Israel has been accused of using Palestinian human shields during its invasion of Gaza, a breach of the Geneva conventions that prohibit intentionally putting civilian lives at risk.The Guardian has interviewed three Gazan brothers who described how they were taken from their home at gunpoint, made to kneel in front of tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing and sent by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian houses to clear them.
“They would make us go first, so if any fighters shot at them the bullets would hit us, not them,” said 14-year-old Al’a al-Attar.
His brothers, Ali, 15, and Nafiz, 16, described how when the three of them were being led through built-up areas in their home town of Attartra, the soldiers would order them to suddenly stop ‑ then fire their rifles over the brothers’ shoulders and between their legs.
The use of “human shields” is prohibited under article 28 of the fourth Geneva convention, which states: “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.” Israel has ratified the convention and is therefore bound by it.
An Israeli internal army magazine left behind by the troops shows Nafiz at the beginning of his ordeal being led bound and blindfolded in a line of men before he was stripped of his clothes.
Another article in the magazine’s online edition details a separate incident, titled: “For a week and a half they [Israeli soldiers] lived with a family of Palestinians whose home became their stronghold.” In it an officer talks openly of using the house as a base for operations while keeping the family in a downstairs room.
“At the top floor of the house we have established an improvised operational room and soldiers’ bedroom, we have opened firing positions and observation points in the three additional rooms,” the officer was quoted as saying. “In addition, we have established another guarding position on the entrance door of the family home.”
Though the officer claims the family stayed in the house out of choice, using their house as a base while civilians were on the premises could still be a violation of international law.
The Attar brothers’ ordeal began on 5 January when Israeli troops entered the town of Attartra, 1.2 miles (2km) from the border with Israel, and began firing into their house. They were led away blindfolded and at gunpoint in single file as the gunfire carried on around them. At one point the boys were forced to march in front of and alongside Israeli tanks.
They were then forced to kneel in a makeshift Israeli encampment for three days and three nights as tanks fired off shells around them. Human rights groups believe they were held there to deter Palestinian fighters from attacking.
“After being here for a day and a half, they put barbed wire around us, then empty tank shells kept landing on us, a rock or shrapnel came flying toward us. We spent a further three days here, right here,” said Nafiz.
After five days Ali and Al’a were untied, had their blindfolds removed and were released straight into a firefight. They came under attack from Israeli tanks and helicopters as they tried to find their way home through the ruins of their neighbourhood, the boys said.
Nafiz was not so lucky. He was taken to Israel where he was interrogated for three days and says he was beaten. Finally he was taken back into Gaza and released.
The boys’ parents, who are ardent supporters of Fatah ‑ Hamas’ political rivals ‑ cannot understand why they were taken.
The use of human shields was outlawed by Israel’s supreme court in 2005 following several clearly identified incidents, but human rights groups insist the Israeli military continues to use civilians in this way, albeit less often.
In February 2007, Associated Press Television News released footage showing 24-year-old Palestinian Sameh Amira being used as a human shield by a group of Israeli soldiers in Nablus.
The Israeli army declined to be interviewed about the practice but said it gave strict orders to soldiers not to use civilians as human shields during this operation. In a written statement, it said that only Hamas had used human shields by attacking troops from within civilian areas. Hamas denied the claim, saying it would not endanger the lives of other Palestinians, but surveillance footage provided by Israel appears to show this.