by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is using Palestinian civilians as "human shields" and even hostages in its operations in the occupied territories, says a new report released Apr. 18 by a major U.S. human rights group.
Such abuses constitute "a serious violation of international humanitarian law", according to the 23-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) which details four specific IDF raids on West Bank towns and refugee camps since last October.
HRW, as well as Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, said the same practices have been used during "Operation Defensive Shield," the three-week-old IDF offensive against alleged terrorist targets in West Bank towns, villages and camps in which hundreds of Palestinians are reported to have been killed.
"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."
"This is an extremely disturbing practice," said Hanny Megally, director of HRW's Middle East division. "By marching civilians at gunpoint to do the work of its own soldiers, the IDF is betraying legal principles that every army is obliged to uphold."
In at least two cases cited by the report, "In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians During IDF Arrest Operations," Israeli troops were reported to have used children as shields. In another case, a Palestinian man was shot in the leg in order to pressure his brother to surrender to IDF forces, a practice that amounted to "hostage-taking," which is a war crime.
The report comes as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell returns from an apparently fruitless 10-day effort to negotiate a cease-fire between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and besieged Palestine Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat.
While Powell coaxed a pledge out of Sharon to withdraw the IDF from most of the populated areas it has invaded and occupied since late last month, reports on the ground indicate that the army continues to move into West Bank villages and towns even as it slowly pulls out of others.
Sharon has reportedly been encouraged by conflicting statements from senior officials in Washington -- including President George W. Bush -- during Powell's trip about U.S. demands that the IDF withdraw immediately in order to pave the way for a cease-fire and an eventual resumption of peace talks.
Hundreds of Palestinians are believed to have been killed in Operation Defensive Shield, which was particularly devastating in the refugee camp of Jenin, where Palestinian fighters put up the stiffest resistance to the IDF offensive. Israeli spokespersons have insisted that Palestinians have exaggerated the death toll.
Outsiders, including relief and human rights groups, gained access to Jenin only in the last few days and describe scenes of terrible devastation in which entire families may have been buried under the rubble of their own homes.
"It is almost impossible to conceive that what was once a town is now a lunar landscape," said Javier Zuniga, an Amnesty International official who entered Jenin Wednesday. Amnesty, as well as other groups, called for the international community to urgently provide relief assistance and rescue teams to search for survivors, insisting that Israeli efforts in that regard had been completely inadequate.
The new HRW report, which is based on investigations of four separate IDF arrest raids in late 2001 and early 2002, echoes charges about the IDF's conduct made by other human rights groups, including Amnesty and B'Tselem, an Israeli group which monitors human rights conditions in the occupied territories. Independent Palestinian groups, such as the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, have made the same charges.
B'Tselem, for example, reported just last week several instances in which IDF soldiers used civilian Palestinians as shields, notably one case where soldiers entered a mosque in Nablus that was being used as an emergency medical clinic, with their guns resting on the shoulders of civilians forced to march in front of them.
The HRW report found what it called a "consistent pattern" in the IDF's performance in the four raids, all of which were designed to arrest Palestinians who were alleged to have organized or carried out attacks -- sometimes suicide bombings -- against Israeli military targets or civilians.
The raids would begin when Israeli soldiers, often members of undercover units, entered a village or town between midnight and 2AM. Infantry and armored forces, including tanks and bulldozers, then entered at a pre-arranged signal, while attack helicopters provided air cover.
Rather than directly attacking the houses or buildings used by the "wanted" Palestinians, however, the IDF moved into others usually occupied by neighbors or relatives of their targets and ordered them, "often at gunpoint," to bring the suspected terrorists.
In each of the four raids, "the IDF compelled civilians with threats and intimidation to identify the houses of individuals 'wanted' for questioning or arrest, and to walk with IDF soldiers, sometimes during live-fire exchanges, to knock at the doors of those houses and ask the inhabitants to open the door and come out," the report said.
In some cases, soldiers forced family members or neighbors to provide information about the targets, "exposing those individuals to the potentially lethal accusation of acting as a 'collaborator'. Others were not just coerced and threatened, but also beaten," HRW said.
Victims and eyewitnesses described to HRW "a night of panic and terror, including death threats, house demolitions, and wide-scale arrests," the report went on, adding that in many cases families found their houses taken over by the IDF to be used as military positions during operations while they were ordered to remain inside.
In at least one raid last December, IDF soldiers held Palestinian civilians at close range while they came under fire from armed Palestinians, according to the report.
"There is no justification for the abuses documented in this report," said Megally. "The government should live up its obligations and stop these acts immediately," he added, noting that repeated requests by HRW to meet with IDF officials have so far been ignored.
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