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Human shield is a military and political term describing the deliberate placement of civilians in or around combat targets to deter an enemy from attacking those targets. It may also refer to the use of civilians to literally shield combatants during attacks, by forcing the civilians to march in front of the soldiers. This is done in the hope that the other party will be reluctant to attack them. Furthermore, if the other party attacks these targets anyway, the resulting civilian casualties have propaganda value.

Using this technique increases the civilian casualty rate and is illegal by any nation that is party to the Fourth Geneva Convention.[1]

13th Century Mongols

During a siege the Mongols would gather a crowd of local residents or soldiers surrendered from previous battles, and would drive them forward in sieges and battles. These "alive boards" or "human shields" would often take the brunt of enemy arrows and crossbow bolts, thus leaving the Mongol warriors safer.[citation needed]

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 Force in large German cities, to act as human shields against their bombing raids. Berger realised that this would contravene the Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire - as a result this plan was not implemented.[2][3] However, the practice was widespread in the war on the Eastern front, where the Wehrmacht used civilians ahead of their troops in an effort to deter Soviet attacks.[citation needed]

First 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 first Gulf War. 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.[4] While the United Nations debated its response to the invasion of Kuwait, several international statesmen and peace campaigners visited Iraq to try to secure the release of the human shields, many returning with around 10 or 12 each time.[citation needed]




According to various accounts - including the US ambassador to the UN - the Taliban used women and children from their own population as human shields against coalition forces in 2006,[5] and 2007,[6] and when the British attacked during August 2008.[7]

Gaza and the West Bank

In November 2006, Palestinian women volunteered as human shields to allow the escape of Hamas gunmen from Israeli forces in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. The armed Palestinians had barricaded themselves in a mosque, which was surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks. According to a Hamas spokesman, a crowd of women gathered outside the mosque in response to an appeal on the local radio station for women to protect the Hamas fighters. The Palestinian gunmen escaped by dressing in women's clothes and hiding in the large group.[8]

Also in the same month, the Israeli Air Force warned Mohammed Weil Baroud, a Palestinian leader said to be responsible for firing Qassam rockets at Israel, to evacuate his home in Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip in advance of an airstrike. Instead, hundreds of Palestinians, including many women and children, gathered outside Baroud's house. Israel suspended the airstrike out of fear that the human shields would be killed or injured. In response to Israel's reaction, another Palestinian leader said: "We have won. From now on we will form human chains around every house that is threatened with demolition."[9] The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Hamas now regularly uses human shields to protect the homes of Hamas officials.[10]

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.[11]

On October 29, 2007, in response to criticism of Israel's bombing of a Beit Hanoun Elementary School for boys run by UNRWA, the Israel Defense Forces released drone footage of mortars shot from a street adjacent to the school. Israel warned Ban Ki Moon about the danger and requested an investigation.[12] Local eyewitnesses later confirmed that Hamas militants had fired at Israeli troops from adjacent a UN school for girls where hundreds of Palestinians had sought refuge.[13][14] 43 Palestinians were reported killed when a street near the school was hit by return fire.[15] Israel accused Hamas of "cynically" using civilians as human shields. A report from the IDF brigade responsible for the attack stated that militants had launched a rocket into Israel from a yard adjacent to the UN building and the paratroop brigade had fired three rounds of mortars at the position. A GPS error led to one of the mortars hitting the building.[16]

According to a transcript translated and published by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) on February 29, 2008, a Hamas parliamentarian spoke of a "death-seeking" culture where women, children and the elderly volunteer as human shields against Israeli military attacks. "[The enemies of Allah] do not know that the Palestinian people have developed its [methods] of death and death-seeking," Fathi Hammad is quoted by Memri in a speech televised on Hamas' Al-Aqsa television station. "For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, at which women excel, and so do all the people living on this land. The elderly excel at this, and so do the mujahideen and the children," Hammad is quoted as saying. "This is why they have formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly, and the mujahideen, in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine. It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: 'We desire death like you desire life,'" he said.[17]


