I remember this discussion that it was practically impossible to distinguish between Taliban fighters and non-combatant civilians because they were not organized like a traditional army - the groups of fighters would just "dissolve" into villagers once they were on the back foot in a battle. Maybe it was because they didn't have distinguishing uniforms, there was no central registry of enrolled fighters, or something like that - I appreciate any corrections on this. From what is known about Hamas, could this apply to them too?

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    NB: There are more categories than "Hamas fighters" and "non combatants". There are also the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, National Resistance Brigades, Al-Quds Brigades, al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, and others.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 10:22
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    that hamas vid i saw today on combatfootage of sweaty dudes operating home made rockets and pointing them in Israel's general direction had no uniforms whatsoever. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 12:08
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    You mean "terrorists", not "fighters"
    – DeepSpace
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 16:30
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    Even with a black-and-white choice proscribing any other categories, how is it not unspeakably obvious that trying to distinguish all, or even most Hamas fighters from anyone else would be a futile exercise? Who doubts that large numbers of senior Hammas figures haven't already slipped through Israel's net? Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 23:08
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    @DeepSpace, with all the non-combatants killed by Israeli forces, you could probably also call them "terrorists", as I'm sure many Palestinians do. Neither Israel or Palestine/Hamas are the "good guys" in that war. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 17:35

6 Answers 6


Yes, and no.

(from reading quite a few small unit operations books about Afghanistan and Iraq).

The Taliban ID-ing issue wasn't necessarily a big problem during heavy combat.

Sure, there might be a sniper shot from a civilian complex. Or IEDs from unknown sources. But generally Taliban were clearly enough Taliban during combat operations (they have guns, they are shooting at you).

The real issue was identifying Taliban outside of combat operations, at least in populated settings. They look just like very everyone else. Heavily armed guys travelling at night in the mountains and forests, not so much.

So the Taliban, once in cities and villages, could gather at their pace and bide their time until there was a fight. They were hard to identify and detain until that time, unless you had informants and found a weapon cache. Lots of US raids took place at night: better vision, less Taliban preparedness, less civ bystanders. Earlier in those wars there might have been more tendency to bomb alleged safe houses first, rather than sending in troops. But that came at a PR cost - killed civilians - and it also meant you could not use evidence gathered at one location to roll up others. In 2007-2008 Iraq, US special forces were very active targeting insurgent hiding spots at night.

Gaza is not this type of war though, not right now.

Heavy urban combat is inherently dangerous to nearby civilians

During heavy combat however, especially in urban centers, the risk to civilians - which I assume motivated this question - comes from risk aversion/weaponry imbalance.

In a city, it's going to be hard to avoid killing civilians for a number of reasons. You may be able to identify the bad guys, but that's only half the problem - the rest is to avoid hurting anyone else.

US troops would tend to call in airstrikes and artillery to take out Taliban. In urban areas that's just inherently very, very, difficult to avoid civilian casualties with because stand-off weapons operated by someone far away, out of the line of sight, in the "heat of the moment" do not have the effective pinpoint accuracy and clear target you might visualize in your mind.

So a strike against house X, where you, on location, see insurgents, may turn into a strike against house Y where there were only civilians.

A 155mm shell also has a fairly wide "kill radius" - 50m-ish, making it hard to shoot anywhere near civilians without endangering them. And that's before you consider its accuracy (CEP), which, if unguided, will 50m+ and up to easily be several times that.

And that, at least in Afghanistan, was in the context of a vastly less densely populated country where most firefights were Taliban on outpost/convoy attacks, outside of city centers. And where Taliban did not necessarily use human shields all that much and where civilians were free to flee.

In Mosul, against ISIS, human shields were a deliberate tactic, civilians were herded into buildings prior to firing from them. But the civilians - who were not ISIS-related - also had opportunities to flee into the countryside beforehand and those cities were surrounded for months beforehand.

How Hamas/Gaza compares is hard to say. Does Hamas use human shields to the (low-ish?) level of Talibans? Or that (high) of ISIS? I kinda doubt they can go all out like ISIS, remember they are Gazans and Gazans would turn against them if they were seen to dial it up that far. But you have to add to it Hamas' tunnels, which makes even pacified areas and buildings liable for re-infiltration and in need of re-striking. Gaza looks a lot more like Mosul in the sense that Hamas controlled it and had years to prepare for this fight. Unlike Mosul and Fallujah 2, the civilians don't have safe zones to exit to.

