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Human shield is a military and political term describing the deliberate placement of non-combatants in or around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking these targets. It may also refer to the use of persons to literally shield combatants during attacks, by forcing them to march in front of the soldiers.
During a siege the Mongols would gather a crowd of local residents or soldiers surrendered from previous battles, and would drive them forward in sieges and battles. These "alive boards" or "human shields" would often take the brunt of enemy arrows and crossbow bolts, thus leaving the Mongol warriors safer.
After World War II, it was claimed by German SS general Gottlob Berger that there was a plan, proposed by the Luftwaffe and approved by Adolf Hitler, to set up special POW camps for captured airmen of the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces in large German cities, to act as human shields against their bombing raids. Berger realized that this would contravene the 1929 Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire—as a result, this plan was not implemented.
At the Wola massacre in Poland on 7 August 1944, the Nazis forced civilian women onto the armored vehicles as human shields to enhance their effectiveness. In Belgium in May 1940, at least 86 civilians were killed by the German Wehrmacht known as the Vinkt Massacre, when the Germans took 140 civilians and used them as shields to cross a bridge while under fire.
During the Battle of Okinawa, Japanese soldiers often used civilians as human shields against American troops.
When the Japanese were concerned about the incoming Allied air raids on their home islands as they were losing their controlled Pacific islands one by one to the Allies in the Pacific War, they scattered major military installations and factories throughout urban areas, therefore, historians argued that Japan was using its civilians as human shields to protect their legitimate military targets against Allied bombardment. As a result, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) was unable to strike purely military targets due to jet streams, the limitations of their bombsight, the mixing of military installations and factories with urban areas, and the widespread of cottage industry in Japan's cities. This led the USAAF in early 1945 to switch from precision bombing to carpetbombing which destroyed 67 Japanese cities with incendiary bombs and the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
One of the most famous uses of human shields occurred in Iraq in 1990, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Saddam Hussein's government detained hundreds of citizens of Western countries who were in Iraq for use as human shields in an attempt to deter nations from participating in military operations against the country. A number of these hostages were filmed meeting Hussein, and kept with him to deter any targeted attacks, whilst others were held in or near military and industrial targets. While the United Nations debated its response to the invasion of Kuwait, several international statesmen and peace campaigners visited Iraq to try to secure the release of the human shields, many returning with around 10 or 12 each time.
In 1991, during the operations in the Gulf War, the U.S. submitted a report to the UN Security Council denouncing Iraq for having “intentionally placed civilians at risk through its behaviour”. The report cited the following examples of such behaviour:
According to various accounts—including that of the American ambassador to the U.N., the Taliban used women and children from their own population as human shields against coalition forces in 2006, and 2007, and when the British attacked during August 2008 during the war in Afghanistan.
In November 2006, Palestinian women volunteered as human shields to allow the escape of Hamas gunmen from Israeli forces in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. The armed Palestinians had barricaded themselves in a mosque, which was surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks. According to a Hamas spokesman, a crowd of women gathered outside the mosque in response to an appeal on the local radio station for women to protect the Hamas fighters. The Palestinian gunmen escaped by dressing in women's clothes and hiding in the large group.
Also in the same month, the Israeli Air Force warned Mohammed Weil Baroud, a Palestinian leader said to be responsible for firing Qassam rockets at Israel, to evacuate his home in Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip in advance of an airstrike. Instead, hundreds of Palestinians, including many women and children, gathered outside Baroud's house. Israel suspended the airstrike out of fear that the human shields would be killed or injured. In response to Israel's reaction, another Palestinian leader said: "We have won. From now on we will form human chains around every house that is threatened with demolition."
On October 29, 2007, in response to criticism of Israel's bombing of a Beit Hanoun Elementary School for boys run by UNRWA, the Israel Defense Forces released drone footage of mortars shot from a street adjacent to the school. Israel warned Ban Ki Moon about the danger and requested an investigation. Local eyewitnesses later confirmed that Hamas militants had fired at Israeli troops from adjacent a UN school for girls where hundreds of Palestinians had sought refuge. Forty-three Palestinians were reported killed when a street outside the school was hit by return fire. Israel accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields. A report from the IDF brigade responsible for the attack stated that militants had launched a rocket into Israel from a yard adjacent to the UN building and the paratroop brigade had fired three rounds of mortars at the position. A GPS error led to one of the mortars hitting the building.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the Israel Defense Forces used Palestinian civilians as human shields during the 2002 Battle of Jenin. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that "for a long period of time following the outbreak of the second intifada, particularly during Operation Defensive Shield, in April 2002, the IDF systematically used Palestinian civilians as human shields, forcing them to carry out military actions which threatened their lives". Al Mezan reported the systematic use of "human shields" during the invasion of Beit Hanoun in 2004.
The practice was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Israel in 2005 but human rights groups say the IDF continues to use it, although they say the number of instances has dropped sharply. In 2006, the IDF again used civilians as human shields in Beit Hanun. In February 2007, Associated Press Television News released footage of an incident involving Sameh Amira, a 24-year-old Palestinian. The video appears to show the West Bank resident serving as a human shield for a group of Israeli soldiers. The Israeli Army launched a criminal investigation into the incident. In April 2007, the Israeli army suspended a commander after the unit he was leading was accused of using Palestinians as human shields in a West Bank raid.
