8 March 2007: Testimonies taken by B’Tselem reveal that during the army’s operation in Nablus in late February, soldiers used two Palestinian children, a fifteen-year-old boy and a eleven-year-old girl, and a twenty-four-year old man as human shields. The use of human shields constitutes a flagrant breach of international humanitarian law and is explicitly and clearly prohibited by Israeli military orders. B’Tselem wrote to the Judge Advocate General and demanded that he immediately order a Military Police investigation into the matter.
The military operation, which was given the name “Hot Winter,” began on 25 February, and was intended “to undermine the terror infrastructure” in Nablus, in part by arresting wanted persons and destroying explosives laboratories. The army imposed a complete curfew for more than two consecutive days on the Old City (the Casbah), in which tens of thousands of Palestinians live. One person, who went up to his roof during the curfew, was shot and killed by soldiers, and his son was wounded.
According to the testimonies, on the first day of the operation, around five o’clock in the morning, soldiers came to the house of the ‘Amirah family, in the Old City, and removed all the occupants from the house and took them to a nearby house, where other Palestinians were also being held. Then the soldiers ordered one of the family, 15-year-old ‘Amid to accompany them in their search of three other houses. According to ‘Amid’s testimony, the soldiers pushed him with the barrels of their rifles and forced him to enter rooms of the house in front of them, open cabinets and empty out the contents, and open windows. In one instance, according to the testimony, a soldier shot several shots into the room.
Other soldiers took ‘Amid’s cousin, Samah ‘Amirah, 24, and used him as a human shield in a similar fashion. Part of this incident was recorded on by AP [Associated Press] television cameras and broadcast both on Israeli television and abroad. ‘Amirah was forced to enter every room in his house, while soldiers followed him. Afterwards a soldier would shoot a round of bullets into each room.
In another incident, which took place on the morning of 28 February, also in the Old City, soldiers took control of the Dadush family house and locked the six members of the family in one room of the house. Throughout the day, soldiers interrogated all of the members of the family about the location of armed Palestinians who fired at soldiers in the area during the operation. Around eight o’clock at night, soldiers forced eleven-year-old Jihan Dadush to lead them twice to one of the adjacent houses that she had mentioned to the soldiers in response to their questions. The second time, when they arrived at the house, the soldiers forced her to open the door and enter in front of them. After combing the inside of the house, the soldiers returned her to her house. In her testimony to B’Tselem, Jihan said that after the soldiers left, “I was shaking with fear. I was afraid they would kill me or put me in jail. The only thing I wanted to do was sleep I am afraid that the soldiers will come back and take me.”
The picture that emerges from the testimonies, and particularly the description of the firing into the rooms in the testimonies of ‘Amid and Samach ‘Amirah, indicate that the soldiers feared the houses they searched hid armed militants or that explosives had been planted in them. In other words, the mission the two minors and the adult were forced to conduct undoubtedly included an element of danger and it seems clear that the soldiers were aware of this.
In its letter to the Judge Advocate General, B’Tselem pointed out that this was the fourth time since June 2006 (when “Operation Summer Rains,” in Gaza, took place), that the organization had documented Israeli soldiers’ use of Palestinian civilians as human shields. As far as B’Tselem knows, in only one of these cases did the JAG order a Military Police investigation. That investigation has not yet been completed. In light of these cases, B’Tselem expressed its concern that the military order prohibiting this practice is not property communicated to soldiers, and that the delay in investigating these incidents conveys a message of lenience in the military’s treatment of soldiers who engage in such practices.
International Humanitarian Law, which establishes the rules applying during armed conflict, requires the sides to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and requires them to protect the lives and dignity of civilians. The Fourth Geneva Convention specifies that civilians “are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honor … They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof” (Article 27).
As a result of this duty to protect the lives and honor of civilians, the Convention explicitly prohibits the use of civilians as human shields by placing them in a way that renders certain points or areas immune from attack (Article 28). The official commentary of the Convention refers to this practice, which was common during the Second World War, as “cruel and barbaric.” The Convention also prohibits the use of physical or moral coercion of civilians, and forcing them to take part in military tasks (Articles 31 and 51, respectively).
Furthermore, the IHL determines that, during armed conflict, children under the age of fifteen are entitled to special protection by the parties to the conflict, in addition to those provided to all civilians. The use of children under this age to carry out military tasks is a war crime under international criminal law.
Despite these prohibitions, for a long time after the second intifada began, in September 2000, and especially during “Operation Defensive Shield,” in April 2002, Israeli soldiers routinely used Palestinian civilians as human shields by forcing them to carry out life-threatening military tasks. It was only following a High Court petition against this practice, which was filed by human rights organizations in May 2002, that the IDF issued a general order prohibiting the use of Palestinians as “a means of ‘human shield’ against gunfire or attacks by the Palestinian side.” Following the order, the use of human shields dropped sharply.
However, the army did not construe as a human shield the use of Palestinians, provided they consented, “to deliver a warning” to a wanted person entrenched in a certain location. The army continued the widespread use of this practice, which they referred to as “the neighbor procedure.” Following another petition filed by human rights organizations, the High Court of Justice ruled that this practice, too, violated international humanitarian law and that it was thus illegal.