A major United States human rights group is accusing the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) of using innocent Palestinians as hostages and human shields while carrying
out military operations in the Palestinian territories.
Such practices, documented in a 23-page report released Thursday by New York-based
Human Rights Watch (HRW), constitute
"a serious violation of international humanitarian law" and a "war crime," according
to the group which called on Israel to investigate specific incidents and bring
those responsible to justice.
"Palestinians were taken at gunpoint to knock on doors, open strange packages,
and search houses in which the IDF suspected armed Palestinians were present,"
according to the report, which described such practices as "routine."
In one case, a Palestinian man was shot in the upper leg in order to pressure
his brother to surrender to IDF forces, a practice which amounted to "hostage-taking,"
the report said. "There is no justification for the abuses documented in this
report," said Hanny Megally, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division.
"The government of Israel should live up to its obligations and stop these acts
He noted that the IDF has so far rebuffed repeated requests by HRW to meet
with Israeli military officials to discuss the findings of the report, which covers
the period between October, 2001, when the IDF began staging raids into Palestinian
towns, villages, and refugee camps in search of alleged terrorists, and the end
of last month when its raids escalated into virtual reoccupations.
The report, comes as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell returns to Washington
after an apparently fruitless 10-day quest to negotiate a ceasefire between Israeli
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and besieged Palestine Authority President Yasser
While Sharon pledged to withdraw from most of the populated areas invaded
and occupied by the IDF within the next week, the army has continued launching
raids into West Bank villages and has refused to permit Arafat to leave his besieged
At the same time, the IDF has continued to defend itself against charges by
human rights, relief, and humanitarian groups that hundreds of Palestinians have
been killed in 'Operation Defensive Shield,' which was launched late last month
after a suicide bomber killed two dozen Israelis gathered for Passover celebrations
at a hotel in Netanya.
The same groups have also complained that Israeli authorities are not cooperating
in relief efforts, particularly in the Jenin refugee camp, much of which was razed
by the IDF when Palestinians there mounted a stiff resistance to the invading
Outsiders gained access to the camp only in the last few days, and one Amnesty
International delegate, Javier Zuniga, Wednesday described it as a "lunar landscape"
where entire families may have been buried under the rubble of their own homes.
"If this was an earthquake the international community would be asked for
and give urgent help," said Amnesty. "It is shocking that the authorities have
not asked for help and that the international community is not offering it."
The new HRW report, 'In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians During IDF Arrest
Operations,' is likely to fuel outrage over the IDF's conduct because it accuses
the army of "systematically" forcing civilians to help carry out military operations.
Forcing civilians at gunpoint to act as a shield for IDF troops hunting terrorist
suspects "violates a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law,
that of civilian immunity," by recklessly exposing non-combatants to danger, according
to the report, which documented two cases in which the IDF used children as shields.
HRW's charges largely echo similar accusations made by other human rights
groups, including B'Tselem, a prominent Israeli group which monitors human rights
conditions in the occupied territories, and independent Palestinian groups, such
as the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment.
Four raids described in detail by HRW all shared common elements and dynamics.
They all were aimed at arresting "wanted" Palestinians alleged to have planned
or taken part in attacks against Israeli military targets or civilians.
In each case, eyewitnesses and victims described to HRW researchers a "night
of panic and terror, including death threats, house demolitions, and wide-scale
arrests," as well as the "routine" use of civilians by the IDF to perform "life-endangering
In the IDF's December invasion of Salfit, a regional center of 7,000 inhabitants
between Ramallah and Nablus, IDF soldiers held Palestinian civilians at close
range while they came under fire from armed Palestinians, according to the report.
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