Israeli military “assistance order” amounts to continued use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, say human rights organisations

On 27 February 2003, Adalah, on behalf of six human rights organizations and in its own name, submitted arguments to the Supreme Court of Israel challenging the Israeli army’s recent military “assistance order.” According to the order, army commanders may request the “assistance” of a Palestinian civilian during military operations aimed at conducting an arrest. The order stipulates that such assistance may be requested when there is, at the discretion of the military commander in the field, no danger to the civilian, and when the civilian agrees to comply.

At a hearing on 21 January 2003, the Supreme Court limited an earlier injunction it had issued prohibiting the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, giving the army permission to act according to the new “assistance order.”

Adalah’s new submission was made in connection with a petition and motion for an immediate injunction filed by the human rights organizations on 5 May 2002, seeking to prohibit the Israeli army from using Palestinian civilians as human shields and as hostages.

The petitioners in the case are Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), LAW - The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, B’Tselem, The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual. Adalah Staff Attorney Marwan Dalal prepared all filings in the case, including the latest submission, on behalf of all of the petitioners.

Soon after the petition was filed, the Attorney General’s office announced that the Israeli army would issue an order banning the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, and would clarify that the use of Palestinian residents in military operations is also forbidden “in cases in which the commander in the field believes that a civilian is liable to be injured.”

In response, the petitioners asked that the army issue a comprehensive ban on the use of Palestinian civilians for military purposes; such an order was never issued.

In the 27 February 2003 submission, the petitioners argued that the practices described in the army’s new order amount to the continued use of Palestinian civilians as human shields; and that in any case, any involvement of Palestinian civilians in military operations is prohibited under international law.

The petitioners included an expert opinion by Tel Aviv University International Law Professor Eyal Benvenisti, which concurred with their argument that international humanitarian law absolutely prohibits an occupying power from using civilians in the military operations of its forces, based on, inter alia, Articles 27 and 28 of the Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949); and Articles 51, 57 and 58 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 (1977).

In addition, the human rights organizations submitted new evidence demonstrating that the Israeli army is continuing to use Palestinians as human shields and to commit other abuses against them, despite the fact that the human rights organizations’ petition on this matter is still pending, and an injunction has been issued by the Supreme Court barring these practices.

In an affidavit included with the most recent submission, 21-year-old Mr. Samer Sharif of Nablus testified that on 21 January 2003, the date of the last hearing in the case, he was used as a human shield by Israeli army soldiers. In his affidavit, Mr. Sharif stated that soldiers placed him on the hood of an army jeep, and handcuffed him to the window with his back to the driver. The jeep then drove towards a group of Palestinian youths who were throwing stones at it. From behind Mr. Sharif, one of the soldiers in the jeep fired his weapon at the stone-throwers, using Mr. Sharif’s body as a shield, and placing the weapon very close to his head.

The petitioners also presented evidence of further abuses committed by the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians, reported by Physicians for Human Rights - Israel. On 26 January 2003, five Palestinian ambulances were stopped by Israeli soldiers near Nablus. The ambulance workers were then forced to stand between the soldiers and a group of stone-throwers. While the medical personnel were being used as human shields, a child, on his way to receive medical treatment, was kept waiting in one of the ambulances.

The petitioners argued that, in addition to the complete prohibition on the use of civilians in military operations stipulated by international humanitarian law, the judgment of Israeli army commanders should not be trusted in determining whether participation in a military operation would be dangerous for a Palestinian civilian.

In support of this argument, the petitioners submitted a videotape of an interview with an Israeli military commander conducted on Israel’s Channel 1 News on 30 January 2003. In the interview, the commander states that there can be no possibility of fighting terror in the Occupied Territories without harming the civilian population.

Further, the seven human rights organizations submitted a newspaper article by Justin Huggler, titled “Palestinians say they are being subjected to punishment ‘lottery’ by Israeli soldiers,” which was published in the The Independent on 11 February 2003. The article details reports from four independent Palestinian witnesses, who describe a practice being undertaken by the Israeli Border Police. According to this practice, referred to as a “punishment lottery,” unarmed Palestinian civilians are forced, in some case at gunpoint, to select at random from a series of “punishments” written on small slips of paper. These “punishments” have included harsh physical violence, as well as humiliating and degrading treatment, meted out by the Border Police. Among the victims of this practice were a middle-aged father of nine children and a sixteen-year-old boy.

The practice of conducting “punishment lotteries” was confirmed by the soldiers themselves in an article published in the Jerusalem newspaper Kol Hazman on 14 February 2003. In the article, the soldiers bragged about conducting the lotteries, as well as other abusive practices, including activating megaphone sirens at top volume next to the heads of Palestinian civilians, and forcing Palestinian civilians to chase rolling wheels downhill.

In the submission, the petitioners asked the Court to declare the military’s “assistance order” illegal. Further, they requested that the Court clarify that the temporary injunction issued in the case on 18 August 2002 absolutely prohibits any and all use of Palestinian civilians in military operations, and is not subject to the discretion of Israeli army commanders. The petitioners also asked the Court to levy fines against the respondents for violating the injunction. The State and the army have 30 days in which to respond to the human rights organizations’ submission.

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