In recent days, Israeli officials have repeatedly claimed that Hamas is responsible for the killing and wounding of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military because of the Palestinian group's alleged use of "human shields." These claims echo accusations that have been made over many years by Israeli officials and their defenders, which critics argue is part of an attempt to absolve Israel of responsibility for the hugely disproportionate number of Palestinian and other civilians, most notably Lebanese, killed and injured by the Israeli army in military operations. In reality, while there's scant evidence that Hamas and other Palestinian groups deliberately use civilians as human shields, the Israeli military has a long and well-documented history of using Palestinian and other civilians as human shields, a practice officially known as the "neighbor procedure." To put Israel's accusations into context, the IMEU offers the following fact sheet on Israel's use of Palestinian human shields.
- Since at least the early 1980s, the Israeli army has systematically used Palestinian civilians as human shields under a practice known officially as the "neighbor procedure," so-called because it often involves soldiers ordering the neighbors of Palestinian militants to approach their homes and encourage them to surrender.
- In May 2002, seven Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations file a complaint with the Israeli Supreme Court against the Israeli army's widespread use of Palestinian civilians as human shields. In response, the army tells the court that it will cease using Palestinian civilians in military operations, except for the "neighbor procedure," which it claims does not qualify as using human shields.
- In August 2002, a 19-year-old Palestinian named Nidal Abu Mukhsan is killed during an Israeli military operation after soldiers order him to approach the house of a Hamas activist they are attempting to capture. Shortly after Abu Mukhsan's death the Israeli Supreme Court orders a temporary halt to the practice.
- In November 2002, Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem publishes a report detailing five cases of Palestinians who were used as human shields by Israeli soldiers. In December, the Israeli government responds to legal action taken by the Palestinians in question, stating that the "neighbor procedure: will be dropped and replaced with a "prior warning procedure," which consists of basically the same practice, although now Israeli commanders will be required to get the "consent" of Palestinian civilians. Human rights groups condemn the move as unlawful.
- In January 2003, the Supreme Court gives approval to the "prior warning procedure."
- In October 2005, in response to years of complaints from human rights organizations, the Israeli Supreme Court bans the "neighbor" and "prior warning" procedures, ruling that they do amount to the use of civilians as human shields and violate international law. According to B'Tselem:
'...for a long time after the second intifada began, in September 2000, and especially during "Operation Defensive Shield," in April 2002, Israeli soldiers routinely used Palestinian civilians as human shields by forcing them to carry out life-threatening military tasks. It was only following a High Court petition against this practice, which was filed by human rights organizations 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 the order, the use of human shields dropped sharply. 'However, the army did not construe as a human shield the use of Palestinians, provided they consented, "to deliver a warning" to a wanted person entrenched in a certain location. The army continued the widespread use of this practice, which they referred to as "the neighbor procedure." Following another petition filed by human rights organizations, the High Court of Justice ruled that this practice, too, violated international humanitarian law and that it was thus illegal.'Despite the Israel Supreme Court ban, reports and documented cases of Israeli soldiers continuing to use Palestinian civilians as human shields persist.
- In 2007, B'Tselem releases a report documenting 14 cases in which Israeli soldiers have used Palestinian civilians - including boys and girls as young as 11-years-old - as human shields to protect themselves in dangerous situations. In one case, a 14-year-old girl in Gaza is shot in the stomach and leg after soldiers used her as a human shield during an incursion.
- In October 2007, the Judge Advocate General of the Israeli army declines to prosecute an Israeli brigadier general who has ordered the use of the "prior-warning procedure" at least five times, in violation of the Supreme Court's ruling.
- During Operation Cast Lead, Israel's bloody three-week attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-9, there are widespread reports of Israeli soldiers using Palestinian civilians as human shields. In October 2010, an Israeli military court convicts two soldiers of using a 10-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield to open a bag that they suspect contains a bomb during Cast Lead. The two soldiers are given a three-month conditional sentence and demoted from staff sergeant to private. In response to the convictions, the author of the Israeli army's code of ethics defends the "neighbor procedure," telling a journalist, "there are situations in which the use of the enemy's civilian population to defuse a potentially explosive situation is not only ethically permissible, it also saves lives."
- In May 2011, two dozen former Israeli soldiers come forward to provide eyewitness accounts of the abuse of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military, including their use as human shields.
For more information on the Israeli army's use of human shields, see: B'TSELEM:
- Human Shields: Background http://www.btselem.org/human_shields
- Human Shields: Timeline of events http://www.btselem.org/human_shields/timeline_of_events
- Human Shields: Legal Background http://www.btselem.org/human_shields/legal_background
- BREAKING THE SILENCE: A Procedure with Many Names http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimonies/videos/17604
- Videos of former Israeli Soldiers Discussing Use of Human Shields http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimonies/videos/?ci=115