Human shield is a military and political term describing the deliberate placement of non-combatants in or around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking these combat targets. It may also refer to the use of persons to literally shield combatants during attacks, by forcing them to march in front of the combatants.
- 1 20th century
- 2 21st century
- 3 Other use
- 4 See also
- 5 References
World War II
After World War II, it was claimed by German SS general Gottlob Berger that there was a plan, proposed by the Luftwaffe and approved by Adolf Hitler, to set up special POW camps for captured airmen of the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces in large German cities, to act as human shields against their bombing raids. Berger realized that this would contravene the 1929 Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire—as a result, this plan was not implemented.
At the Wola massacre in Poland on 7 August 1944, the Nazis forced civilian women onto the armored vehicles as human shields to enhance their effectiveness. In Belgium in May 1940, at least 86 civilians were killed by the German Wehrmacht known as the Vinkt Massacre, when the Germans took 140 civilians and used them as shields to cross a bridge while under fire.
During the Battle of Okinawa, Japanese soldiers often used civilians as human shields against American troops.
When the Japanese were concerned about the incoming Allied air raids on their home islands as they were losing their controlled Pacific islands one by one to the Allies in the Pacific War, they scattered major military installations and factories throughout urban areas, therefore, historians argued that Japan was using its civilians as human shields to protect their legitimate military targets against Allied bombardment. As a result, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) was unable to strike purely military targets due to the limitations of their bombsight, the mixing of military installations and factories with urban areas, and the widespread of cottage industry in Japan's cities. This led the USAAF in early 1945 to switch from precision bombing to carpetbombing which destroyed 67 Japanese cities with incendiary bombs and the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Persian Gulf War
One of the most famous uses of human shields occurred in Iraq in 1990, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Saddam Hussein's government detained hundreds of citizens of Western countries who were in Iraq for use as human shields in an attempt to deter nations from participating in military operations against the country. A number of these hostages were filmed meeting Hussein, and kept with him to deter any targeted attacks, whilst others were held in or near military and industrial targets.
In 1991, during the operations in the Gulf War, the U.S. submitted a report to the UN Security Council denouncing Iraq for having “intentionally placed civilians at risk through its behavior”. The report cited the following examples of such behavior:
- (a) The Iraqi Government moved significant amounts of military weapons and equipment into civilian areas with the deliberate purpose of using innocent civilians and their homes as shields against attacks on legitimate military targets;
- (b) Iraqi fighter and bomber aircraft were dispersed into villages near the military airfields where they were parked between civilian houses and even placed immediately adjacent to important archaeological sites and historic treasures;
- (c) Coalition aircraft were fired upon by anti-aircraft weapons in residential neighborhoods in various cities. In Baghdad, anti-aircraft sites were located on hotel roofs;
- (d) In one case, military engineering equipment used to traverse rivers, including mobile bridge sections, was located in several villages near an important crossing point. The Iraqis parked each vehicle adjacent to a civilian house.
Serbian aggression against Bosnia
Shortly after the cease-fire between Croat and Serb forces, the Bosnian Serbs launched an assault against the Safe area of Goražde, heavily shelling the town and surrounding villages. Protests and exhortations from the UN Security Council turned out to be ineffective, and on 10 and 11 April 1994, NATO launched air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions. In retaliation, Bosnian Serb forces captured many UN personnel, using them as human shields at sites expected to be bombed. In a similar situation to what had happened in Sarajevo, an ultimatum was issued, and by the 24th, most of the Serb troops had complied.
War in Afghanistan
According to various accounts—including that of the American ambassador to the U.N., the Taliban used women and children from their own population as human shields against coalition forces in 2006, and 2007, and when the British attacked during August 2008 during the war in Afghanistan.
- During the Second Intifada
According to human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) used Palestinian civilians as human shields during the 2002 Battle of Jenin. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that "for a long period of time following the outbreak of the second intifada, particularly during Operation Defensive Shield, in April 2002, the IDF systematically used Palestinian civilians as human shields, forcing them to carry out military actions which threatened their lives". Al Mezan reported the systematic use of "human shields" during the invasion of Beit Hanoun in 2004. Human shields were also employed by Israeli soldiers to subdue a stone-throwing protest in Hebron in 2003.
