Civilians must not be used to shield homes against military attacks

Palestinians barricade themselves in and around the house of a Palestinian family in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, November 21, 2006, after they received a call from the Israeli military that they were going to blast the house and ordering its occupants to evacuate. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

Palestinian armed groups must not endanger Palestinian civilians by encouraging them to gather in and around suspected militants’ homes targeted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Human Rights Watch said today.

Calling civilians to a location that the opposing side has identified for attack is at worst human shielding, at best failing to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack. Both are violations of international humanitarian law.

According to media reports, on Saturday the IDF warned Mohammedweil Baroud, a commander in the Popular Resistance Committees, to leave his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp as they planned to destroy it. Baroud reportedly summoned neighbors and friends to protect his house, and a crowd of hundreds of Palestinians gathered in, around, and on the roof of the house. The IDF said that they called off the attack after they saw the large number of civilians around the house. On Monday, the BBC also reported that the IDF had warned Wael Rajab, an alleged Hamas member in Beit Lahiya, that that they were preparing to attack his home, and that a call was later broadcasted from local mosques for volunteers to protect the home.

“There is no excuse for calling civilians to the scene of a planned attack,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.”

Various media have reported that other Palestinian officials and armed groups have voiced support for these tactics. In a visit to Baroud’s house on Sunday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority reportedly said: “We are so proud of this national stand. It’s the first stop toward protecting our homes … so long as this strategy is in the interest of our people, we support this strategy.” A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees was also quoted as saying: “We call upon all the fighters to reject evacuating their houses, and we urge our people to rush into threatened houses and make human shields.”

“Prime Minister Haniyeh and other Palestinian leaders should be renouncing, not embracing, the tactic of encouraging civilians to place themselves at risk,” said Whitson.

On November 3 the BBC also reported that Hamas radio broadcasted an appeal to local women to go to a mosque to protect 15 alleged militants holed up inside from Israeli forces surrounding the building. Many women went to the mosque and reportedly two were killed and 10 more injured when Israeli forces opened fire.

It is a war crime to seek to use the presence of civilians to render certain points or areas immune from military operations or to direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attack. In the case where the object of attack is not a legitimate military target, calling civilians to the scene would still contravene the international humanitarian law imperative for parties to the conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack. In the event that such abuse takes place, however, parties to the conflict remain obliged under international humanitarian law to take precautionary measures and not to target civilians or cause excessive civilian injury or damage in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage.

In other words, while civilians placing themselves in the way of military actions take on heightened risks, they cannot be considered legitimate targets by the opposing force, and parties to the conflict should cancel or suspend attacks where excessive civilian damage is anticipated. Human Rights Watch said that the IDF had properly respected its obligations under international humanitarian law in suspending the attack on the Baroud home that would have caused substantial civilian harm.

Human Rights Watch, however, also reminded the IDF that even in the absence of deliberately orchestrated measures to maximize a civilian presence near its targets, any destruction of civilian property must be done strictly in compliance with international humanitarian law. An ostensibly civilian object such as a home can be the subject of attack only if it is being used for military purposes at the relevant time and its destruction makes a direct and immediate contribution to the fighting.

“The IDF should immediately explain what its military objective is in targeting the homes that it has ordered to be vacated,” said Whitson.

According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, between July and November 15 this year, the IDF destroyed 251 homes in Gaza, leaving 1577 people homeless. In 105 of these cases the IDF destroyed the home by airstrike after warning the inhabitants to leave. While the IDF generally claims that militants used those homes to store weapons, they have not presented any concrete evidence in individual cases.

Human Rights Watch has also reported extensively on the coerced use of Palestinian civilians during military operations, and documented the use of Palestinian civilians as “human shields” and for military purposes during the Israeli military operations in Jenin in 2002. The Israeli High Court confirmed the illegality of using human shields in 2002.

As recently as July 2006, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have documented the IDF’s forcible use of Palestinians as human shields in a well publicized incident during military operations in Beit Hanoun. According to the groups, the IDF blindfolded six civilians, including two minors, and forced them to stand in front of soldiers who took over civilian homes during a raid in northern Gaza.

Related Links

  • HRW retracts statement about “human shields”, Human Rights Watch (20 December 2006)
  • When Human Rights Watch equates aggressor with aggrieved, Palestinian human rights organizations (2 December 2006)
  • Nonviolent Resistance is not Illegal: Human Rights Watch should retract statement, International Solidarity Movement (1 December 2006)
  • Human Rights Watch denying Palestinians the right to nonviolent resistance, Jonathan Cook (30 November 2006)
  • Gazans want to protect homes, say rights activists, IRIN (22 November 2006)