The Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) decision to prohibit the use of Palestinian civilians as "human shields" during military operations is an important step forward toward complying with the requirements of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch also urged the IDF to take further action to stop the coerced use of Palestinian civilians during military operations, an issue the IDF said it would "examine," and reiterated its call for a full investigation into allegations of serious law of war violations committed by Israeli forces in Jenin. The Israeli army has taken an important step towards respecting the laws of war," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "But there are many other Israeli army practices that similarly violate international standards and require the same unequivocal and immediate action."

In response to a High Court of Justice petition by seven Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, the Israeli army decided on May 9 to "immediately issue an unequivocal order" to its soldiers, stating that soldiers "are absolutely forbidden to use civilians of any kind as a means of 'living shield' against gunfire or attacks by the Palestinian side, or as 'hostages.'" The order states that the prohibition applies "in houses, streets, and in every area and place in which IDF forces are acting." The Israeli army also committed itself to "examine" the use of Palestinian civilians during military operations.

Human Rights Watch researchers met with senior IDF representatives on May 6, and presented them with detailed research on the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields and the coerced use of Palestinian civilians for military purposes, gaining a commitment from the IDF to investigate the practices and agreement that such practices would violate Israel's international obligations.

Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on the coerced use of Palestinian civilians during military operations, and most recently documented the use of Palestinian civilians as "human shields" and for military purposes during the Israeli military operations in Jenin. In April 2002, Human Rights Watch released a report on the coerced use of Palestinian civilians by the IDF, entitled "In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians during IDF Arrest Operations."

In its May 2 report entitled "Jenin: IDF Military Operations," Human Rights Watch documented several cases of IDF use of "human shields," including one case in which eight Palestinian men, including a fourteen-year-old boy, were taken from their homes and placed on a balcony overlooking Palestinian fighter positions while IDF soldiers fired from behind the men. In another case, IDF soldiers put a sixty-five-year-old Palestinian woman on the exposed roof of her home during a gun battle.

Prior to the May 9 Israeli army decision, rather than investigating the practice, Israeli army officials regularly issued blanket denials about the IDF's coerced use of civilians and the use of "human shields." For example, in response to the April 2002 Human Rights Watch report on the coerced use of civilians, IDF spokesperson Isaac Greenburg told Agence France-Presse: "Under no circumstances do we use, or will we ever use civilians to help us. The very idea, the very allegations are preposterous."

"We hope that the Israeli army is finally moving beyond blanket denials and is now taking seriously its duty to investigate and stop abuses," said Megally. "It is the duty of any professional army to investigate abuses, punish those responsible, and issue unambiguous orders to the troops to stop."