During the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, a group of citizens of Western countries chose to travel to Iraq to act as human shields. Their purpose was to prevent the U.S.-led coalition troops from bombing certain locations. Of about 200 to 500 human shields who traveled to Iraq before hostilities, at least 80 stayed. Of the shields who stayed throughout the war, none were killed or injured and none of the sites where they were residing were destroyed.[citation needed]


Amnesty International[18] and Human Rights Watch[19] assert the Israel Defense Forces 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".[20][21] The practice was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Israel in 2005 but human rights groups say the IDF continues to use it, although they say the number of instances has dropped sharply.[20][22]

During the 2008-2009 Gaza invasion known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military forces were accused of continuing to use civilians as human shields. According to testimonies, 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.[23][24]

In February 2007, Associated Press Television News released footage of an incident involving Sameh Amira, a 24-year-old Palestinian. The video appears to show the West Bank resident serving as a human shield for a group of Israeli soldiers.[22][25] The video can be seen on the AP website. The Israeli Army launched a criminal investigation into the incident.[22] 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 raid.[26]

Israel was accused by UN Human Rights Council of using human shields during 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict[27][28]

The Guardian has compiled 3 videos[29] and testimony from civilians of alleged war crimes committed by Israeli soldiers during the Gaza war, including the use of Palestinian children as human shields, the targeting of medics and hospitals, and drone aircraft firing on civilians deliberately.[30] Three teenage brothers from the al-Attar family have claimed that "they were taken from their home at gunpoint, made to kneel in front of tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing at them and sent by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian houses to clear them".[30]

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 considers these allegations suspect because of Hamas pressure, adding: "Anyone who understands the realities of Gaza will know that these people are not free to speak the truth. Those that wish to speak out cannot for fear of beatings, torture or execution at the hands of Hamas."[30]

However, in a report on the Gaza conflict,[31] released July 2, 2009, Amnesty International wrote that Israel did use human shields in Gaza. Amnesty claimed to have 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 report also 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."[32] The Israeli military responded only by calling the report "unbalanced" and saying that it ignored "blatant violations of international law perpetrated by Hamas."

On March 12, 2010 the Israel Defense Forces prosecution filed indictments against two staff sergeants of the Givati Brigade for allegedly forcing a 9 year old Palestinian boy to open a number of bags they thought might contain explosives in January 2009. The IDF said it opened the investigation after the incident was brought to its attention by the United Nations.[33] On October 3, 2010 a conviction in this matter was handed down by the military court against both defendants, though neither soldier was jailed.[34][35][36]


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,[37] 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 U.N. observers.[38] HRW also accused Hezbollah of using Lebanese homes as sites for rocket launchers, usually without the home-owner's knowledge or permission, putting large numbers of civilians at risk.[39]

On July 25, 2006, Israeli forces attacked and destroyed an U.N. observer post in southern Lebanon, resulting in four deaths.[40] 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 2 meters of our position and the closest 1000 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).'"[41][42]


According to the Pakistan Army spokesman, Islamic militants used girls as human shields in Pakistan during the 2007 Siege of Lal Masjid. The mosque's head cleric denied the allegations.[43][44]

Sri Lanka

According to Human Rights Watch and a report published by them on February 19, 2009 titled "War on the Displaced", 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.[45]

Tactic in peace campaigning

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 2003 invasion. Ultimately, Human Shield Action brought 200 Westerners to Iraq. Many of them left as they ran out of money and the likelihood of war became greater.[46][47] Several of these human shields had to be saved by US Marines after Iraqis threatened them for opposing the invasion of their country.[48]

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 objects to 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.[49]

