Background on Human Shields

Published: 
1 Jan 2011

On 6 October 2005, Israel's High Court of Justice ruled that it was illegal for the army to use Palestinian civilians during military actions. The court ruled on a petition submitted by Adalah in the name of B'Tselem and six other human rights organizations in 2002. The petition followed the army's use of Palestinian civilians as human shields since the beginning of the second intifada, primarily during operations carried out in densely populated Palestinian areas, as occurred in Operation Defensive Shield.

The method was the same each time: soldiers picked a civilian at random and forced him to protect them with his body, and do dangerous tasks for them. For example, soldiers have ordered Palestinians to:

  • enter buildings to check if they are booby-trapped, or to remove the occupants;
  • remove suspicious objects from roads;
  • stand inside houses where soldiers set up military positions, so that Palestinians would not fire at them;
  • and walk in front of soldiers to shield them from gunfire, while the soldiers point a gun to their backs and sometimes fire over their shoulders.

The soldiers in the field did not initiate this practice; rather, the order to use civilians as a means of protection was made by senior army officials.

In August 2002, Nidal Abu Mheisen, a 19-year-old Palestinian from Tubas, was killed by Palestinian gunfire when soldiers forced him to serve as a human shield.

Despite the High Court's decision and army orders given before and after it, security forces continued to use Palestinians as human shields, although the number of cases dropped. In 2007, for example, B'Tselem documented 14 such instances. The organization wrote to the Military Advocate General Corps, demanding an investigation into each of the cases. B'Tselem’s monitoring indicates that a Military Police investigation was opened in 13 of them: in two of the cases, the investigation is continuing; in seven cases, the file was closed; and four were transferred to a military advocate for a decision whether to file charges.

During the course of Operation Cast Lead, which took place in Gaza in January 2009, B'Tselem and other organizations were informed of cases in which soldiers used Palestinians as human shields. In one case, two soldiers were prosecuted for ordering a nine-year-old boy gunpoint to open a bag that they suspected was booby-trapped. The two were given a three-month conditional sentence and demoted from staff sergeant to private.