In 2005, Israel's High Court of Justice banned the practice, with the Israeli Defense Ministry appealing the decision. While acknowledging and defending the "use of Palestinians to deliver warnings to wanted men about impending arrest operations", a practice known in Israel by the euphemism "neighbor procedure", the IDF denied reports of "using Palestinians as human shields against attacks on IDF forces", claiming it had already forbidden this practice.
In February 2007, footage was released of an incident involving Sameh Amira, a 24-year-old Palestinian, who video showed serving as a human shield for a group of Israeli soldiers, getting inside apartments suspected to belong to Palestinian militants ahead of the soldiers. A 15-year-old cousin of Amira and an 11-year-old girl in the West Bank independently told B'Tselem in February 2007 that Israeli soldiers forced each of them in separate incidents to open the door of a neighboring apartment belonging to a suspected militant, get inside ahead of them, and open doors and windows.
The Israeli Army launched a criminal investigation into the aforementioned incident. In April 2007, the Israeli army suspended a commander after the unit he was leading was accused of using Palestinians as human shields in a West Bank operation. In April 2007 CBS News reported that, according to human rights groups, the IDF did not stop the use of human shields, but the incidence was dropping.
- During the 2008-2009 Gaza War
During the 2008-2009 Gaza War known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military forces were accused of continuing to use civilians as human shields by Amnesty International and Breaking the Silence. According to testimonies published by these two groups, Israeli forces used unarmed Palestinians including children to protect military positions, walk in front of armed soldiers; go into buildings to check for booby traps or gunmen; and inspect suspicious objects for explosives. Amnesty International stated that it found cases in which "Israeli troops forced Palestinians to stay in one room of their home while turning the rest of the house into a base and sniper position, effectively using the families, both adults and children, as human shields and putting them at risk". The UN Human Rights Council also accused Israel of using human shields during 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict.
The Guardian compiled three videos and testimony from civilians about alleged war crimes committed by Israeli soldiers during the 2008-2009 Gaza War, including the use of Palestinian children as human shields. In the videos three teenage brothers from the al-Attar family claimed that they were forced at gunpoint to kneel in front of tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing at them and that they were used to "clear" houses for the Israeli soldiers.
An IDF soldier's testimony for Breaking the Silence told that his commander ordered that for every house raided by the IDF, they send a "neighbor" to go in before the soldier, sometimes while the soldier placed his gun on the neighbor's shoulder; according to the soldier, "commanders said these were the instructions and we had to do it". Gazan civilians also testified of being used at gunpoint as human shields by Israeli soldiers. An Israeli military official responded to these allegations: "The IDF operated in accordance with the rules of war and did the utmost to minimise harm to civilians uninvolved in combat. The IDF's use of weapons conforms to international law." An Israeli embassy spokesperson alleged Hamas pressured the people of Gaza into making those accusations.
On March 12, 2010, the Israel Defense Forces prosecution filed indictments against two staff sergeants of the Givati Brigade for forcing a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open a number of bags they thought might contain explosives in January 2009. The boy told he was hit by the soldiers and forced to work for them at gunpoint. The IDF said it opened the investigation after the incident was brought to its attention by the United Nations. On October 3, 2010, a conviction in this matter, accompanied by a demotion and suspended sentence, was handed down by the military court against both defendants, though neither soldier was actually jailed. The sentence was criticized as too lenient by Human Rights Watch and the boy's mother.
- 2009-2014 Gaza War
A United Nations human rights body accused Israeli forces in June 2013 of "continuous use of Palestinian children as human shields and informants", voicing with deep concern 14 such cases had been reported between January 2010 and March 2013. It says almost all accused soldiers involved in the incidents have gone unpunished.
In an interview with Breaking the Silence, a former Israeli soldier recounted that the commander of his unit employed the policy, despite acknowledging its ban, as he would rather that a Palestinian civilian be killed carrying out the duty than one of his men. He told young Palestinian boys were also used by this particular unit to carry out military duties for the Israeli army.