Fallujah also comes to mind: there is no clean way to operate in these settings. The questions boil down: do the ends justify the means? Is civilian suffering proportionate to removing your opponent at that location? Are you doing your best to avoid those civilian casualties? Tactically, Fallujah 1 and Fallujah 2 were, IIRC, not held up as textbook examples of good planning in that regard, esp not #1.

In the larger, strategic, scheme of things, pursuing Fallujah's urban battles probably wasn't a good idea in the first place. Too much political cost to exert control of one city.

Mosul was extremely thoroughly-planned, and highly-justified by taking out homicidal fighters from a population they were terrorizing. Carried out by coalition/Iraqi troops presumably well-disposed towards those, ISIS-subjugated, civilians. And even then the aftermath seems to be that civilians suffered hugely. Perhaps more than could have been avoided.

The best way to really differentiate between civilians and Hamas? Pre-clear the city (podcast around 14min40sec ). Very difficult, again, with Gaza.

Gaza? Well, there are certainly widely opposing PoVs about those operations. But it's pretty clear Israel is just not willing to leave Hamas be after 10/7, so they are going in.

But it's not just civilian lives, it's also the lives of your soldiers, forced into a fight not of their choosing: you can't just treat them as disposables to avoid all civilian casualties. To Israelis, their soldiers are regular citizens, in-draft or re-mobilized to fight this battles: their lives will not be considered cheap. Unlike what Hamas claims as its own acceptance of combatant losses. So that will affect the level of artillery/air strikes.

p.s. This question wasn't about the Gaza blockade and this answer does not attempt to address it.

p.p.s. About dissolving back after a fight - there are kits to test for gunpowder residues, so that's not a panacea for insurgents. Not sure that applies in that "hot" a context as Gaza though.

Iraq, The Battle for Mosul | How does law protect in war? - Online casebook

Civilians in Mosul's Battle of Annihilation - MERIP

Tech, Ethics, and the City in Israel's Looming Urban Battlefield | War on the Rocks Podcast

Civilian Casualties: Lessons from the Battle for Raqqa | RAND

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    "arrest" for what? Do you mean to take as POW? AFAIK, armed resistance against a foreign military occupation is not against any law.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 7:59
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    Semantics, but I thought the word arrest is used in a context of crime? Are prisoners of war all under arrest? As far as I know, the police can arrest people, and sometimes citizens, but not the military? Unless individuals are arrested for war crimes, perhaps, but that would be hard to prove for all alleged Hamas fighters. Or can the alleged membership in an organisation proven to commit war crimes be enough to be convicted of war crimes oneself?
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 8:20
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    Are combatants fighting against Israeli military invaders/occupiers within Gaza lawful combatants or unlawful combatants? Are people fighting for a violent non-state actor automatically unlawful combatants? I certainly understand that the IDF would detain people fighting them when they can (they probably wouldn't recognise them as POWs, but I don't think that matters), but I don't see how this is an arrest.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 8:32
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    Seems the US government has been clear that the detainees in Guantánamo are not under arrest, or they would have the right to a trial...
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 8:38
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    @gerrit No offense, but... lemme get this. I write a long answer on an extremely contentious and touchy subject. I worry I'm gonna put my foot in my mouth and say something insensitive to upset someone from either suffering peoples. Or be called out for talking crap from a combat vet. But, no, instead I get a long thread of vocabulary lawyerese about which of two synonyms to use, despite "my" word also being used by journalists in precisely that context. Then, wham, the Guantanamo-hammer! It's so trivial that I am just gonna change it. Cuz I truly don't care that much. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 2:15

Sometimes it would be easy. For example, if someone is armed, they are very likely to be a combatant.

Sometimes it would be hard, and there wouldn't be a straight-forward way to distinguish a combatant from a non-combatant, because Hamas fighters often don't wear distinctive uniforms.

