Israeli Soldiers use civilians as Human Shields in Beit Hanun

B’Tselem’s initial investigation indicates that, during an incursion by Israeli forces into Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip, on 17 July 2006, soldiers seized control of two buildings in the town and used residents as human shield.

After seizing control of the buildings, the soldiers held six residents, two of them minors, on the staircases of the two buildings, at the entrance to rooms in which the soldiers positioned themselves, for some twelve hours. During this time, there were intense exchanges of gunfire between the soldiers and armed Palestinians. The soldiers also demanded that one of the occupants walk in front of them during a search of all the apartments in one of the buildings, after which they released her.

International humanitarian law forbids using civilians as human shields by placing them next to soldiers or next to military facilities, with the intention of gaining immunity from attack, or by forcing the civilians to carry out dangerous military assignments.

B’Tselem has demanded that the Judge Advocate General immediately order a Military Police investigation into the matter and prosecute the soldiers responsible for the action.

Chronology of the Events

In the IDF’s Operation Summer Rains in the Gaza Strip following the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, engineer, artillery, and infantry forces made an incursion into Beit Hanun, a town of some 32,000 people in the northern Gaza Strip, early in the morning on 17 July. According to the IDF Spokesperson, during the incursion, “IDF struck approximately twenty armed terrorists.” The announcement added that, “Forces also carried out engineering work to harm terror organizations’ infrastructure and hamper their activity, and arrested a number of wanted men… During searches, forces discovered three Kalashnikov rifles, a carbine, a pistol, and ammunition.”

Around 6:00 A.M., troops in armored personnel carriers and bulldozers drove up to two adjacent four-story buildings in the middle of the town, near the a-Nasser mosque. The bulldozers destroyed the concrete wall around each building and then destroyed one of the external walls on the ground floor of each of the buildings. The extended Kafarneh family lives on the bottom three floors of one of the buildings. On the fourth floor are the offices of the Ramatan Palestinian News Agency. The ’Ali family lives in the other building.

Part of the force, twelve soldiers in the estimate of one of the witnesses, burst into the Kafarneh building through the area where the wall was destroyed, firing stun grenades as they entered. At the time, there were 25 people in the building, including 11 children. Some of those present were from the ’Ali family who left the adjacent building when the military entered Beit Hanun. The soldiers called all the residents to gather in the living room on the ground floor, and then searched them. Threatening the occupants with his weapon, one of the soldiers ordered ’Aza Kafarneh, a 43-year old woman, to accompany him to search each of the floors in the building and to open the doors of each of the rooms. At the end of the search, the soldiers ordered all the occupants, except for three, to leave the building. As they left, there was a heavy exchange of gunfire between IDF soldiers and Palestinians. In her testimony to B’Tselem, ’Aza Kafarneh related that, in light of the situation, she requested the soldier to let them remain in the building, but the soldiers refused. “We had to lay flat on the ground and crawl to the neighbor’s house…”

The three who were kept in the building were two of her sons, Hazem, 14, and Qusay, 16, and her nephew, Khaled, 23. The three were taken to the staircase, at the entrance to the third-floor apartment, where the soldiers were located. The three sat there until around 8:00 P.M, about 45 minutes before the soldiers left the building. During this time, soldiers inside and outside the building were engaged in exchanges of gunfire with armed Palestinians. The staircase was not in the direct line of gunfire. Just before the end of the incident, the soldiers ordered the three to go downstairs, in front of them, to the entrance of the building.

At the same time (around 6:00 AM), other members of the military force had seized control of the building in which the ’Ali family lives. The only people in the building were the mother, ’Ayesha, 60, and her three sons, Hazem, 29, Tareq, 25, and ’Emad, 41. ’Ayesha ’Ali was taken into an interior room on the ground floor, where she stayed with her hands tied until the end of the events.

The soldiers ordered her three sons to undress and then searched them. The soldiers then cuffed their hands behind their back and blindfolded them. According to the testimony of Hazem, the soldiers tightened the cuffs intentionally so as to hurt them. One of the soldiers kicked him in the chest after he complained about the pain. However, when his hands began to swell and bleed from the cuffs, another soldier put a new pair of cuffs on his hands.

