Soldiers charged with using boy, 10, as human shield

Two Israeli soldiers were charged in a military court yesterday with forcing a 10-year-old Palestinian boy in the Gaza Strip to handle objects they suspected of being rigged to explode.

The soldiers were indicted for "ordering the boy to open cases that they thought were explosives", Major Dorit Toval, the prosecutor, said. The alleged crime took place during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military onslaught waged more than a year ago with the aim of halting Hamas rocket fire at southern Israel. A gag order was placed barring publication of the names of the soldiers.

An army spokesman said the incident took place while troops conducted sweeps of a building in Gaza City's Tal al-Hawa neighbourhood. No date was given for the incident. The soldiers were charged with exceeding their authority and behaviour unbecoming a soldier.

"There is no need to mention that this is a transgression that has no place within the ranks of the military," Ms Toval added, in remarks broadcast on the state-run Voice of Israel radio. "There are clear rules also in regard to the waging of combat. In operational situations, soldiers must safeguard [these rules] during every campaign."

Colonel Ilan Katz, the lawyer defending the two soldiers, termed the charges "hallucinatory and contrived". "It would have been better if this [indictment] had not been submitted," he added. Col Katz warned that a conviction of the soldiers could deter young people from serving in combat units in the future.

But Yehuda Shaul, an activist in the dissident soldiers' group Breaking the Silence, which gathers testimonies from soldiers, said, "The use of human shields in Operation Cast Lead was not so exceptional. By prosecuting two low-ranking soldiers, the military is trying to shift the discussion away from the big policies that came from high up in Cast Lead and which were wrong: permissive rules of engagement or mass destruction of property that had nothing to do with protecting our troops," Mr Shaul added.

Hamdi Shakura, deputy director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City, said he was not familiar with the specific case but that "we've documented cases of using Palestinians, including children as human shields". He said this violated both the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Convention on Child Rights. "I don't trust any trial by an Israeli military tribunal," he added. "We call for a civilian, independent and international investigation of the crimes.''

The army spokesman said that, prior to and during the Gaza war, it was "made clear to Israel Defence Force troops that any and all attempts to force civilians to carry out operational responsibilities, especially ones with a risk to their lives, are absolutely forbidden.''

Tensions were further inflamed yesterday when Palestinian leaders accused Jewish settlers of starting a fire that gutted a mosque in the occupied West Bank. The fire, in the village of Luban a-Sharkiyeh, was declared an act of arson by the Palestinian governor of Nablus, Jibril al-Bakri, after a joint Palestinian-Israeli investigation. There were no witnesses, but the village's mayor, Jamal Daraghmeh, said that the charred remains of holy books on the floor indicated the fire was deliberate.

The attack was swiftly condemned by Palestinian officials, who called it a "criminal act". Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters: "This is a threat to all the efforts aimed at reviving the peace process". Settler leaders said they were unaware of any planned arson attack.

In the nearby village of Hawara, witnesses said they had seen settlers setting an olive grove ablaze. The two incidents came the day after the US special envoy George Mitchell's arrival in Israel to press for the beginning of indirect peace talks.

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