During a recent invasion that took place on Thursday in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli Forces operating in the Sheikh Munis neighborhood surrounded a house and began demolishing it, though the man they had come to arrest was not present. Below the scene, on the main road from Huwarra Checkpoint toward Balata Refugee Camp, soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled in an effort to prevent residents and journalists from accessing the area. Soldiers fired tear gas, percussion grenades and rubber-coated ammunition as local youths responded to the incursion by throwing stones.
As a young man passed a military Humvee, soldiers reached out and began attempting to pull him into the vehicle. The boy protested and was soon joined by second man who spoke with the soldiers in an effort to secure his release. Subsequently, both men were made to stand in front of the humvee to discourage the stone throwers. The incident was caught on tape by a human rights activist and has set off a fresh round of intense media scrutiny into the use of human shields by the Israeli Occupation Forces.

Sam Neil, of the Research Journalism Initiative, a human rights organization based in the West Bank, filmed the incident and was shocked by the international reaction.

�I�m surprised by the debate this footage has sparked,� said Neil. �The international community is treating this as if there is a chance the Israeli military might be using human shields. There is no doubt they use human shields, and have as a standard practice for a very long time.�

The use of human shields has long been forbidden by international law under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the practice was even banned by Israel�s own supreme court in an Oct, 2005 ruling. The decision forbids using civilians for military purposes even if they have agreed to do so, as the dramatic imbalance of power in such situations renders genuine consent impossible to obtain. In an affidavit presented by Adallah, an Arab Israeli human rights organization, an Israeli reservist admitted, \’No civilian would refuse a \’request\’ presented to him at 0300 by a group of soldiers aiming their cocked rifles at him.\’ Despite the clear requirements of the court rulings, Israeli forces have routinely violated human rights law and continue to employ civilians during military operations.

Often, the practice can be far subtler than firing over the shoulders of a captive. By confiscating Palestinians� identity cards, Israeli soldiers are able to detain civilians at length during military incursions. Palestinians accosted by soldiers without ID are immediately arrested. Said Neil, �I�ve personally witnessed Israeli soldiers using human shields in various capacities nearly a dozen times since 2003. I�ve seen soldiers detain adults with their children for hours, forcing them to sit beside military vehicles for their IDs to be returned while soldiers conduct house searches and other operations.�

�One of the fundamental problems is the requirement for video proof of such activities. The West dismisses victims� testimony immediately. The dismissal is racist and endemic.�

During Israel�s February 2007 invasion into Nablus, human rights organizations documented several incidents in which the army forced Palestinian civilians, including children, to serve as human shields during search operations. The Research Journalism Initiative submitted a filmed interview with eleven-year-old Jihan Tahdush to the Israeli Human Rights group B�Tselem, in which she recounted how soldiers had kidnapped her and forced her to lead them into neighboring homes.

In her testimony to B�Tselem, Tahdush said, �I went down the steps leading to the neighborhood. The soldiers walked behind me. The soldier had his weapon aimed in front of him. He said to me, \’Slowly, slowly, don\’t be scared, we\’re with you.\’

During the invasion, an Associated Press television crew managed to film Israeli soldiers forcing 24-year-old Sameh Amira to lead them into homes of suspected resistance fighters. The rare footage ignited widespread international outrage over the practice. The Israeli military says it has launched an inquiry, though without a thorough, independent investigation, such an inquiry is inadequate.

�The army launching its own investigation is equivalent to a company conducting its own IRS tax audit,� said Neil. �It is time that the international community hold Israel responsible for its disregard of human rights law.�

For its part, the army has released a statement that it will investigate the most recent incident, and that the commanding officer, whose name was not released, has been suspended from operational duties. Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti dismissed the announcement.

\’They are treating it as an isolated incident,\’ he said. \’The problem is systematic and … they (troops) continued the practice despite the (Supreme) Court order,\’ he said.

Sam Neil is an activist with the Research Journalism Initiative in Nablus. He can be contacted at ripplescross.com.