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Israel's Use of "Human Shields" Barred

Supreme Court outlaws the military's practice of having Palestinian civilians make first contact with suspected militants during raids.

October 07, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military tactic of using Palestinian civilians to approach suspected militants during raids in the West Bank is illegal, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

A coalition of human rights groups challenged the so-called early warning procedure, in which Palestinian residents are summoned either to knock on suspects' doors and urge them to surrender or to clear bystanders from targeted houses before soldiers move in.

Critics charged that Israeli soldiers were in effect using the Palestinian civilians as human shields, but the army said its aim was to prevent bloodshed on both sides during arrests.

That practice was, under the military's rules, to be used only when the resident agreed and was deemed by the on-site commander to be safe from harm.

But Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote that the tactic was illegal because "it is practically difficult to estimate when [a civilian's] consent was freely given and when the result of obvious or concealed pressures."

Barak wrote that international law forbade an occupying power from using civilians to carry out military operations.

An attorney representing the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel, the human rights group Adalah and five other petitioners expressed satisfaction. But he said activists would be keeping watch to ensure that it was obeyed.

The attorney, Marwan Dalal, said the army had repeatedly violated a high court injunction on using human shields that was issued in August 2002. He said the rights groups had filed testimony from 33 people detailing alleged violations.

One of those was a 2004 incident in which Israeli border police allegedly strapped a 13-year-old Palestinian boy onto the hood of their jeep for two hours to deter protesters from throwing rocks at them during a demonstration against Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank. A photograph showed the boy tied to the protective mesh of the vehicle's windshield.

Shai Nitzan, the government's attorney in the high court case, said the practice of asking residents to approach suspects had been used sparingly and under tight rules.

"The Supreme Court felt these restrictions were not sufficient and took one step forward and ruled that too could not be practiced," he told Israel Radio.

Nitzan said the ruling "somewhat raises the level of risk to soldiers."

Later Thursday, the army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, ordered the military to obey the court order and warned that violations would be dealt with harshly.

The rights groups filed a petition in May 2002, saying Palestinian civilians had been forced to approach the homes of fugitives during Israel's broad military offensive in the West Bank, known as Operation Defensive Shield.

The outcry over the tactic grew a few months later when a 19-year-old Palestinian in the West Bank village of Tubas was killed when gunfire erupted after he was told to approach a house during a raid.

The court then issued its injunction barring the practice, but the Justice Ministry responded by devising a protocol that restricted the procedure's use to cases in which the resident agreed and would not face harm.

That policy was the subject of Thursday's ruling.

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