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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 combatants. A third meaning is when a combatant holds another person in front of them to shield them from projectiles (usually bullets), often by holding them in a headlock or nelson hold.
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 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.
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.
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.
Human shields were also employed by Israeli soldiers to subdue a stone-throwing protest in Hebron in 2003. One of the "human shields", a 32-year-old, told he was pulled from the barber's chair and forced to stand in front of soldiers along with two other men, also human shields, while soldiers fired rubber bullets on Palestinian protesters. He told he was beat up when he tried to cover his ears to protect them from the loud noise of the guns. The Israeli military committed to stopping the practice but Israeli human rights groups said the army only ended the practice selectively and were in breach of court orders.
In 2004, the Daily Mail reported that a young boy was used as human shield use by the Israeli border police in the West Bank. According to the article, the 13-year-old boy was captured by Israeli police as he took part in a stone-throwing protest and put in front of the jeep in order to deter other youths from throwing stones at the vehicle. The story was led by an infamous picture of a boy in his early teens tied up to a military vehicle.
The practice was banned by Israel's High Court of Justice in 2005. The Israeli Defense Ministry appealed this decision. Specifically, while acknowledging and defending the "use of Palestinians to deliver warnings to wanted men about impending arrest operations", a practice known in Israel by the euphemism "neighbor procedure", the IDF denied reports of "using Palestinians as human shields against attacks on IDF forces", claiming it had already forbidden this practice.
In 2006, initial investigations by B'Tselem indicated that the IDF may have 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, who video showed serving as a human shield for a group of Israeli soldiers, entering ahead of them in apartments suspected to belong to Palestinian militants. A 15-year-old cousin of Amira and an 11 year-old girl in the West Bank independently told B'Tselem in February 2007 that, in separate incidents, Israeli soldiers forced each of them to open the door of a neighboring apartment belonging to a suspected militant, enter ahead of them, and open doors and windows.
The Israeli Army launched a criminal investigation into the aforementioned 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 operation. In April 2007 CBS News reported that Human rights groups said that there were still incidents of it in the IDF, although they say the number of instances had dropped.
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 Breaking the Silence. According to testimonies published by these two groups, 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. Amnesty International stated that it 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 UN Human Rights Council also accused Israel of using human shields during 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict.
The Guardian compiled three videos and testimony from civilians about alleged war crimes committed by Israeli soldiers during the 2008-2009 Gaza War, including the use of Palestinian children as human shields. In the videos three teenage brothers from the al-Attar family claimed that they were forced at gunpoint to kneel in front of tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing at them and that they were used to "clear" houses for the Israeli soldiers.
An IDF soldier's testimony for Breaking the Silence told that his commander ordered that for every house raided by the IDF, they send a "neighbor" to go in before the soldier, sometimes while the soldier placed his gun on the neighbor's shoulder; according to the soldier, "commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it". Gazan civilians also testified of being used at gunpoint as human shields by Israeli soldiers.
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."
On March 12, 2010, the Israel Defense Forces prosecution filed indictments against two staff sergeants of the Givati Brigade for forcing a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open a number of bags they thought might contain explosives in January 2009. The boy told he was hit by the soldiers and forced to work for them at gunpoint. 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, accompanied by a demotion and suspended sentence, was handed down by the military court against both defendants, though neither soldier was actually jailed. The sentence was criticized as too lenient by Human Rights Watch and the boy's mother.
A United Nations human rights body accused Israeli forces in June 2013 of "continuous use of Palestinian children as human shields and informants", voicing with deep concern 14 such cases had been reported between January 2010 and March 2013. It says almost all accused soldiers involved in the incidents have gone unpunished.
According to a former Israeli soldier interviewed by Breaking the Silence, the commander of his unit employed the policy, despite acknowledging that it was banned, because he would rather that a Palestinian civilian be killed carrying out the duty than one of his men. He told young Palestinian boys were also used by this particular unit to carry out military duties for the Israeli army.
The Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights has gathered testimony that, during the 2014 Gaza War, Israeli soldiers used Palestinian civilians as shield in the city of Khuzaa. A family told the group that Israeli soldiers killed the family's patriarch, a 65-year-old who was carrying a white flag, and proceeded to place family members, including children, by the house's windows and shoot from behind them.
Defense for Children International-Palestine reported 17-year-old, Ahmad Abu Raida, was kidnapped by Israeli soldiers, who, after beating him up and threatening him, at times with sexual overtones, used him as a human shield for five days, forcing him to walk in front of them with police dogs at gunpoint, search houses and dig in places soldiers suspected there might be tunnels.
Israeli writer Amos Harel in Haaretz alleged that during the Second Intifada (2000–2005) Palestinian gunmen routinely used civilians and children as human shields and further alleges that there is photographic evidence.
The Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center accused Hamas and other armed groups of making extensive use of human shields as integral part of their war doctrine, in order to prevent the IDF to target them, during the Gaza War (2008-2009). According to the ITIC, tactics that qualify as using human shields and which are used by Hamas include using children as human shield by "surrounding operatives with children to facilitate their escape from combat zones", hiding military infrastructure in civilian buildings - including "mosques, hospitals and educational institutions", firing rockets and mortar shells from civilian population centers, "summoning civilians to come to operatives’ houses to serve as human shields for terrorist operatives in danger of being attacked by the IDF". The IDF released a video accusing an alleged Hamas member of using civilians as human shield for allegedly walking away with children after an attack during the Gaza War (2008-2009), though there's no evidence in the video that the men filmed were Palestinian fighters or even that the incident took place in Palestine. The UN and Amnesty International concluded there was no evidence for the IDF's accusations of human shield use against Palestinian groups. Despite IDF footage allegedly showing Palestinian fighters using ambulances for military purposes, Magen David Adom, the Israeli ambulance and medical emergency service, submitted to the UN a report concluding the accusation was unfounded.
The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict that took place in 2008-2009 stated that it "did not find any evidence of civilians being forced to remain in their houses by Palestinian armed groups". The Mission "asked numerous witnesses in Gaza why they had stayed in their homes in spite of the shelling, bombing and Israeli ground invasion"; respondents stated they "did not think they would be at risk as long as they remained indoors or because they had no safe place to go".
In remarks related to the Al-Fakhura school incident during the Gaza War of January 2009, a Hamas spokesman claimed that no attacks were launched from the school though Israel stated that they had come from the school. 43 Palestinians were reported killed when a street outside the school was hit by Israeli fire. Israel accused Hamas of "cynically" 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. An IDF mortar hit the UN building. An IDF report claims that this was caused by a GPS error. An Amnesty International report in 2009 claimed "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" were found.
According to observers from from The Independent and The Guardian who interviewed Gazan refugees, it was a "myth" that Hamas forced civilians to stay in areas under attack against their will; they reported that the Gazans who refused to heed the IDF's warnings did so because even areas Israel had declared safe for refugees had been shelled by its forces. The BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen likewise said he "saw no evidence of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields". An Amnesty International document (dated July 25, 2014) asserts that they do "not have evidence at this point that Palestinian civilians have been intentionally used by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups during the current hostilities to “shield” specific locations or military personnel or equipment from Israeli attacks." What's more, Amnesty International's assessment is that international humanitarian law was clear in that "even if officials or fighters from Hamas or Palestinian armed groups associated with other factions did in fact direct civilians to remain in a specific location in order to shield military objectives from attacks, all of Israel’s obligations to protect these civilians would still apply." The human rights group, however, still found that Palestinian factions, as in previous conflicts, launched attacks from civilian areas. Confirmation of this practice was produced by France24, whose team filmed a rocket launch pad close to a hotel where international journalists were staying.
In a September 2014 interview, a Hamas official acknowledged to an Associated Press reporter that the group fired at Israel from civilian areas. He ascribed the practice to "mistakes", but said the group had little option due to the crowded landscape of the Strip, with its dearth of open zones. The official insisted, however, that the Israeli army's accusations that Hamas launched its attacks from civilian buildings such as schools and hospitals were not true, adding that attacks actually came 200 to 300 meters away from those buildings.
