The Israeli troops sent to occupy the Palestinian Authority interior ministry offices early this month smelled danger. What if the place were booby-trapped? It seemed likely, since the building, in the West Bank city of Qalqilya, had housed Israeli forces during a previous incursion.
"According to custom, we grabbed one of the Palestinian neighbors to comb the area," Sgt. Nati Aharoni recalled. "He opened all the doors and closets, but did not find anything. We shook his hand, thanked him, and entered." Later, a bomb exploded, injuring eight soldiers. It had been hidden in a wall.
Officially, the Israeli army denies that it uses Palestinian civilians as human shields. Sergeant Aharoni's revelation, made in last week's issue of the army's in-house Bamahane magazine, comes amid growing evidence to the contrary, including reports from human rights groups and testimonies of army reservists, including one who served in the Jenin refugee camp offensive.
Israeli forces entered the camp as part of "Operation Defensive Shield," launched March 29 after a spate of devastating suicide bombings, with the stated goal of destroying "terrorist infrastructure." The camp, near Israeli territory, spawned many lethal attacks on Israeli targets over the last year and a half.
Human Rights Watch last week issued a report on four earlier army raids in the West Bank during late 2001 and early 2002. "In each case, the army routinely coerced civilians to perform life-endangering acts that assisted Israel Defense Force military operations," it said. Doing so is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the report stated.
The evidence comes as Israel faces growing international scrutiny over the army's behavior in the Jenin camp, where Palestinians charge that a massacre took place an allegation that has thus far not been borne out.
In bracing for a UN fact-finding team that will investigate what happened at Jenin, Israeli leaders say the country is being singled out for political reasons.
"Any Western army facing a Jenin sit- uation would not go inside with troops; it would just bomb it from far away," says Yuval Steinitz, who serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party. "The course of Britain and the US during the Gulf War and in Afghanistan was to not take any risk to soldiers and to drop seven-ton bombs."
But B'tselem, Israel's main human rights group, says the use of human shields is part of a pattern of abuses that illustrate a "wide gap" between claims by Israeli leaders of army morality and its practices in the field. "Using human shields reflects the army's desire to have as few soldiers killed as possible, no matter what the moral cost is," says B'tselem spokesman Lior Yavne. The use of human shields goes hand in hand with other aspects of the Jenin operation, such as barring ambulances and denying humanitarian aid for the stated reason that vehicles could be used to carry weapons and fighters, he says.
One reservist who fought in Jenin recalls being instructed by an officer to use Palestinians to conduct searches and open doors according to a "set procedure": "When soldiers want to go from one house to the next, they tell the owner to go to the neighbor's house, knock on the door, and ask to open the door."
The reservist, who declines to give his name, says "it can happen" that the Palestinian is asked to pick up dangerous objects. In the Gaza Strip, where he served last year, the reservist said soldiers selected Palestinian motorists to clear suspicious objects from roads.
Israeli military historian Meir Pail says human shields were introduced by the British Army in combating a 1936-39 Palestinian revolt. Palestinian fighters had mounted attacks on trains, so the British filled the front cars with Palestinians as a deterrent, he said.
The Human Rights Watch report said that on Oct. 24, 2001, soldiers in Beit Rima forced a 14-year-old boy to help them take over three houses. In Artas, another West Bank town, troops shot a man in the leg and then threatened his brother with the same treatment if he did not compel another brother, an alleged Islamic Jihad member, to surrender, the report said.
Steinitz, the Likud legislator, charges that the Palestinians used civilians as hostages in Jenin and are doing so during the standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. He says it is "illegitimate" for soldiers to use Palestinian children or the elderly for searches, but that using suspected members of what he considers terrorist groups is acceptable and has been done elsewhere. "Since we are a small state, since we stand against the entire Arab world, and since there is latent antisemitism in Europe, we are facing a serious attempt to crucify us by using a double standard," Steinitz says.