JERUSALEM — Israel suspended a commander whose troops ordered two Palestinian youths in the West Bank to stand in front of their vehicle to protect it from stones thrown by locals, the army spokesman's office said Friday.
The incident, captured on video, is the latest sign that the army continues to use human shields in violation of international law and a landmark Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2005 barring the practice.
The army statement Friday said Israeli soldiers "apparently made prohibited use of civilians" and that the unit's commander would be suspended "from all operational activity, in addition to the ongoing investigation into the matter." The commander was not named.
The footage was filmed by a foreign peace activist during a raid on the home of a wanted militant, and aired on the Yediot Ahronot newspaper Web site. Troops damaged the house, but the fugitive was not inside.
For years, Palestinians had complained about the army's use of human shields, but proof was elusive. Then in late February, Associated Press Television News captured footage of a Palestinian man, Sameh Amira, forced to lead heavily armed soldiers on a manhunt for militants, in a house-to-house search.
Others, including an 11-year-old girl, have come forward with similar accounts of being compelled to walk ahead of soldiers looking for militants.
International law, including the Geneva Conventions and Hague regulations, prohibits placing civilians in harm's way during military operations.
The APTN video prompted the army to launch a rare criminal investigation into whether its soldiers have broken the law as critics claim. The army has promised a vigorous investigation.
'Problem is systematic,' Palestinian says
Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti said the suspension failed to address the fundamental problem.
"They are treating it as an isolated incident," he said. "The problem is systematic and ... they (troops) continued the practice despite the court order," he said.
Human rights groups say the use of civilians in military operations has dropped since the Supreme Court banned it, but the recent cases suggest the practice continues.
The court ruling was prompted by an outcry over the army's widespread practice, in a 2002 West Bank offensive, of forcing Palestinian civilians to approach fugitives' hideouts.
The army, which launched the offensive following a rash of suicide bombings, defended the practice then, saying it kept civilians out of harm's way and encouraged militants to surrender peacefully. And it says it never allowed troops to use civilians for cover during battles.
But in August 2002, a 19-year-old Palestinian student was killed in a gunfight that erupted after he was forced to knock on the door of a building where a fugitive was hiding.
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