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Palestinians Still Used as 'Shields,' Group Says

November 15, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — An Israeli human rights group asserted Thursday that the Israeli army continues to use unwilling Palestinian civilians as "human shields" during military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite having pledged that the practice would stop while the country's highest court weighs the matter.

A coalition of human rights petitioners went to Israel's Supreme Court in August and won a temporary injunction barring the army from ordering Palestinian civilians to carry out such tasks as knocking on suspicious doors, delivering surrender ultimatums to wanted militants or serving as advance scouts for Israeli soldiers.

Israel calls it the "neighbor procedure" -- referring to the fact that most of the civilians who are used happen to live near the scene of a confrontation between the army and Palestinian militants.

In a 20-page report, the human rights group B'Tselem said that in the wake of the court ruling, the army has continued to compel civilians to perform what can be dangerous duties on troops' behalf.

Among the recent cases it cited was that of a Palestinian municipal worker in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, 39-year-old Khaled Kamil. He told the group that before dawn Saturday, he was forced to approach the home of Iyad Sawalha, a fugitive Islamic Jihad leader, and call out to him to surrender.

Sawalha, whom Israel held responsible for a pair of bus bombings that killed 31 Israelis, died in a subsequent exchange of gunfire with troops.

Kamil, a father of three, told the group he assisted the soldiers only because he was forced to do so.

"The [Israeli] commander swore at me, threatened to destroy my home, saying: 'Do you want your house destroyed? Do you want to live in a tent? We'll demolish your house,' " the report quoted him as saying.

The Israeli army said that after the Supreme Court injunction, troops operating in the Palestinian territories were issued "unequivocal instructions" telling them that the practice was banned.

"Soldiers are strictly prohibited from employing civilians as hostages, 'human shields' or in any way that would endanger their lives," the army said in a statement, adding that it was "fully aware of the importance of this issue."

The military declined to comment on specific cases cited in the B'Tselem report but said they were among about 30 alleged violations that are under investigation.

The Supreme Court case was prompted by the death in August of a Palestinian teenager, Nidal abu Muhsein, who was ordered by troops in the West Bank village of Tubas to knock on the door of a house where a wanted Hamas leader, Nasser Jerar, was holed up.

The 19-year-old obeyed. As he approached the house, he fell dead in a hail of bullets.

It was never clearly established which side started the shooting. The army blamed the Hamas fugitive, who was then shot dead by soldiers, for firing the fatal shots.

In past interviews regarding the practice, the army has argued that civilians who are used to "help out" soldiers are not human shields under the usual definition, because they are not deliberately placed in harm's way. Army officers have said that under certain circumstances, use of Palestinian neighbors to deliver messages to gunmen can defuse a volatile situation and thus save both Palestinian and Israeli lives.

Soldiers have previously provided human rights groups with testimony describing the practice as well entrenched during 25 months of bloody fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Hebrew-language term for the tactic -- nohal shachen -- carries, in military jargon, the connotation of a standing order.

B'Tselem said that in the three months since the Supreme Court injunction, there has been a "marked decrease" in the number of cases in which soldiers have forced civilians to perform these tasks but said the practice hasn't stopped altogether. It appealed for stronger measures by the army to bring about a halt.

"The protection of soldiers is a legitimate military consideration, but it cannot be the sole consideration," the report said. "Clearly, the civilian population does not have the duty to protect soldiers."

No date has been set for the Supreme Court to decide whether to set permanent limits on the practice.

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