Human Rights Watch – 2006-11-23 23:31:58
OPT: Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks
Human Rights Watch
JERUSALEM (November 22, 2006) – Palestinian armed groups must not endanger Palestinian civilians by encouraging them to gather in and around suspected militants’ homes targeted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Human Rights Watch said today.
Calling civilians to a location that the opposing side has identified for attack is at worst human shielding, at best failing to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack. Both are violations of international humanitarian law.
According to media reports, on Saturday the IDF warned Mohammedweil Baroud, a commander in the Popular Resistance Committees, to leave his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp as they planned to destroy it. Baroud reportedly summoned neighbors and friends to protect his house, and a crowd of hundreds of Palestinians gathered in, around, and on the roof of the house.
The IDF said that they called off the attack after they saw the large number of civilians around the house. On Monday, the BBC also reported that the IDF had warned Wael Rajab, an alleged Hamas member in Beit Lahiya, that that they were preparing to attack his home, and that a call was later broadcasted from local mosques for volunteers to protect the home.
“There is no excuse for calling civilians to the scene of a planned attack,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.”
Various media have reported that other Palestinian officials and armed groups have voiced support for these tactics. In a visit to Baroud’s house on Sunday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority reportedly said: “We are so proud of this national stand. It’s the first stop toward protecting our homes … so long as this strategy is in the interest of our people, we support this strategy.”
A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees was also quoted as saying: “We call upon all the fighters to reject evacuating their houses, and we urge our people to rush into threatened houses and make human shields.”
“Prime Minister Haniyeh and other Palestinian leaders should be renouncing, not embracing, the tactic of encouraging civilians to place themselves at risk,” said Whitson.
On November 3 the BBC also reported that Hamas radio broadcasted an appeal to local women to go to a mosque to protect 15 alleged militants holed up inside from Israeli forces surrounding the building. Many women went to the mosque and reportedly two were killed and 10 more injured when Israeli forces opened fire.
It is a war crime to seek to use the presence of civilians to render certain points or areas immune from military operations or to direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attack.
In the case where the object of attack is not a legitimate military target, calling civilians to the scene would still contravene the international humanitarian law imperative for parties to the conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack.
In the event that such abuse takes place, however, parties to the conflict remain obliged under international humanitarian law to take precautionary measures and not to target civilians or cause excessive civilian injury or damage in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage.
In other words, while civilians placing themselves in the way of military actions take on heightened risks, they cannot be considered legitimate targets by the opposing force, and parties to the conflict should cancel or suspend attacks where excessive civilian damage is anticipated. Human Rights Watch said that the IDF had properly respected its obligations under international humanitarian law in suspending the attack on the Baroud home that would have caused substantial civilian harm.
Human Rights Watch, however, also reminded the IDF that even in the absence of deliberately orchestrated measures to maximize a civilian presence near its targets, any destruction of civilian property must be done strictly in compliance with international humanitarian law. An ostensibly civilian object such as a home can be the subject of attack only if it is being used for military purposes at the relevant time and its destruction makes a direct and immediate contribution to the fighting.
“The IDF should immediately explain what its military objective is in targeting the homes that it has ordered to be vacated,” said Whitson.
According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, between July and November 15 this year, the IDF destroyed 251 homes in Gaza, leaving 1577 people homeless. In 105 of these cases the IDF destroyed the home by airstrike after warning the inhabitants to leave. While the IDF generally claims that militants used those homes to store weapons, they have not presented any concrete evidence in individual cases.
Human Rights Watch has also reported extensively on the coerced use of Palestinian civilians during military operations, and documented the use of Palestinian civilians as “human shields” and for military purposes during the Israeli military operations in Jenin in 2002. The Israeli High Court confirmed the illegality of using human shields in 2002.
As recently as July 2006, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have documented the IDF’s forcible use of Palestinians as human shields in a well publicized incident during military operations in Beit Hanoun. According to the groups, the IDF blindfolded six civilians, including two minors, and forced them to stand in front of soldiers who took over civilian homes during a raid in northern Gaza.
• In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians During IDF Arrest Operations, Report, April 18, 2002
• More of Human Rights Watch’s work on Israel and the OPT. Country Page
On Human Shields (and Human Rights Watch)
(November 23, 2006) — I’ve been having a bit of an email exchange today with Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East Division of Human Rights Watch, over their decision, yesterday, to rush out a press release criticising the Gazans’ latest use of nonviolent mass action to halt israel’s resumed practice of punitive home demolitions in Gaza.
The text of the HRW press release is now available on-line. It is titled “OPT: Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks.”
In Sarah Leah’s emails to me she has stressed two points: (1) The point, also made in the press release, that “”Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.” And (2) that for Palestinian military commanders, in particular, to ask civilians to act as “human shields” in this way represented an unlawful attempt to pur civilians at potential risk.