Defense for Children International-Palestine reported 17-year-old, Ahmad Abu Raida (also:“Reeda”), was kidnapped by Israeli soldiers, who, after beating him up and threatening him, at times with sexual overtones, used him as a human shield for five days, forcing him to walk in front of them with police dogs at gunpoint, search houses and dig in places soldiers suspected there might be tunnels. The New York Times stated that his assertions could not be independently corroborated; the Israeli military confirmed that he had been detained, noting his father's affiliation with Hamas, who was a senior official in the Gaza Tourism Ministry. No material evidence of the physical violence allegedly suffered by Raida, e.g. photos, medical reports or lingering wounds resulting from repeated blows, was produced.
The Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights published testimony that, during the 2014 Gaza War, Israeli soldiers used Palestinian civilians as shield in Khuza'a. A family, that also gave a video interview, recorded by Media Town, told the group that Israeli soldiers had killed the family's patriarch, a 65-year-old who was carrying a white flag, and proceeded to place family members, including children, by the house's windows and shoot from behind them.
A UN official made the accusation that Israel used a school in Gaza as a military base.
Israeli writer Amos Harel in Haaretz alleged that during the Second Intifada (2000–2005) Palestinian gunmen routinely used civilians and children as human shields and further alleges that there is photographic evidence.
On 22 November 2006, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Muhammad Wail Baroud, a military commander in the Popular Resistance Committee, of using civilians for shielding homes against military attacks but later stated that they erred. There was no evidence that the house was being used for military purposes at the time of the planned attack, nor did the IDF explain what military objective it could have had. They considered the destruction in light of Israel's longstanding policy of destroying homes as punitive measures instead of as legitimate military targets. HRW acknowledged they did not consider the motives of the civilians, such as whether they willingly assembled or not, and emphasized that it did not want to criticize non-violent resistance or any other form of peaceful protest, including civilians defending their homes.
- During the 2008-2009 Gaza War
The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict that took place in 2008-2009 stated that it "did not find any evidence of civilians being forced to remain in their houses by Palestinian armed groups". The Mission "asked numerous witnesses in Gaza why they had stayed in their homes in spite of the shelling, bombing and Israeli ground invasion"; respondents stated they "did not think they would be at risk as long as they remained indoors or because they had no safe place to go". An Amnesty International report in 2009 criticized Hamas for human rights violations, but found "no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings".
A review article in Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law stated that Israel warned residents to leave by using warnings such as roof knocking and phone calls, and that "Israel asserted that Palestinian civilians who did not abide by the warnings were acting as 'voluntary human shields,' and were thus taking part in hostilities and could be targeted as combatants." The article determined this assertion to be unsupportable in international law.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Hamas now regularly uses human shields to protect the homes of Hamas officials. The Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center accused Hamas and other armed groups of making extensive use of human shields as integral part of their war doctrine, in order to prevent the IDF to target them, during the Gaza War (2008-2009). The IDF released footage allegedly showing Palestinian fighters using ambulances for military purposes. Magen David Adom, the Israeli ambulance and medical emergency service, submitted to the UN a report concluding the accusation was unfounded.
In relation to Al-Fakhura school incident during the Gaza War of January 2009, Israel accused Hamas of "cynically" using civilians as human shields. A UN Board of Inquiry found that there was no firing from within the school and no explosives within the school. The Board could not establish with certainty whether there had been any firing from the vicinity of the school.
- During the 2014 Gaza War
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Hamas militants of violating international humanitarian law by "locating rockets within schools and hospitals, or even launching these rockets from densely populated areas." The European Union condemned Hamas, and in particular condemned "calls on the civilian population of Gaza to provide themselves as human shields." France24 confirmed the use of urban warfare, filming a rocket launch pad which was placed in a civilian area next to a hotel where international journalists were staying. Peter Stefanovic of Australia’s Channel Nine News tweeted that rockets had been fired "over our hotel from a site about two hundred metres away. So a missile launch site is basically next door.” Janis Mackey Frayer of Canada's CTV reported seeing a Hamas gunman dressed in a woman's headscarf with a "tip of a gun poked out from under cloak.” Harry Fear reporting for Russia Today tweeted that rockets were fired from near his hotel. His tweet was later deleted, and he was expelled from Gaza. Several journalists who alleged Hamas use of human shields and rocket locations close to civilian infrastructure reported being threatened by Hamas. 