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    @user57467 This is what makes it hard.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 22:01
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    Since Israel’s stated goal is to destroy Hamas, they need to be able to distinguish Hamas fighters from civilians even when they’re not currently combatants. That’s the difficult bit, and your answer doesn’t address it. It is in fact a task for intelligence services, police and courts, not for soldiers. All that soldiers can do is create an environment where police and courts can operate.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 7:23
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    Do you have evidence for if someone is armed, they are very likely to be a combatant? As the answer by Shadetree Sam points out, in the face of societal collapse, civilians may well arm themselves for self-defense reasons without being part of Hamas or intending to shoot at a foreign invading/occupying military.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 8:08
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    @gerrit It isn't 100% certain, but soldiers in a war don't need 100% certainty. Civilian, non-Hamas access to guns in the Gaza Strip was very limited. This isn't Texas. And civilians are much less likely to be in the same place as Israeli soldiers.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 12:18
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    @gerrit that bit of that answer is far from substantiated and sourced, whatever else it might be right about. Waving an AK-47 near IDF members is probably near-suicidal at this point. And probably not without reason. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 16:41

Hamas fighters wear distinguishing uniforms during the parades, but not when engaging in their more typical activities, as shown on the photos below.

Palestinians wave their national flag and celebrate by a destroyed Israeli tank at the Gaza Strip fence east of Khan Younis on October 7, 2023 [Yousef Masoud/AP Photo]

Analysis: Why did Hamas attack now and what is next? | Israel-Palestine conflict | Al Jazeera

Palestinians ride on an Israeli military vehicle seized by Palestinian gunmen who infiltrated areas of southern Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip, October 7, 2023 [Bassam Masoud/Reuters]

Hamas says it has enough Israeli captives to free all Palestinian prisoners | Israel-Palestine conflict News | Al Jazeera

Palestinians take control of an Israeli tank after crossing the border fence with Israel from Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinian Hamas Fighters Appear to Capture an Israeli Tank, Soldiers: Reports

Palestinians took down the fence on the Israel-Gaza border and entered Israel on October 7. Hani Alshaer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Why did Hamas invade Israel? - Vox

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    not sure about those guys, they might be hamas, but probly just locals, but the ones that paraded with the kidnapped shani louk on oct 7 had no uniforms and were equipped with F-7s Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 17:31
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    What makes you think these are combat operations with Hamas personnel? As opposed to just locals milling about and celebrating in the aftermath? Do you see any guns? I am not saying you're wrong, but these pictures do not support your point. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 17:52
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica These are Hamas fighters as described in the articles linked. Sometimes this info is right in the title. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 18:09
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: at least in the last pic two guys are armed. One with holster pistol; the other with an Uzi or something like that. A bit hard to see. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 18:24
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: agreed, not sure why this got all the upvotes. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 18:34

Unless the person is actively fighting or is in a Hamas military location that is off-limits to civilians, there is no practical way for an Israeli soldier or Israeli ordinance to distinguish between a Hamas fighter and a Palestinian civilian. Simply being armed is not sufficient to make this distinction because being in a war zone where there isn't enough food and water for everyone is an extremely dangerous environment, and noncombatant civilians may understandably carry arms for self-protection.

The Israeli advice to civilians in northern Gaza to migrate en masse to southern Gaza was impossible for many to follow. First of all, where would they go in southern Gaza? The Gaza Strip is already one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Secondly, Hamas set up roadblocks to prevent northern Gazans from escaping to the south. For these and other reasons, northern Gaza, and particularly Gaza City, remains densely packed with civilians.

The number of Gazan casualties has already climbed to over 10,000, and if Israel continues its air strikes and ground assault, that number will grow very quickly. Given these facts, I hope that Israel will reconsider its tactics for deconstructing Hamas, an objective I fully support and believe to be necessary, even if it takes longer.

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    Even people actively fighting don't have to be from Hamas. They could be from other armed groups, such as the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, National Resistance Brigades, Al-Quds Brigades, al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, or other armed groups.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 10:21
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    "noncombatant civilians may understandably carry arms for self-protection." It is understandable, but it is nonetheless rare, not because ordinary non-combatant civilians wouldn't like to have arms, but because arms are not available. Gaza and the West Bank combined legally import less than $140,000 of small arms and ammunition a year, mostly or entirely for government use, and have no domestic small arms industry to speak of. Import controls are especially strict in Gaza, a walled in enclosure with Israeli maritime parols.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 13:27
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    Is there any source supporting the need for guns in this war zone? I can see the possibility of some cultures that have slipped so far into anarchy and intra-societal violence that guns are needed by Joe Average. But those would be exceptional circumstances. I can't think of too many off the top of my head (not least because warlords tend to take them away). Are Gazans looting each other? To the extent where holding weapons that clearly make you a potential target in a non-uniformed combatant context would justify it? That needs a bit more sourcing. Welcome aboard. Thumbs up on rest Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 15:58
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    @wi2ard, the Gaza Ministry of Health has historically been a reliable source of information about Palestinian casualties -- despite being part of Hamas, they don't tend to exaggerate.
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 20:42
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    @Mark, how do you know that? There is/was no other reliable source to check against.
    – Zeus
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 0:20

