.

Civilian Protection in an Age of Urban Warfare

How does knowledge of civilian survival in wartime inform policies to protect civilians in Gaza?

First and foremost, the United States must continue to negotiate for an immediate ceasefire in exchange for the release of all remaining hostages. While an abstention to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2728 was a positive development, President Joe Biden’s approval to send an additional $2.4 billion in munitions and military equipment to Israel on March 29 demonstrates the fundamental incoherence of the administration’s demand for civilian protection on the one hand and its insistence that Israel has a right to defend itself on the other. Instead, Congress should consider allocating a portion of military assistance to Israel as condolence payments to Palestinian civilian victims of the war. While condolence payments played a limited role in U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, advocates contend that they are a necessary policy tool for transitional justice and post-conflict reconciliation.

Critics are right to point out that neither a ceasefire nor reparations will end the conflict. Properly executed, however, a ceasefire could create the pause necessary to accelerate humanitarian assistance to the 1.4 million displaced Gazans confronting famine, disease, and despair. Moreover, from a strategic standpoint, a temporary ceasefire is not inconsistent with Israel’s military objective of destroying the Hamas remnant embedded within and below Rafah.

In the event of a ceasefire, the United States must coordinate with its Arab and European partners to facilitate safe access for Palestinians trying to access relief supplies through the U.S.-proposed maritime corridor. To date, the delivery of relief via air drops has not only been ineffective but has also injured or killed civilians scrambling for relief supplies on the ground. Properly executed, a maritime corridor would provide safe access to humanitarian assistancein an area relatively insulated from Israel’s military offensive. Regrettably, the recent Israeli attack on a World Central Kitchen convoy in Dier al Balah raises concerns about the nature of Israeli targeting as well as the prospects for delivering aid via the maritime corridor.

At the same time, non-governmental organizations, universities, and state agencies must expand efforts to monitor, collect, and distribute real-time data from conflict-affected communities. In Iraq’s confrontation with the Islamic State, for example, Omar Mohammad’s journalism for the Mosul Eye provided policymakers and everyday observers a personal account of the group’s control through the lens of Mosul residents. Similarly, Aymenn Jawad al Tamimi has been particularly effective at distributing his field research on Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria to key stakeholders via social media channels and a subscription-based newsletter.

The challenge is tougher in Gaza, where wartime violence creates intermittent blackouts, affecting reliable cellular and Internet access across the Strip. Nonetheless, analysts such as Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib provide real-time updates on the conflict’s effect on civilians through conversations with friends and family in Gaza. Outside of Gaza, organizations like AirWars, Bellingcat, and ACLED rely on a combination of open source intelligence and eyewitness accounts to not only calculate civilian casualties but also report on the capabilities and operations of armed groups. Expanded partnerships between these organizations and more established human rights groups can serve as a force multiplier for civilian protection.

Finally, with respect to international humanitarian law, legal scholars, policymakers, and practitioners should refine how they define and differentiate between combatants and non-combatants. International humanitarian law currently defines “civilian” as one who is not a member of a state or non-state armed group, or who does not actively participate in hostilities. The joint criteria of group membership and behavior are central to this definition. In practice, however, civilian status is often assigned based on ascriptive characteristics — such as age or gender — with the default assumption being that such actors are peaceful, innocent, and unarmed. Similarly, males are often viewed as “imperfect victims,” given prevailing norms surrounding the feminization of victimhood and the legitimacy of targeting military-age males.

Legal and customary definitions of “civilian” should be restricted to behavioral criteria instead of ascriptive traits or group membership. Civilians abandon their status as noncombatants during the period in which they participate in hostilities, as opposed to when they affiliate with a specific group or pursue other protective measures. A U.N. guidance note on civilian protection observes the following:

Civilians who directly participate in hostilities are excluded from protection for such time as they do so. This may include civilians in self-defense groups. However, once they cease to engage in violence they should be protected.

In practice, the Israeli army should end reliance on “kill zones” or areas where commanders loosen the rules of engagement to meet key tactical objectives.

Above all else, analysts and policymakers should maintain sensitivity to the lived experiences of ordinary people in wartime. They ought to resist the temptation to reduce human suffering to body counts or military strategy in the interest of pursuing their preferred policy objectives. Only by foregrounding the everyday experiences of local civilians can external observers not only advance research on wartime survival but also safeguard the dignity of those suffering the effects of war.



Austin Knuppe is an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University, where he serves on the faculty advisory board of the Heravi Peace Institute. His new book is Surviving the Islamic State: Contention, Cooperation, and Neutrality in Wartime Iraq, from which parts of this essay were adapted.

Image: Staff Sgt. Jasmonet Holmes