In a September 2014 interview, a Hamas official acknowledged to Associated Press that the group fired at Israel from civilian areas. He ascribed the practice to "mistakes", but said the group had little option due to the crowded landscape of the Strip, with its dearth of open zones. He denied accusations that rockets were launched from "from schools or hospitals when in fact they were fired 200 or 300 meters (yards) away". In an 2014 interview, a Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal said to a CNN interviewer that the group did not use its people as human shields.
In interviews with Gazan refugees, reporters for The Independent and The Guardian concluded it was a "myth" that Hamas forced civilians to stay in areas under attack against their will; many refugees told them they refused to heed the IDF's warnings because even areas Israel had declared safe for refugees had been shelled by its forces. The BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen also said he "saw no evidence of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields". An Amnesty International document (dated July 25, 2014) asserts that they do "not have evidence at this point that Palestinian civilians have been intentionally used by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups during the current hostilities to “shield” specific locations or military personnel or equipment from Israeli attacks." Amnesty International's assessment was that international humanitarian law was clear in that "even if officials or fighters from Hamas or Palestinian armed groups associated with other factions did in fact direct civilians to remain in a specific location in order to shield military objectives from attacks, all of Israel’s obligations to protect these civilians would still apply." The human rights group, however, still found that Palestinian factions, as in previous conflicts, launched attacks from civilian areas.
Hamas Arabic-speaking spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called up Gaza civilians on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV July 8, 2014 to stay put in areas under fire by Israel, prompting accusations from Israel and others — the European Union, for example — that Hamas was calling on people to volunteer as "in effect human shields". For Amnesty International, however, Hamas' call may have been "motivated by a desire to avoid further panic" among civilians, considering both the lack of shelters in Gaza and the fact that some civilians who heeded the IDF's warnings had been casualties of Israeli attacks.
During the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, a group of people chose to travel to Iraq to act as human shields. Their purpose was to prevent American-led coalition forces from bombing certain locations. Of about 200 to 500 human shields who traveled to Iraq before hostilities, at least eighty stayed. Of the human shields who stayed throughout the war, none were killed or injured and none of the sites where they were residing were destroyed.
Scott Ewing, Cavalry Scout, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, US Army, who served in Iraq in the 2005-2006 period, stated that US troops would give candy to Iraqi children so they would stay around their vehicles, thereby making more likely that "the bad guys wouldn't attack. We used the kids as human shields".
Australian journalist Chris Link reported and photographed incidents during the 2006 Lebanon War in which Hezbollah used Lebanese civilians as human shields to dissuade the IDF from firing at gunmen and rocket launchers, although Human Rights Watch then conducted its own investigation and reported that Hezbollah did not "deliberately" use civilians as a deterrent from IDF attack. HRW did however conclude Hezbollah stored weapons "in or near civilian homes" and fighters launched rockets within populated areas and near UN observers. HRW also accused Hezbollah of using Lebanese homes as sites for rocket launchers, usually without the homeowner's knowledge or permission, putting large numbers of civilians at risk.
Human Rights Watch conducted its own investigation on the 2006 Lebanon War, during which Israel accused Hezbollah of using civilians, and reported that Hezbollah did not "deliberately" use civilians as a deterrent from IDF attack, and that when violations happen it was not "routine or wide". HRW found that Hezbollah did not "routinely" stored weapons in or near civilian homes and that most often fighters launched rockets from rural, unpopulated areas that they declared no-go zones for Lebanese civilians. It did find that Hezbollah purposely endangered UN observers by launching attacks near them.
On July 25, 2006, Israeli forces attacked and destroyed an UN observer post in southern Lebanon, resulting in four deaths. One of the fatalities, Canadian Major Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener, had sent an e‑mail to his former commander, retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, several days before his death in which he described the Israeli bombardment, writing "The closest artillery has landed within two meters of our position and the closest 1,000 lb aerial bomb has landed 100 meters from our patrol base. This has not been deliberate targeting, but rather due to tactical necessity". MacKenzie interpreted this language for a reporter: "What that means is, in plain English, 'We've got Hezbollah fighters running around in our positions, taking our positions here and then using us for shields and then engaging the (Israeli Defence Forces).'" A senior UN official,replying about Maj. Hess-von Kruedener's e-mail concerning Hezbollah presence in the area of the UN base said. "At the time, there had been no Hezbollah activity reported in the area. "So it was quite clear they were not going after other targets; that, for whatever reason, our position was being fired upon." He went on to claim that the Israelis were told where the UN base was and that it was clearly marked but they bombed it anyway.
