Legal background

Published: 
1 Jan 2014

International Humanitarian Law, which establishes the rules applying during armed conflict, requires the sides to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and requires them to protect the lives and dignity of civilians. The Fourth Geneva Convention specifies that civilians "are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honor... They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof'…" (Article 27)

As a result of this duty to protect the lives and honor of civilians, the Convention explicitly prohibits the use of civilians as human shields by placing them in a way that renders certain points or areas immune from attack (Article 28). The official commentary of the Convention refers to this practice, which was common during the Second World War, as "cruel and barbaric." The Convention also prohibits the use of physical or moral coercion of civilians, and forcing them to take part in military tasks (Articles 31 and 51, respectively).

Furthermore, the IHL determines that, during armed conflict, children under the age of fifteen are entitled to special protection by the parties to the conflict, in addition to those provided to all civilians. The use of children under this age to carry out military tasks is a war crime under international criminal law.

Despite these prohibitions, 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.