Israeli army alleged to use village residents as shields

Soldiers took up posts in Beit Jala homes

Israeli army alleged to use civilians as shields

September 08, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT JALA, West Bank - First, Majida Shehadeh heard the rumble. But it wasn't until the overpowering smell of gasoline wafted into her parents' home one day last month that the Palestinian mother of two knew that Israeli tanks were near.

She had moved her family and relatives into what she thought was a haven - a century-old stone house far from where shooting in Beit Jala usually occurred. But Israeli soldiers apparently liked the home's breathtaking view of the terraced hillside village below, a perfect spot to look down on Palestinian gunmen trying to hide on narrow, winding streets.

Minutes after the tanks rolled by, Shehadeh said, soldiers knocked on her door. She said they swept in, forced seven adults and six children into a small room, and then began firing out of windows of adjoining rooms, putting her and her family in the direct line of return fire from Palestinians.

"The soldiers used us as hostages," Shehadeh said yesterday. "They put us in a room to protect themselves."

Several other Beit Jala residents have made similar complaints about the Israeli army's 51-hour incursion, which began Aug. 28 when soldiers entered the town near Bethlehem to force gunmen to stop shooting across a valley at the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

An Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, has accused the army of violating international law by using civilians, including children, as "human shields" instead of evacuating them to safety. "In some of the cases, [soldiers] instructed residents to remain in a room facing the direction from which Palestinians fired at soldiers," said a B'Tselem report released this week. Interviews with residents by the group's investigators "indicate that the soldiers used civilian homes as proper military posts."

The Israeli army said it has received three complaints alleging mistreatment of civilians. Military officials released a statement from their public affairs office promising a thorough investigation.

"It should be noted that before the Beit Jala operation, the soldiers were instructed on how to treat the Palestinian population," the statement said. "Reviews were also made in the course of the operation and after it ended, to ensure that the soldiers behaved properly." The statement said, "The [army] views the preservation of human life, dignity and public property as an important and central value both during normal times as well as in times or warfare, and educates its soldiers in this spirit."

Army officials declined to comment on specific accusations. A military source said it is not common practice for soldiers to enter private homes during such an operation but added, "Sometimes it is necessary for security."

Israeli news media and foreign reporters have documented the army's entry into homes, mostly through interviews the day after the tanks rolled out of Beit Jala.

When soldiers first went in, they swept into a German Lutheran orphanage that includes a school and ordered about 40 students and teachers into the basement. Religious leaders protested, prompting the army to deny that soldiers had entered the school. But the school's principal later showed hundreds of spent shell casings from M-16 automatic rifles littering a room as well as empty army ration cans. Israeli newspapers said the army left the building because of negative media reports.

One of the people B'Tselem interviewed, Suftan Jawarish, 37, said he was forced to stand on his front porch as soldiers fired at Palestinians, who returned fire, hitting the walls near him.

"One of the soldiers hid behind me and said that the bullets would hit me instead of him," Jawarish told the human rights group. "I answered him that he was a coward because he had a weapon and was hiding behind an unarmed man."

No civilians were reported shot or injured during the incursion. Dozens of Palestinian gunman were wounded, however.

Shehadeh, who was not one of the families interviewed by B'Tselem, said yesterday that she and her relatives were forced to stay in a single room for the duration of the conflict. They could only go to the kitchen or bathroom with permission from a senior commander.

She was able to get food delivered by the Red Cross once, and her brother-in-law was allowed once to open his store to get milk and bread. Shehadeh said about 20 soldiers turned her home into a military post, overturning furniture, sandbagging windows and using mattresses to cover doors. Hours before the soldiers withdrew, an intense firefight broke out, she said. She said that tanks flanking her home fired repeatedly and that soldiers shot out of her windows. No bullets came into the room where her family was.

"It was a very bad night," she said.

When the soldiers left, Shehadeh went downstairs to the living room where the soldiers had slept and where she had seen piles of garbage on her trips to the bathroom. She expected to find a mess. But there was nothing but overturned tables and chairs.

The only things Shehadeh has to remember the army's occupation are a broken chair leg, spilled sand and three spent M-16 rifle casings that her children found under a rug. "They cleaned everything," she said.

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