’Emad, who serves in the Palestinian police force, handed over his personal weapon at the beginning of the events, in response to the soldiers’ demand. Another member of the family who also serves in a Palestinian police unit was not present at the time. Soldiers searched for his weapon, but they did not find it. During the search, the soldiers broke a lot of the family’s furniture and caused great destruction in some of the apartments.

Following the search, one of the soldiers took Hazem’s cell phone and called four persons whose numbers were in the phone’s memory. The soldier told each of them: “If you want Hazem, Tareq, and ’Emad released, bring your weapons.” According to Hazem’s testimony, the four persons work with him at Ramatan and were selected at random; none of them have any weapons.

Around 8:00 A.M., the three men were taken to the staircase next to the third-floor apartment, where the soldiers were gathered. The three remained on the stairs, their hands cuffed behind their back and their eyes covered, until 8:45 P.M., when the soldiers left the building. At a certain point, one of the brothers, Tareq, moved a bit, and a soldier hit him in the chest and threatened to kill him. While they sat there, an intense exchange of gunfire took place between soldiers in the building and armed Palestinians outside. In contrast to the situation in the other building, many bullets entered the staircase area via the window and struck the wall, above the heads of the three occupants. One of the brothers, ’Emad, was taken by the soldiers at the end of the incident and remains in Israeli detention.

During the events, ’Aza Kafarneh was in contact with B’Tselem and asked the organization to help attain the release of her family members who were being held by the soldiers. A B’Tselem staff member, Najib Abu Rokaya, called the IDF’s District Coordination Office in the Gaza Strip and warned them about the incident. The soldier on the other end of the phone referred Abu Rokaya to the DCO’s legal advisor, Captain Haim Sharbit. After Abu Rokaya spoke with him, Sharbit said that he could do nothing about the matter because “we are not familiar with the incident.”

Legal Background

The testimonies taken by B’Tselem indicate that the Israeli soldiers who took over the buildings used the occupants as human shields. They placed civilians on the staircase, next to the rooms where the soldiers were located, with the intention of deterring the armed Palestinians from attacking the building and/or so that the civilians would be located between the soldiers and the armed Palestinians, should the latter manage to penetrate the building and try to shoot them. The soldiers used one of the occupants to open the doors of the apartments, apparently out of fear that other persons were hiding there and would open fire when the door was opened.

International humanitarian law, which states the rules applying in armed conflicts, requires the sides to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and to protect the lives and dignity of civilians. The Fourth Geneva Convention, in Article 27, states that civilians who find themselves in the hands of one of the parties are “entitled, in all circumstances, to respect… They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof…”

Article 28 of the Convention expressly prohibits the use of civilians as human shields by placing them alongside soldiers or military facilities, with the hope of attaining immunity from attack. The official commentary of the Convention refers to this practice, which was common in the Second World War as “cruel and barbaric.” The Convention, in Articles 31 and 51, also prohibits the use of physical or moral coercion on civilians or forcing them to carry out military tasks.

Despite these prohibitions, for a long period of time following the outbreak of the second intifada, particularly during Operation Defensive Shield, in April 2002, the IDF systematically used Palestinian civilians as human shields, forcing them to carry out military actions which threatened their lives. It was not until a High Court petition was filed by Israeli human rights organizations opposing such action, in May 2002, that the IDF issued a general order prohibiting the use of Palestinians as “a means of ’human shield’ against gunfire or attacks by the Palestinian side.’” Following this order, the use of this practice declined sharply. However, according to IDF interpretation, assistance by Palestinians, with their consent, in warning a wanted person hiding in a certain location is not deemed use of a human shield. However, this practice was also outlawed following the ruling of the Israeli High Court of Justice that this practice is inconsistent with the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Clearly, then, the IDF’s treatment of the Palestinian occupants in the two Beit Hanun buildings flagrantly breached fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, as well as IDF regulations. B’Tselem wrote to the military’s Judge Advocate General and demanded that he immediately order a Military Police investigation regarding this incident, and that he prosecute all those responsible for these illegal acts.

B’Tselem is the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories