Human Rights Watch Statement on our November 22 Press Release
December 16, 2006
We regret that our press release below (“OPT: Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks”) gave many readers the impression that we were criticizing civilians for engaging in nonviolent resistance. This was not our intention. It is not the policy of the organization to criticize non-violent resistance or any other form of peaceful protest, including civilians defending their homes. Rather, our focus is on the behavior of public officials and military commanders because they have responsibilities under international law to protect civilians.
It has also become clear to us that we erred in assessing the main incident described in the press release. We said that the planned IDF attack on the house of a military commander in the Popular Resistance Committee, Muhammadwail Barud, fell within the purview of the law regulating the conduct of hostilities during armed conflict. We criticized Barud for reportedly urging civilians to assemble near the house in order to prevent the attack, in apparent violation of that law. Our focus was not on the civilians who assembled, their state of mind, or their behavior (such as whether they willingly assembled or not), but on Barud for risking the lives of civilians.
We have since concluded that we were wrong, on the basis of the available evidence, to characterize the IDF’s planned destruction of the house as an act of war. If the planned attack against the house – a three-story building housing three families - was, in fact, an administrative action by the Israeli government aimed at punishing a militant for his alleged activities, the law regulating the conduct of hostilities during armed conflict would not apply and could not be violated.
An important consideration in this regard is whether the IDF had reason to believe that the house was being used for military purposes at the time of the planned attack. To date, Human Rights Watch has not obtained conclusive evidence as to whether the house was being so used, but eyewitnesses we have been able to speak with, including two journalists on the scene, claim they saw no such evidence. The IDF, moreover, has not responded to our requests to explain what military objective it could have had in targeting not a militant but his home after having ordered it vacated.
We recognize that it is important to view the planned destruction of Barud’s house in light of Israel’s longstanding policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, sharply increased in Gaza since June, of demolishing houses not as legitimate military targets but as a punitive measure. HRW has repeatedly criticized Israel for unlawful demolition of houses.
Our intention in issuing this press release was to underscore one of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law: the obligation of warring parties to take all feasible measures to spare civilians from harm. This includes the important principle that parties to a conflict, including military leaders and civilian officials, may not use civilians to “shield” against a military attack or otherwise unnecessarily put civilian lives at risk. Unfortunately, judging by the response, we did more to cloud the issues than clarify them in the press release.
This continues to be a live issue in the Israeli-Palestinian armed conflict. In July 2006, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups documented the IDF’s forcible use of Palestinians as human shields in a well publicized incident during military operations in Beit Hanoun. According to the groups, the IDF blindfolded six civilians, including two minors, and forced them to stand in front of soldiers who took over civilian homes during a raid in northern Gaza. And on November 3, Hamas militants hid behind civilian women when exiting from a mosque where the militants had been cornered by IDF forces after more than two days of fighting. The fact that the women voluntarily went to aid the men does not absolve the militants of their duty not to endanger civilians. Both of these cases took place in the course of armed conflict so that the laws of war did apply.
We invite readers to visit our website at www.hrw.org to see all that we have said on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We continue to urge all parties to this conflict to respect international humanitarian law, whatever their share of its violations, and most important, to keep civilians out of it as much as possible.
OPT: Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks
(Jerusalem, November 22, 2006) – Palestinian armed groups must not endanger Palestinian civilians by encouraging them to gather in and around suspected militants’ homes targeted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Human Rights Watch said today.
Calling civilians to a location that the opposing side has identified for attack is at worst human shielding, at best failing to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack. Both are violations of international humanitarian law.
According to media reports, on Saturday the IDF warned Muhammadwail Barud, a commander in the Popular Resistance Committees, to leave his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp as they planned to destroy it. Barud reportedly summoned neighbors and friends to protect his house, and a crowd of hundreds of Palestinians gathered in, around, and on the roof of the house. The IDF said that they called off the attack after they saw the large number of civilians around the house. On Monday, the BBC also reported that the IDF had warned Wael Rajab, an alleged Hamas member in Beit Lahiya, that that they were preparing to attack his home, and that a call was later broadcasted from local mosques for volunteers to protect the home.
“There is no excuse for calling civilians to the scene of a planned attack,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.”
Various media have reported that other Palestinian officials and armed groups have voiced support for these tactics. In a visit to Barud’s house on Sunday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority reportedly said: “We are so proud of this national stand. It’s the first stop toward protecting our homes ... so long as this strategy is in the interest of our people, we support this strategy.” A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees was also quoted as saying: “We call upon all the fighters to reject evacuating their houses, and we urge our people to rush into threatened houses and make human shields.”
“Prime Minister Haniyeh and other Palestinian leaders should be renouncing, not embracing, the tactic of encouraging civilians to place themselves at risk,” said Whitson.
On November 3 the BBC also reported that Hamas radio broadcasted an appeal to local women to go to a mosque to protect 15 alleged militants holed up inside from Israeli forces surrounding the building. Many women went to the mosque and reportedly two were killed and 10 more injured when Israeli forces opened fire.
It is a war crime to seek to use the presence of civilians to render certain points or areas immune from military operations or to direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attack. In the case where the object of attack is not a legitimate military target, calling civilians to the scene would still contravene the international humanitarian law imperative for parties to the conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack. In the event that such abuse takes place, however, parties to the conflict remain obliged under international humanitarian law to take precautionary measures and not to target civilians or cause excessive civilian injury or damage in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage.
In other words, while civilians placing themselves in the way of military actions take on heightened risks, they cannot be considered legitimate targets by the opposing force, and parties to the conflict should cancel or suspend attacks where excessive civilian damage is anticipated. Human Rights Watch said that the IDF had properly respected its obligations under international humanitarian law in suspending the attack on the Barud home that would have caused substantial civilian harm.
Human Rights Watch, however, also reminded the IDF that even in the absence of deliberately orchestrated measures to maximize a civilian presence near its targets, any destruction of civilian property must be done strictly in compliance with international humanitarian law. An ostensibly civilian object such as a home can be the subject of attack only if it is being used for military purposes at the relevant time and its destruction makes a direct and immediate contribution to the fighting.
“The IDF should immediately explain what its military objective is in targeting the homes that it has ordered to be vacated,” said Whitson.
According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, between July and November 15 this year, the IDF destroyed 251 homes in Gaza, leaving 1577 people homeless. In 105 of these cases the IDF destroyed the home by airstrike after warning the inhabitants to leave. While the IDF generally claims that militants used those homes to store weapons, they have not presented any concrete evidence in individual cases.
Human Rights Watch has also reported extensively on the coerced use of Palestinian civilians during military operations, and documented the use of Palestinian civilians as “human shields” and for military purposes during the Israeli military operations in Jenin in 2002. The Israeli High Court confirmed the illegality of using human shields in 2002.
As recently as July 2006, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have documented the IDF’s forcible use of Palestinians as human shields in a well publicized incident during military operations in Beit Hanoun. According to the groups, the IDF blindfolded six civilians, including two minors, and forced them to stand in front of soldiers who took over civilian homes during a raid in northern Gaza.