During the 2008-2009 Gaza War known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military forces were accused of continuing to use civilians as human shields by Amnesty International and former Israeli soldiers (see Breaking the Silence). According to testimonies, Israeli forces used unarmed Palestinians including children to protect military positions, walk in front of armed soldiers; go into buildings to check for booby traps or gunmen; and inspect suspicious objects for explosives.
The Guardian has compiled three videos and testimony from civilians of alleged war crimes committed by Israeli soldiers during the Gaza war, including the use of Palestinian children as human shields, the targeting of medics and hospitals, and drone aircraft firing on civilians deliberately. Three teenage brothers from the al-Attar family have claimed that "they were taken from their home at gunpoint, made to kneel in front of tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing at them and sent by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian houses to clear them".
An Israeli military official responded to these allegations: "The IDF operated in accordance with the rules of war and did the utmost to minimise harm to civilians uninvolved in combat. The IDF's use of weapons conforms to international law." An Israeli embassy spokesperson considers these allegations suspect because of Hamas pressure, adding: "Anyone who understands the realities of Gaza will know that these people are not free to speak the truth. Those that wish to speak out cannot for fear of beatings, torture or execution at the hands of Hamas."
However, in a report on the Gaza conflict, released July 2, 2009, Amnesty International wrote that Israel did use human shields in Gaza. Amnesty claimed to have found cases in which "Israeli troops forced Palestinians to stay in one room of their home while turning the rest of the house into a base and sniper position, effectively using the families, both adults and children, as human shields and putting them at risk. The report also criticized Hamas for human rights violations, but "found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings". The Israeli military responded only by calling the report "unbalanced" and saying that it ignored "blatant violations of international law perpetrated by Hamas".
On March 12, 2010, the Israel Defense Forces prosecution filed indictments against two staff sergeants of the Givati Brigade for allegedly forcing a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open a number of bags they thought might contain explosives in January 2009. The IDF said it opened the investigation after the incident was brought to its attention by the United Nations. On October 3, 2010, a conviction in this matter was handed down by the military court against both defendants, though neither soldier was jailed.
During the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, a group of people chose to travel to Iraq to act as human shields. Their purpose was to prevent American-led coalition forces from bombing certain locations. Of about 200 to 500 human shields who traveled to Iraq before hostilities, at least eighty stayed. Of the human shields who stayed throughout the war, none were killed or injured and none of the sites where they were residing were destroyed.
Australian journalist Chris Link reported and photographed incidents during the 2006 Lebanon War in which Hezbollah used Lebanese civilians as human shields to dissuade the IDF from firing at gunmen and rocket launchers, although Human Rights Watch then conducted its own investigation and reported that Hezbollah did not "deliberately" use civilians as a deterrent from IDF attack. HRW did however conclude Hezbollah stored weapons "in or near civilian homes" and fighters launched rockets within populated areas and near UN observers. HRW also accused Hezbollah of using Lebanese homes as sites for rocket launchers, usually without the homeowner's knowledge or permission, putting large numbers of civilians at risk.
On July 25, 2006, Israeli forces attacked and destroyed an UN observer post in southern Lebanon, resulting in four deaths. One of the fatalities, Canadian Major Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener, had sent an e‑mail to his former commander, retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, several days before his death in which he described the Israeli bombardment, writing "The closest artillery has landed within two meters of our position and the closest 1,000 lb aerial bomb has landed 100 meters from our patrol base. This has not been deliberate targeting, but rather due to tactical necessity". MacKenzie interpreted this language for a reporter: "What that means is, in plain English, 'We've got Hezbollah fighters running around in our positions, taking our positions here and then using us for shields and then engaging the (Israeli Defence Forces).'"
According to a Human Rights Watch report published on February 19, 2009, the LTTE had been preventing Tamil civilians from fleeing out of rebel held area and using them as human shields against a Sri Lankan Army offensive.
During the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Armed Forces and loyalists were accused by Human Rights Watch of using residents of towns as human shields when advancing on opposition held areas, forcing them to march in front of the army. Witness from different towns across the country said that the army had kidnapped people and forced them to march in front of them when attacking towns and villages. The purpose of this was to protect the army from attack. HRW said "The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice." Witnesses stated that the army forcibly used children and elderly people as well to deter anyone from firing on the soldiers.
In recent years civilian volunteers have attempted to use themselves as human shields to prevent military conflict. In January 2003, anti-war activists organised Human Shield Action to Iraq in advance of the March 2003 invasion. Ultimately, Human Shield Action brought 200 people to Iraq. Many of them left as they ran out of money and the likelihood of war became greater. Several of these human shields had to be rescued by U.S. Marines after Iraqis threatened them for opposing the invasion of their country.
Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, Western International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers in the Palestinian territories, who died in 2003 and 2004 respectively have been described as human shields campaigning against house demolition. ISM, however, strongly objects to the use of the term human shield to describe their work, preferring it be used only to refer to when the military uses civilians as shields.