Israeli use of 'human shields' is judged illegal

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Ruling the practice a violation of international law, Chief Justice Aharon Barak declared: "You cannot exploit the civilian population for the army's military needs, and you cannot force them to collaborate with the army." He added: "Based on this principle, we rule it illegal to use civilians as human shields, and we also rule it illegal to use civilians to pass military warnings from the army to those the army wants to arrest."

Some Palestinian civilians have been wounded or killed in crossfire during what is also known as the "neighbour procedure", under which they are sent in first to the hide- outs of suspected militants.

After the Supreme Court granted interim injunctions in August 2002 to the Association of Civil Rights in Israel and the Adallah human rights organisation, the army substituted an "early warning" system which meant in theory that civilians should only be used when they were willing and their lives were not in danger.

But the Supreme Court also ruled against this version of the practice yesterday. Chief Justice Barak said: "It is uncommon that there is ever really free will ... Ninety-nine out of 100 times, it's not free will. It is very difficult to confirm will, and I am concerned that when an army unit comes at night, no one will refuse."

The petitioners' case has been underlined by recent testimony to an ex-soldiers' group called Breaking the Silence,which has strongly criticised military ethics. Describing the "neighbour procedure" during Operation Defensive Shield in Nablus in May 2002, a first sergeant in the Golani Brigade said it meant "that this is a person that goes through the holes we've blown up, and ... picks up for you stuff from the floor, to make sure nothing is booby-trapped. He goes inside rooms before you do, so that if there is a terrorist inside, he would be hurt [and not you]."

The sergeant said that in one case a civilian began to help "on his own initiative" but added: "I suddenly realised he was apparently really scared, and this is why he was so eager to help, not from a love for Israel or anything like it."

A staff sergeant in the Nahal Brigade described how in Hebron in late 2002 a platoon commander walked a Palestinian civilian up some stairs ahead of him "and told [him] to tell the terrorist that we were going to kill him ... if the terrorist did not come out and surrender himself ... [He] held the gun against his head and shouted. Where is he? Where is he?... the guy told him where the terrorist was hiding."

Among right-wing Knesset members who denounced the ruling yesterday, Effi Eitam said the justices "are binding the hands" of the army, which "stands against a terror without borders". The National Religious Party chairman and Knesset member Zevulun Orlev said that the ruling, along with one last month ordering the rerouting of the army's separation barrier in the Qalkilya area, "represents a dangerous trend - High Court justices ready to endanger the lives of soldiers and Israeli citizens in order to avoid hurting Palestinians".

The Knesset member Zahava Gal-On of the left-wing Meretz-Yahad party said the court had ruled that "an army in a democratic state cannot act like terror gangs".