Siege of Lal Masjid
According to a Human Rights Watch report published on February 19, 2009, the LTTE had been preventing Tamil civilians from fleeing out of rebel held area and using them as human shields against a Sri Lankan Army offensive.
Libyan Civil Wars
In March 2016, during the second civil war, it was reported that two Italians who had been kidnapped in June 2015 were killed while they were used as human shields by Islamic State gunmen in Sorman.
Syrian Civil War
During the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Armed Forces and loyalists were accused by Human Rights Watch of using residents of towns as human shields when advancing on opposition held areas, forcing them to march in front of the army. Witness from different towns across the country said that the army had kidnapped people and forced them to march in front of them when attacking towns and villages. The purpose of this was to protect the army from attack. HRW said "The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice." Witnesses stated that the army forcibly used children and elderly people as well to deter anyone from firing on the soldiers.
The Islamic State (ISIL) militants, Saudi-supported Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and Jaysh al-Islam anti-Assad rebels were accused of using civilian residents of towns, Alawite civilians and captured Syrian soldiers as human shields.
Use by anti-war activists
In recent years civilian volunteers have attempted to use themselves as “human shields” to prevent military conflict. In January 2003, anti-war activists organised Human Shield Action to Iraq in advance of the March 2003 invasion. Ultimately, Human Shield Action brought 200 people to Iraq. Many of them left as they ran out of money and the likelihood of war became greater. Several of these human shields had to be rescued by U.S. Marines after Iraqis threatened them for opposing the invasion of their country.
Use by pro-Palestinian activists
The human rights group Rabbis for Human Rights agreed to act as “human shields” during the annual olive harvest to protect Palestinian villages from settlers. Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, Western International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers in the Palestinian territories, who died in 2003 and 2004 respectively have been described as “human shields” campaigning against house demolition. ISM, however, strongly takes offence at the use of the term human shield to describe their work, preferring it be used only to refer to when the military uses civilians as shields. Not even Amnesty International defines volunteer activist's actions or activist's actions for non-military property as “human shields”, and regards only the direction of "specific civilians to remain in their homes as “human shields” for fighters, munitions, or military equipment" as “human shields”. According to the 3 definitions in the header of this article the 'volunteers to protect Palestinians' make them not “human shields outside the battlefield” but protesters or ordinary pro-Palestinian demonstrants.
- Human wave attack
- Falling on a grenade
- Civilian casualties
- Close Quarters Battle
- Human rights in Israel
- Human rights in the Palestinian National Authority
- Urban warfare
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"Another 36 homes were occupied by Israeli soldiers and used as watch posts. In every case of home occupation the IOF detained the inhabitants inside one room of the house"
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- "Israeli soldiers testify about violence against Palestinian children" (in French). Le Monde. 2012-08-21.
One of the soldiers testifies that a procedure, though banned, [is still] used when the army comes to arrest a Palestinian suspect: soldiers send a neighbor, charged with asking the residents of the besieged house to come out. "I think that happened in Tulkarem. We made everyone come out, without finding the person we were looking for. So we sent the neighbors in, and afterwards a child. He had to make a tour inside the house, open all the doors and windows, lit all the lights." The commander of the unit said the procedure was illegal. "He declared he would rather that a neighbor be killed (…) if that made it possible to avoid one of his men from being shot while entering the house", said the soldier. The population has no choice but to cooperate. "When you knock on the door at night, with your gun shining under their face, your flashlight on their eyes, and you see he is not armed(…), he won't tell you he doesn't want to cooperate."
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The photographs from recent operations show that the armed Palestinians use the many civilians in the area, including children, as a "human shield". Since this is done routinely, harming children (some, it is possible, by Palestinian fire) becomes almost impossible to prevent.
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- Harriet Sherwood (24 July 2014). In Gaza, Hamas fighters are among civilians. There is nowhere else for them to go (Report). The Guardian.
- "Jeremy Bowen's Gaza notebook: I saw no evidence of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields". New Statesman. 22 July 2014.
- Document - Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Israel/Gaza conflict, July 2014
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- Hamas spokesman calls on Palestinians to create human shields. YouTube. 14 July 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
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