Not easy at all, because Islam does not recognize the distinction between "combatant" and "civilian" being relied upon here. Under Islamic law, anyone who supports an army in any way, including simply by being an ordinary, law-abiding citizen whose taxes help to fund the army, counts as a bona fide warrior. This has two very important ramifications, both of which are horrifying:

  1. The enemy's civilians are fair game. If you don't accept the concept of "innocent civilians," well... stuff like 10/7 is perfectly acceptable.
  2. Your own civilians are military assets, because you don't consider them "civilians" and neither do they themselves. They will willingly follow orders to act as human shields to distract enemy forces and help you score propaganda points in the eyes of people who believe in notions like "noncombatant civilians" that you reject.

So no, it's not at all easy to distinguish between Hamas fighters and noncombatant civilians, because Hamas and the people of Gaza do not make any such distinction themselves.

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    Whatever the Hamas goons have been up to (as well as their porcine ISIS and Al Qaeda fellows), your generalization to "all of Islam" requires a lot more sourcing than is currently present in your answer. For example papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2597015 Or yaqeeninstitute.ca/read/paper/… Now, of course, this is PR-spin, but I still don't see much substantial sourcing in your claims. However, this sweet lil blurb of yours is very close to Clausewitz and WW2 doings. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 3:58
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    I.e. don't forget differentiate between doctrine and scriptures (which you claim to be referring to) and practice (which admittedly, from some Muslims, leaves a lot to be desired). Also, by same token, there is vast difference between New Testament doctrine and the practices of some Christian armies at times (times which don't need to stretch back very far, ex: Srebenica). List some sources! Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 4:43
  • I'm not sure how this answers the question. The IDF surely isn't stooping to Hamas levels or borrowing Islamic ideology, which you rather seem to be suggesting. Or is it because 'an eye for eye' implies that they'd be doing that somehow? Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 8:10
  • @Fizz I'm not suggesting anything at all about the IDF. I'm saying that a third party (any third party) can't easily differentiate between two groups that don't differentiate between themselves. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:27
  • I still don't see how that's true. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 15:33

Comparing to the Taliban isn't the worst idea. After the Russians left Afghanistan by the 90's, the Taliban and other warlords operated openly and controlled territory. Afghanistan is mountainous, has poor roads, is roughly 500x500 miles in size, and US air bases were in awkward spots. The Taliban was able to retreat to the south and be warlords there. But in places where the US army had superiority, of course without a rifle they could attempt to mix in somewhat. Many were foreigners, so had to hope the locals kept quiet.

Meanwhile, Hamas was never a military force, not even warlords. Israel conquered Palestine after WWII and has controlled it since. The Gaza Strip is one concentrated area in the south-west where displaced Palestinians were pushed. It's surrounded by barbed wire, the coast is patrolled, and Israel controls the power, phones, checkpoints. They used to patrol inside, pulled-out 20 years ago, but it's still Israeli-occupied territory. And it's only about 25 miles tall by 5 miles wide. It's easy to overfly.

Hamas formed in the early 90's as a resistance force, mostly in occupied Gaza so of course never controlled anything. They administer it now, but doing what Israel allows; which doesn't involve anything more military than police. The Israeli air force has bombed them when they suspected weapons were being stockpiled. The Gaza Strip is also very urban -- crowded refugee camps and those 5-story apartments packed together. And Hamas are regular Palestinians. Hamas fighters have only ever mixed-in with the populace, in probably the best place in the world to do it.

  • "They administer it now, but doing what Israel allows" - Hamas is doing what Israel allows?
    – Jacob3
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:54
  • "Hamas are regular Palestinians" - Pro-Palestinians shouldn't say that.
    – Jacob3
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:56
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    @Jacob3 Thanks. Correct me if this is wrong, but Hamas members are generally native Gazans. There's no way for an IDF member to look at someone in Gaza and tell. Compared to the Taliban (which OP asked about) who are often clearly non-Afghanni's. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 21:48

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