The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) routinely compel civilians to assist in its military operations, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today. The twenty-four page report, In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians During IDF Arrest Operations, documents how the IDF routinely has taken civilians at gunpoint to open suspicious packages, knock on doors of suspects, and search the houses of "wanted" Palestinians during its military operations.

The report is based on in-depth investigations into four separate IDF arrest raids in late 2001 and early 2002. The practice continues today in "Operation Defensive Shield;" journalists, doctors, and other civilians have reported being coerced at gunpoint to assist soldiers during the most recent IDF incursions into the West Bank.

The government of Israel has argued that the IDF incursions into towns, villages, and refugee camps in territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority are necessary to curb an upsurge in suicide bombing attacks, mostly targeting Israeli civilians.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned suicide attacks against civilians, which are absolutely prohibited under international humanitarian law. But such attacks cannot be used to excuse the serious violations committed by the IDF. "There is no justification for the abuses documented in this report," Megally said. "The government of Israel should live up to its obligations and stop these acts immediately." He added that Human Rights Watch had failed, despite numerous requests, to arrange a meeting with IDF officials to discuss its research and findings.

In addition to the systematic coercion of civilians, the report also documents other serious violations during the IDF raids, including acts of physical ill treatment of civilians, excessive damage to civilian properties, and collective punishments in the form of house demolitions. It also documents one case of hostage-taking, in which soldiers held and deliberately shot an unarmed civilian in the leg to force his brother, a "wanted" Palestinian, to surrender. The taking of hostages is a war crime, and is absolutely prohibited under international law.
The report also documents two cases in which armed Palestinians recklessly endangered Palestinian civilians by firing at IDF soldiers from locations that exposed the civilians to IDF return fire.

The report includes detailed recommendations for actions by the government of Israel, the international community, and the Palestinian Authority.