Sameh Amira was fast asleep when he was jolted awake by pounding at the front door. Israeli troops were on a manhunt for wanted militants in the West Bank and decided to draft help.
The terror-stricken 24-year-old Palestinian soon found himself forced onto the front lines of Israel’s shadowy war against militants, a human shield as he led heavily armed soldiers from house to house. “I was afraid I would die,” he said in a recent interview.
For several years, Palestinians had complained about the army’s use of human shields, but proof was difficult to come by. Then in late February, Associated Press Television News captured footage of the incident involving Amira.
The video has prompted the army to launch a rare criminal investigation into whether its soldiers violated a landmark Israeli Supreme Court 2005 ruling barring the use of human shields. Others, including an 11-year-old girl, have been emboldened to 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 army promises a vigorous investigation. “Violations of the law or of rulings of the Israeli High Court of Justice are viewed with severity,” said Capt. Noa Meir, a spokeswoman.
Human rights issues
The case highlights one of the many human rights issues the army is dealing with as it enters its fifth decade of military occupation in the West Bank. The army says operations like the raid in Nablus are needed to protect Israelis and Israel’s security. But after six years of fighting in the latest intifada, the army’s tactics have become increasingly tough on Palestinians not part of the conflict.
The army moved into Nablus — a major West Bank city known as a militant stronghold — on Feb. 24 in a broad sweep targeting militants and weapons labs. The operation shut down large parts of the city for six days and confined thousands of people to their homes.
Residents have given harrowing accounts as troops moved house to house in search of wanted men. The soldiers reached Jihan Dadoush’s home in the poor Jasmine quarter of Nablus’ Old city on Feb. 28.
Dadoush, 11, said she was watching the news with her family at about 8:30 p.m. when there was a knock on the door. She said the troops questioned her father and older sister before turning to her.
“I was very afraid because the soldiers were screaming at me, so I told them about a house where young men sometimes go,” the ponytailed girl said, hesitating and moving about restlessly as she spoke.
‘Bring her back!’
About 15 minutes later, she said the troops returned and called her name. They ordered her to come with them, threatening to arrest her and ignoring her father’s pleas to leave her alone, she said.
“I was shouting, ’Where are you taking my daughter? Bring her back! Bring her back!”’ her father, Nimr Dadoush, said in an interview, explaining the girl has a heart condition. “They didn’t answer me.” Dadoush, 38, who sells vegetables and works in construction, said he is not politically active.
Jihan said the troops ordered her to show them the hideout. “They made me walk in front of them. There were many soldiers behind me with their weapons and they frightened me,” she said, breaking into tears.
Questions about army practices peaked in the spring of 2002 during an offensive in the West Bank in response to suicide bombings. During the operation, soldiers often forced Palestinian civilians to approach the homes and hideouts of wanted people.
The army at that time defended the practice, known as “the neighbor procedure,” saying it took civilians out of harm’s way and encouraged militants to surrender peacefully. The army 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 Hamas fugitive was hiding.
In its 2005 ruling, the Supreme Court barred any use of civilians in military operations, including the neighbor procedure. Since then, human rights groups say the number of cases has dropped sharply. But Palestinians and Israeli critics say the practice continues.
A military dilemma, a moral question
“When you have to decide between risking your soldiers’ lives or just a Palestinian bystander, the solution ... suddenly becomes much more logical than it sounds,” said Avichay Sharon, 25, a former Israeli commando who served from 2000 to 2003.
Sharon belongs to Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who say army tactics in the West Bank are hurting Israel’s moral character. Based on confidential interviews his group has conducted with some 400 former and active soldiers, Sharon says the “human shield” practice remains common.
“Everyone has done it, seen it, witnessed it,” he said.
On the morning of Feb. 25, an AP cameraman followed a group of army jeeps rushing to a Nablus neighborhood. The cameraman noticed a young man dressed in shorts and a T-shirt who appeared out of place on the cold morning.
The cameraman zoomed in and filmed the man, later identified as Amira, leading soldiers through the front door of an apartment.
Gunshots were heard as several soldiers stood guard outside. Amira then left the home, walked down the stairs and escorted the soldiers around the side of the building. Later, he was led down some stairs with several suspects and put into a military vehicle.
Speaking to the AP, Amira said he led troops to three homes, including his own. He said soldiers fired into bedroom closets in his house — apparently thinking militants might be hiding inside.
“They made me go in front of them in every room they wanted to enter, and they fired behind my back,” Amira said, pointing to bullet holes in the floor, closet doors and clothes.
Amira said he has no ties to any militant group, though a cousin is wanted by Israel. He said he was held for several hours before being released.
Explanation of the week
Over the coming weeks, the army gave several versions of the events.
Initially, it said soldiers had found Amira wandering in the streets and escorted him home. After being shown the video, the army said the images “do not appear to indicate any mistreatment” of civilians, but pledged “a thorough inquiry.”
Then, on March 15, after the AP video had been aired worldwide and new human shield allegations emerged, the army announced a formal criminal probe in a one-sentence statement released shortly before midnight. A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military rules, said the probe was ordered because of the AP footage.
The army said it is looking into four such complaints, including one from a 15-year-old cousin of Amira and from the family of Jihan, the 11-year-old. Several other Palestinians, including a 47-year-old man and two more members of the Amira family, have approached the AP with similar stories.
Jessica Montell, executive director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, said such complaints rarely lead to punishments.
Few convictions for abuse
For instance, less than 8 percent of military investigations into physical abuse by troops have led to convictions in the past six years, she said, citing army figures. But she said the video is “crucial” evidence that is rarely available.
Montell, whose group is assisting Amira and Dadoush, said the probe could lead to anything from disciplinary measures to criminal indictments. And while it is too early to say whether the use of human shields is pervasive, she said she hopes the probe will determine full responsibility.
“It’s hard to imagine that the individual soldiers took the initiative here. At least at some level, some commander is instructing and training soldiers,” Montell said.
Subdued reaction on Israeli street
In Israel, the video aired on evening newscasts for several days, but reaction was subdued.
After years of Palestinian suicide bombings, the public tends to support the army’s tactics if they keep things quiet. “In order to save Israeli soldiers, I would do it,” said Yitzhak Goren, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor from the coastal town of Netanya. But, he added, “only when there is no other choice.”
Asaf Abraham, a high school senior from a Jerusalem suburb, said he opposed such tactics. “When you practice immorality on the outside, it’s going to affect the inside,” he said.
Amira, meanwhile, has become something of a hero in Nablus, easily recognized by his boyish face and slick brown hair.
But the young man says the attention has been a curse. Amira said he worked for several years in a nearby Jewish settlement. Since the video aired, he said he has not been able to renew a work permit, and he fears he is being punished by the Israeli authorities.
“I don’t do anything. I hang out, sleep, and walk around. I have nothing to do,” he said.