Hamas Arabic speaking spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri specifically called up Gaza civilians on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV July 8, 2014 to stay put in areas under fire by Israel, prompting accusations from Israel and its allies — the European Union, for example — that Hamas was calling on people to volunteer as "in effect human shields". For Amnesty International, however, Hamas' call may have been "motivated by a desire to avoid further panic" among civilians, considering both the lack of shelters in Gaza and the fact that even those civilians who heeded the IDF's warnings were afterwards targeted by Israeli attacks.
During the 2014 Gaza War, Israel also damaged hospitals, alleging they were concealing "hidden missiles". A Finnish reporter team from Helsingin Sanomat life at the Gaza Al-Shifa hospital reported seeing rockets fired from near the Al-Shifa hospital. However, two Norwegian doctors who have been working at the hospital for decades have denied there was militant presence nearby, saying the last armed man they saw by the building was an Israeli doctor at the time of the First Intifada.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah was directly hit at least four times, causing damages in the surgical ward and the intensive care unit. The IDF also gave out warnings to strike the Al Wafa hospital. An international activist told Haaretz that he was taken by Al Waffa hospital staff on a tour in all of the the hospital's floors and did not "see anything resembling a rocket" there; his group volunteered to serve as human shields for the hospital. Nevertheless, its Rehabilitation Center was hit at least six times by Israeli forces. The IDF released a video showing flashes of light supposedly from the Waffa hospital; there is audio of IDF warning calls and checks that the hospital was evacuated, and finally the airstrike . However, it has been noted that building in the IDF photo is not the El-Waffa Rehabilitation Center in Shuja'iyya as labeled by the IDF. Activists have accused the IDF of producing forged evidence to justify strikes on hospitals, and cite third party satellite imagery in their claim. A report has concluded that one of the footage used by the IDF to justify the shelling of the Al Wafa hospital was from 2009, and the audio was from an incident completely unrelated to the hospital. The report accuses the IDF of manipulating both the audio and the video for propaganda purposes. Other footage released by the Israeli army have been criticized as being of bad quality and for failing to back up the Israeli army's accusations against Hamas.
Tony Blinken, the US White House's Deputy National Security Adviser, accused Hamas of using Palestinians as "in effect human shields." He called on world leaders to join condemnations of Hamas's actions, stating, that "Hamas intentionally targets civilians. The Israelis do everything they can to avoid targeting civilians". US Secretary of State John Kerry and Blinken defended Israel against the charge that its assault on Gaza had been needlessly reckless with civilian lives. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Hamas militants of violating international humanitarian law by "locating rockets within schools and hospitals, or even launching these rockets from densely populated areas."
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.
Scott Ewing, Calvary Scout, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, US Army, who served in Iraq in the 2005-2006 period, stated that US troops would give candy to Iraqi children so they would stay around their vehicles, thereby making more likely that "the bad guys wouldn't attack. We used the kids as human shields".
Human Rights Watch conducted its own investigation on the 2006 Lebanon War, during which Israel accused Hezbollah of using civilians, and reported that Hezbollah did not "deliberately" use civilians as a deterrent from IDF attack, and that when violations happen it was not "routine or wide". HRW found that Hezbollah did not "routinely" stored weapons in or near civilian homes and that most often fighters launched rockets from rural, unpopulated areas that they declared no-go zones for Lebanese civilians. It did find that Hezbollah purposely endangered UN observers by launching attacks near them.
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).'" A senior UN official,replying about Maj. Hess-von Kruedener's e-mail concerning Hezbollah presence in the area of the UN base said. "At the time, there had been no Hezbollah activity reported in the area. "So it was quite clear they were not going after other targets; that, for whatever reason, our position was being fired upon." He went on to claim that the Israelis were told where the UN base was and that is was clearly marked but they bombed it anyway.
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.
The human rights group Rabbis for Human Rights agreed to act as “human shields” during the annual olive harvest to protect Palestinian villages from settlers. 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 takes offence at 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. Not even Amnesty International defines volunteer activist's actions or activist's actions for non-military property as “human shields”, and regards only the direction of "specific civilians to remain in their homes as “human shields” for fighters, munitions, or military equipment" as “human shields”. According to the 3 definitions in the header of this article the 'volunteers to protect Palestinians' make them not “human shields outside the battlefield” but protesters or ordinary pro-Palestinian demonstrants.