Despite the fact that Israeli officials repeatedly alleged that Palestinian factions used human shields as a matter of policy in summer 2014, there is little to no evidence that the crime of human shields, as defined under international law, was committed by Hamas or other groups. Even if human shields were used, this would not have absolved Israel from responsibility for obeying the law. There is evidence that sufficient precaution was not taken with regards to launching attacks in close proximity to non-combatants — though even the Israeli army itself only claims that 18 percent of rockets were fired “from civilian facilities.” Thus, given Israeli propaganda’s reliance on this trope, the paucity of evidence for Palestinians using human shields is striking.
Meanwhile, however, there is reliable, copious documentation of Israeli forces using human shields over many years. As summarized by Israeli NGO B’Tselem, during the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000, “the Israeli military used Palestinian civilians as human shields” as the “implementation of a decision made by senior military authorities.” According to officials, by the time that Israel’s Supreme Court declared the policy unlawful in 2005, the Israeli army had made use of human shield procedures on 1,200 occasions over the preceding five years.
Yet despite the court ruling, there have been numerous documented examples of the practice persisting. In November 2006, Israeli soldiers used a Palestinian man as a human shield during a military operation in Bethlehem. In 2007, B’Tselem documented 14 instances of the use of human shields — including two children in Nablus. In October 2007, the now deputy head of the Israeli military, Yair Golan, was subjected to a mere ‘rebuke’ for ordering soldiers to use human shields. (When two soldiers were convicted of using a Palestinian child as a human shield during ‘Operation Cast Lead’, they were sentenced to a three-month suspended sentence and demoted.)
This kind of impunity was condemned by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child in June 2013, citing 14 cases of “Palestinian children” being used as “human shields and informants” from January 2010 to end of March 2013. Yet despite international opprobrium, the examples have continued: in April 2013, Israeli soldiers used a handcuffed Palestinian teenager as a human shield while firing on protesters in the West Bank, while in July 2014, soldiers “force[d] a family member to escort them” during a house raid in Hebron.
Indeed, all of the charges made by Israeli spokespersons against Palestinian factions — with little or no supporting evidence beyond creative cartoons or infographics — have their parallels in documented crimes of the Israeli army. Using homes for military operations? The Israeli army occupies and converts Palestinian houses into outposts while the residents are confined to a certain section of the property. Disguising yourself as non-combatants to commit violent attacks? In November 2015, Israeli occupation forces dressed as civilians — including one as a pregnant woman in a wheelchair — during a raid on a Hebron hospital where they shot dead a man in cold blood.
Israeli forces have also used human shields during invasions of Gaza. In July 2006, for example, soldiers in Beit Hanoun held six civilians, including two children, “at the entrance to rooms in which the soldiers positioned themselves, for some twelve hours,” during “intense exchanges of gunfire between the soldiers and armed Palestinians.” The Goldstone report also documented incidents during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in which civilians “were blindfolded and handcuffed as they were forced to enter houses ahead of the Israeli soldiers.” The UN fact-finding mission behind the report concluded that “this practice amounts to the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields,” and that “it would not be difficult to conclude that this was a practice repeatedly adopted…during the military operation in Gaza.”
‘Operation Protective Edge’ was no exception to the Israeli army’s track record of using Palestinian civilians as human shields. In one account recorded by Defense for Children International – Palestine, Israeli soldiers “repeatedly used” a 17-year-old Palestinian “as a human shield for five days,” forcing him at gunpoint “to search for tunnels,” and subjecting him to physical abuse. The NGO’s executive director, Rifat Kassis, noted how “Israeli officials make generalized accusations [of Hamas fighters using human shields] while Israeli soldiers engage in conduct that amounts to war crimes.”
The UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict noted “reports of the use of human shields [by Israeli soldiers] in the context of the search operations” on the ground in Gaza. The commission cited one case where Israeli forces were “shooting from behind…naked men, using them as human shields” for hours. The men were “told by the soldiers that they were placed by the window in order to deter Hamas fighters from returning fire.” The commission concluded that “the manner in which the Israeli soldiers forced Palestinian civilians to stand in windows, enter houses/underground areas and/or perform dangerous tasks of a military nature, constitutes a violation of the prohibition against the use of human shields contained in article 28 of Geneva Convention IV, and may amount to a war crime.”
Ma’an News Agency