I have pointed out to her that by these lights, for Mandela (who was a military commander, much more than Ismail Haniyeh — who was quoted in the HRW release — ever was) to call for South Africa’s non-whites to engage in nonviolent mass actions against the apartheid regime, which were often very risky indeed, would also likewise have been considered “unlawful” or even — as HRW grandiosely terms the situation in Gaza “a war crime.”
I pointed out that many other people, in addition to alleged “military commanders” also joined the mobilization effort in Gaza. I pointed out that there has been no suggestion of any coercion being applied on anyone to participate in this quite voluntary human-shielding action. (This is, of course, the most marked difference with the situation when Israel — in the past, and reportedly as recently as last July — has forced Palestinians at gunpoint to act as human shields during its actions in the OPTs. This issue of the presence or absence of coercion is surely a very important one indeed.)
I also wish I’d pointed out more forcefully than I did that — contrary to what SL said both in the press release and to me — it does make a significant difference whether the threatened target of Israel’s violent action was a “legitimate military target”, or not…
So the conversation will doubtless continue. I still strongly question why Sarah Leah and the rest of HRW’s very comfortably paid apparatchiks rushed to get this very definitive and accusatory press release out so very quickly. Especially given that — as I’d noted here yesterday — over the past four months HRW had said not one word about Israel’s horrible, very harmful resumption, back in July, of the practice of demolishing large numbers family homes in the Gaza Strip for purely punitive purposes.
It was that practice that the latest “human shields” operation was trying to prevent… and thus far, successfully so…
HRW did have the grace — finally! — in yesterday’s press release to mention the fact and scale of Israel’s resumption of undertaking punitive home demolitions min Gaza… But that very salient fact was buried ways down toward the end of their press release.
And notably, the text completely fails to call on Israel to cease this extremely harmful and violent practice, which — in the absence of any evidence at all that the homes in question were used to store weapons — is a quite evident and serious infraction of the Geneva Conventions.
I note, however, that the Israelis must have been very peeved at the success of the latest human shield operation because earlier today they sent ground force (tank and sniper) units into northern Gaza, installing some of these units in Palestinian homes as a way of thereby “converting” them into military positions.
Given that the population density in Gaza is such that people usually live in all these houses, this almost immediately turns these individuals — whom the IOF usually keeps through coercive means as prisoners in one or more rooms of their own homes — into coerced human shields. What they are “shielding” there is of course the IOF’s aggressive and violent presence in and atop their home.
(Sarah Leah, where’s the outrage?)
One of the homes taken over today was that of female Hamas legislator Jameela al-Shanti, one of the main organizers of the recent civilian mass actions.
Here’s that AP account linked to above:
. Troops also took over the home of a Hamas legislator who earlier in the month helped to organize a women’s demonstration that let dozens of militants escape an Israeli siege on a Beit Hanoun mosque, the lawmaker, Jamila Shanti, told The Associated Press.
. She was not in the house at the time…
. A bulldozer chipped away at the walls of the two-story structure so troops could enter, relatives inside the house and neighbors told her, she said. Once inside, they locked about 15 members of her family, including five children, into a single room and threw furniture and clothes out of windows, she said.
. “They are only making us more stubborn,” she said. “We will resist with our last drop of blood.”
. Bulldozers, skirting regular roads where mines could be planted, also created new routes of access by knocking down greenhouses in Jebaliya, Beit Hanoun and neighboring Beit Lahiya, and two small farmers’ houses.
. The army confirmed it was operating in the area as part of its ongoing offensive against Gaza rocket squads, but gave no other details.
Poor Ms. Shanti. Just a couple of weeks ago the IOF’s artillery shelled her house, killing her sister-in-law Nahla, and terrifying all the children who live there. Can you imagine how the children felt during today’s ghastly, inhumane action?
In what possible way was the house a legitimate military target for the IOF?
… And finally, one last note on HRW’s application of what seem like evidently biased double standards regarding the whole “human shields” issue. You probably recall the furore back in July when a bunch of Israeli parents apparently took their “cute” little girl-children to visit a nearby and quite active artillery position in northern Israel, during the war with Hizbullah… and the girls all got to write little messages with felt-tip markers onto the large and very destructive artillery shells that were standing around there… And the whole scene was photographed and quite widely discussed in some parts of the blogosphere (including here, by Scott.)
This looks much more serious as an instance of “human shielding” than anything that happened in Gaza this week. The IDF artillery position was clearly itself a “legitimate military target”, and the commanders seem not to have tried to shoo the Israeli families away from the place. But can you only imagine the uproar if Hizbullah had targeted the position and hit it with its rockets — and 10 or 12 Israeli children had been blown up while they were there drawing their little designs and messages on the IDF’s artillery shells?
And Human Rights Watch said what about that incident??? As far as I can figure out, absolutely nothing.
But when the Palestinians of Gaza try to undertake an unarmed action of social defense of homes unjustifiably targeted for punitive demolition, HRW can’t hurry fast enough to issue its denunciation.
Truly, as I told Sarah Leah, I don’t understand what they’re thinking.