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25 Oct, 2010 19:45

Israeli soldiers await sentence for using human shield

Two Israeli soldiers are awaiting sentencing after being convicted of using a Palestinian child as a human shield during the Gaza war.

Israel reinforced a ban on involving civilians five years ago, but Palestinians believe troops continue to risk innocent lives in military operations.

Majiid Rabah was just nine years old when soldiers grabbed him – and made him check for bombs.

“I was just sitting here. Israeli soldiers took me over there. There were two bags, and they told me to open them, but I didn't know how to do it,” Majiid recalls.

He was terrified of the abandoned briefcases which the soldiers thought could be booby-trapped. And his frightened family was forced to watch.

“One of them put his hand on my son’s shoulder and made him go into the toilet cubicle. I heard a few shots fired soon after. I felt like I was dying. My little daughter, who was with me, kept saying ‘They killed him’,” Majid’s mother Afaf Rabah shares the painful memory.

And yet, it was five years ago that Israel’s Supreme Court made the law crystal clear:

“Human shielding is an absolute no-no. Endangering civilians deliberately is absolutely prohibited,” says David Benjamin, former Israeli Army legal advisor.

But the reality on the ground is still very different. Yehuda Shaul spent his army years in the Palestinian territories. He knew the Supreme Court’s ruling, but watched his sergeant ignore it. So did the soldiers serving under him. He has founded the “Breaking the Silence” organization, which is now trying to defend Palestinian civilians.

“You surround the house and then you grab one of the neighbors and send him in front of you into the house to make sure if someone is going to open fire – he is going to get it and not you, that was a common procedure we were all trained and operated under,” Yehuda Shaul remembers.

Now many of those involved in such operations cannot understand what they are being tried for because “it was so much part of their life.”

The orders to use human shields came from higher officers whom “the system cannot allow to put on trial” that’s why “we are talking about the two low-ranking soldiers – they are going to sacrifice for everything,” Shaul explained.

He added that human shields are still being used.

“When you’re in the field you always think that the judges in Jerusalem – they have the wrong idea about how to do things and you know how to do things, this is the way you were trained,” Yehua Shaul revealed.

The overall situation gives no ground for optimism. Of 150 complaints against Israeli soldiers in the war in Gaza two years ago, only 47 criminal investigations were carried out, and most of them have since been closed.

But Israeli lawyers say convicting the two soldiers is to the Israeli Defense Force’s credit. This will only show that cases of human shielding in the army are out of the normal, believes David Benjamin:

“There are always soldiers that step out of line, that’s part and parcel of running a military operation. To say it’s a general phenomenon that IDF soldiers use human shields – that’s absurd.”

For Majiid’s family, they take comfort they are finally getting justice. Even if it is only against low-ranking soldiers, and not the commanders they accuse of allowing human shields behind the law’s back.