Human Shields Pose Dilemma for Israel

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Monday, November 20, 2006

Human Shields Pose Dilemma for Israel

Jerusalem ( - The Israeli army is facing the "difficult dilemma" of having to defend its own citizens while ensuring the safety of Palestinians civilians, an Israeli army officer said on Monday. Rockets continued to fall on southern Israel as she spoke.

Hundreds of Palestinian civilians gathered at the homes of two terrorists over the weekend, forming a human shield to prevent an Israeli attack on the men.

Israel follows a policy of telephoning the occupants of targeted houses in the Gaza Strip to warn them of impending air strikes so civilians will have time to get out. These are houses where weapons may be stored or where terror plots may be hatched.

Mohammed Baroud, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, and another Hamas militant were warned on Saturday night that they had 30 minutes to leave their homes before an air strike.

But instead of leaving, they men called for crowds of civilians to stand outside as human shields to protect them. Hundreds of supporters, including women and armed men, gathered at the homes, shouting, "Death to Israel, Death to America."

Israel was forced to call off its air strike.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh visited the site of the civilian protest and expressed his pride at what he called "this national stand." He called it "the first step toward protecting our homes, the homes of our children."

The terrorists are causing Israel to face a very "difficult dilemma," said Israeli army spokeswoman Capt. Noa Meir.

Israel not only must protect its own citizens, it must also avoid harming Palestinian civilians who place themselves in harm's way, Meir said in a telephone interview.

But the responsibility for the Palestinian casualties rests with Palestinian terrorists who use civilians as shields, said Meir. She noted that this is not the first time that Palestinian militants have called on civilians to protect them.

Eighteen days ago, Palestinian gunmen fleeing Israeli troops holed up in a Gaza mosque. Thousands of protesters, mostly women, were called to surround the mosque, providing cover for the militants to escape. Two women were killed in exchanges of fire.

"It is up to us to make the very difficult distinction between combatants and non-combatants," said Meir. Nevertheless, she said, if someone is harboring terrorists or roaming around where an Israeli military operation is taking place, they are liable to get hurt.

It is not clear what status civilians have when they actively participate in harboring terrorists or willingly act as human shields.

Israeli air strikes against militants and weapons manufacturing and storage facilities are one of the methods the army uses to combat rocket fire on Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip. Meir said there has been no change in Israeli policy regarding those preemptive air strikes.

The Israeli air force carried out an aerial attack Sunday against a vehicle carrying Hamas militants who the army said were part of the rocket production division and were involved in recent rocket attacks on the southern Israeli city of Sderot.

Palestinian militants launched seven rockets at Israel on Monday. Two slammed into Sderot, where a woman was killed in a similar attack last week.

Israel on Sunday rejected as one-sided and hypocritical a U.N. resolution calling on Israel to withdraw its forces and halt its operation in the Gaza Strip immediately. The resolution said it "deeply deplored" the Israeli offensive, specifically an Israeli army mishap two weeks ago, in which at least 18 Palestinians were killed by what Israel described as an errant artillery shell.

The resolution also called on the Palestinian Authority to bring an end to violence and rocket firing at Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he viewed "severely" the U.N. General Assembly resolution. "Those who preach morality and roll their eyes have yet to see fit to initiate a resolution in condemnation of those [Palestinians] who are shooting with the goal of hitting [Israeli] civilians as a long-range, systematic policy," Olmert said.

"Israel withdrew a year ago from Gaza, has deployed its forces on the border with Gaza [and] was hailed by the whole international community for this step," Israeli Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog said in reference to Israel's unilateral withdrawal of troops and the uprooting of 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip.

Since then, Palestinians have attacked Israel time after time from the Gaza Strip. Israel cannot accept cross-border attacks from Gaza, Herzog said. "Any sane nation would do the same."

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