This report documents the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) practice of coercing civilians to assist military personnel and operations, a serious violation of international humanitarian law (IHL). The report is the result of investigations carried out regarding four IDF raids in late 2001 and early 2002 into the Palestinian towns of Beit Rima, Salfit, Artas, and Tulkarem.
The violations documented in these cases exemplify current IDF practices in other incursions, whether in villages, refugee camps, or towns. One journalist reported being forced to strip and march at gunpoint to search offices in Ramallah during the largest and most recent IDF operation, "Operation Defensive Shield."1 Other civilians had similar testimony. Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations have reported incidents in which the IDF coerced civilians to assist military operations in Nablus, Tulkarem, East Jerusalem, and elsewhere.2
The IDF raided more than thirty Palestinian villages, towns, and refugee camps to arrest "wanted" Palestinians between October 24, 2001 and March 31, 2002. The targets of these raids were persons alleged by the Israeli authorities to have planned or participated in attacks against Israeli military targets or against Israeli civilians. The raids began shortly after the assassination of then Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi on October 18, 2001.
While the location and scale of the raids have varied, the dynamics have been the same. In the four cases researched in detail by Human Rights Watch, eyewitnesses described a night of panic and terror, including death threats, house demolitions, and wide-scale arrests. In each of these cases, the IDF routinely coerced civilians to perform life-endangering acts that assisted IDF military operations. Eyewitnesses and victims described to Human Rights Watch how friends, neighbors, and relatives of "wanted" Palestinians were taken at gunpoint to knock on doors, open strange packages, and search houses in which the IDF suspected armed Palestinians were present. Some families found their houses taken over and used as military positions by the IDF during an operation while they themselves were ordered to remain inside. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a civilian was held as a hostage in order to pressure his brother to surrender.
This report finds that the IDF is systematically coercing Palestinian civilians to assist military operations. This practice violates a fundamental principle of IHL: that of civilian immunity. It violates Israel's obligation to protect and respect civilian persons under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention,3 and recklessly exposes civilians to danger. The threats and coercion used by the IDF to compel civilians to assist them are explicitly prohibited under Article 31 of the Convention. The IDF should immediately stop this practice and investigate the cases documented in this report, as well as those documented by other human rights organizations.
In the case of Ahmad al-Yas `Aysh, who was shot in the upper leg in order to pressure his brother to surrender to IDF forces, the IDF's seizure and treatment of a civilian in order to force a "wanted" Palestinian to surrender amounts to hostage-taking. IHL prohibits hostage-taking at any time and in any place whatsoever. It is a serious violation of basic norms regulating international and internal armed conflict. It is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and as such, a war crime. Israel is obliged to investigate the case of Ahmad al-Yas `Aysh, and bring to justice any individuals responsible for wrongdoing.
The report also documents related IHL violations committed by IDF personnel against civilians, including acts of endangerment, physical ill-treatment, damage to civilian property, and collective punishment. These violations, which cause great suffering and hardship, should also cease.
In the case of Salfit, armed Palestinians fired at IDF soldiers who held Palestinian civilians in close physical proximity, thus exposing the civilians to the dangers of Palestinian fire and IDF return fire. Such actions recklessly endanger civilian lives and violate IHL. Human Rights Watch has previously documented instances in which armed Palestinians endangered civilians by firing on IDF soldiers from locations that exposed civilians to IDF return fire. The Palestinian security forces should act to the fullest extent possible under the law to prevent such reckless attacks, and should not participate in them.
1 The case of Dubai Television journalist Maher Shalabi in Ramallah on March 30, 2002. Reported in CNN Saturday, "Israeli Ground Tactics for Occupation of Arafat Headquarters," 12:00 p.m., March 31, 2002.
2 LAW, "Israeli forces surround house of LAW's Director Khader Shkirat," press release, March 7, 2002; Physicians for Human Rights Israel, "Palestinian Civilians Held Hostage by Israeli Army in Nablus," press release, February 21, 2002; B'Tselem, "Human Shields in Beit Jala," press release, Sepember 5, 2001. On the use of civilian buildings during military operations, see UNRWA, "Director of UNRWA Operations in West Bank Expresses Deep Concern at the Use of the United Nations School in Tulkarem to Detain Palestinians," press release, March 9, 2002.