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From the field

Court Forbids Use of Human Shields

On 6 October 2005, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that it is illegal for Israeli forces to use Palestinian civilians in military operations. The decision was handed down in response to a petition filed in 2002 by a coalition of human rights organizations.

IDF soldiers have used Palestinian civilians as human shields since the beginning of the current intifada. This practice is most common during IDF operations carried out in Palestinian population centers, as occurred in Operation Defensive Shield. Soldiers pick a civilian at random and force him to protect them by doing dangerous tasks. For example, soldiers have ordered Palestinians to:

  • enter buildings to check if they are booby-trapped, or to remove the occupants
  • remove suspicious objects from roads
  • stand inside houses where soldiers have set up military positions, so that Palestinians will not fire at the soldiers
  • walk in front of soldiers to shield them from gunfire, while the soldiers hold a gun behind their backs and sometimes fire over their shoulders.

On 5 May 5 2002, seven human rights organizations petitioned the High Court against the use of Palestinians as human shields. In response, the state informed the Court that "the IDF decided to issue an order to its forces forbidding all use of civilians as human shields to protect against shooting or attacks by Palestinians." However, the state added, the IDF would continue to have Palestinian civilians assist soldiers, by means of the "neighbor procedure." According to this procedure, "Palestinian civilians assist soldiers in entering the houses of other Palestinians during the course of military operations." The state claimed that such "assistance" did not constitute using the civilians as human shields, though "the IDF specified that even this use of civilians is forbidden in cases in which the commander in the field believes that there may be physical danger to the civilian."

Following a subsequent petition filed by the human rights organizations, the Court issued a temporary injunction forbidding the use of the "neighbor procedure." Cases documented by B'Tselem and other human rights organizations show that the IDF violated the Court's order. For example, in August 2002, Nidal Abu Mukhsan was killed by Palestinian gunfire while IDF soldiers used him as a human shield. />/>

In July 2003, the High Court narrowed the temporary injunction, and allowed the use of a new procedure - the "prior warning procedure" - in which Palestinian civilians may be used to assist soldiers if they volunteer. The Court has now ruled that the IDF's use of the "prior warning procedure" is illegal, as is all use of Palestinian civilians in military operations.

The true test of this ruling will be in its implementation. It should not be forgotten that the army violated the Court's interim injunction. The IDF must now ensure that all soldiers in the field are informed that it is absolutely forbidden to use civilians to perform military tasks.