See also


  1. "Gaza civilians endangered by the military tactics of both sides". Amnesty International. January 9, 2009. Retrieved April 1, 2010.
  2. Berger statement to Allied intelligence officers, Nuremberg, 19 October 1945
  3. The Last Escape - John Nichol, Tony Rennell - 2002 Penguin UK
  4. BBC News. "1990: Outrage at Iraqi TV hostage show". Retrieved 2 September 2007.
  5. "Taleban use children as shields to fight British", The Timesonline, June 20, 2006
  6. "Taliban 'using civilians as human shields'", ABC Australia 2007
  7. Thomas Harding."Taliban 'used civilians as human shields' when British attacked", The Telegraph, August 18, 2008
  8. "Women acting as human shields aid escape of Palestinian militants", Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2006.
  9. Gaza: Use of human shields continues", The Jerusalem Post, November 19, 2006.
  10. Hamas exploitation of civilians as human shields: Photographic evidence Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs March 6, 2008
  11. "Settlers clash with rabbis guarding Palestinian olive harvest near Hebron" Haaretz, 13 October 2008 Associated Press.
  12. Witnesses: Hamas fired from school
  13. Residents: Hamas Militants Staged Attacks from Cover of UN School, Associated Press, January 6, 2009.
  14. Israel: Hamas mortars prompted attack near U.N. school, CNN, January 6, 2009.
  15. UN backtracks on claim that deadly IDF strike hit Gaza school , Haaretz.
  16. "IDF investigation shows errant mortar hit UN building in Gaza", Haaretz January 12, 2009
  17. MEMRI holds copyrights on all translations. Materials may ONLY be cited with proper attribution.Hamas admits to using human shields, fostering 'death culture' translated and published by the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI
  18. "Israel and the Occupied Territories Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin and Nablus". Amnesty International. 2002-11-04. Archived from the original on 2003-07-03. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
  19. Human Rights Watch, Jenin: IDF Military Operations, VII. Human Shielding and the Use of Civilians for Military Purposes, May 2002.
  20. 20.0 20.1 B'Tselem, "20 July 2006: Israeli Soldiers use civilians as Human Shields in Beit Hanun", July 20, 2006.
  21. UN Doc Chronological Review of Events November 2002, 6 Nov A military court in Israel sentenced two junior officers to 28 days imprisonment because they had used Palestinian civilians as "human shields", Israel Radio reported. A platoon sergeant who had made a navigation error and ended up in a Palestinian village with his soldiers had forced a villager to drive them to a safe place, the radio said. During the sergeant's investigation, a similar incident had come to light in the same battalion, during which a squad commander had made a Palestinian drive him and his soldiers to safety.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 "Israel Probes "Human Shield" Allegations", CBS News, 11 April 2007.
  23. Amnesty International Report "Operation Cast Lead": 22 Days of Death and Destruction pg 48-50""
  24. Breaking silence on Gaza abuses, BBC, 15 July 2009
  25. "Israelis use Palestinian as human shield", The Denver Post, April 12, 2007.
  26. Israel 'human shield' suspension, BBC News, April 14, 2007
  27. James Bone. UN accuses Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza, The Times, 16 September 2009
  28. Associated Press report, U.N. Human Rights Council endorses Gaza war crimes report, demands Israel, Hamas investigate, The New York Daily News, 16 October 2009
  29. Gaza war crimes investigation
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Chassay, Clancy (2009-03-23). "Guardian investigation uncovers evidence of alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza". London: The Guardian. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "gazahumanshield" defined multiple times with different content
  31. Impunity for War Crimes in Gaza-Southern Israel a Recipe for Further Civilian Suffering, Amnesty International.
  32. "Israel 'Used Human Shields in Gaza: Amnesty," AFP (2 July 2009).
  33. "Two IDF soldiers charged with using 9-year-old 'human shield' in Gaza war". Haaretz. March 12, 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-12.
  34. "IDF soldiers convicted of using 11-year-old as human shield in Gaza". Haaretz. October 3, 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  35. "Two Israeli soldiers guilty of using human shield in Gaza". BBC News. October 3, 2010.
  36. "Israeli troops demoted over Gaza 'human shield' boy". BBC News. November 21, 2010.
  37. "Photos that damn Hezbollah", Herald Sun, 30 July 2006.
  38. Human Rights Watch, Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon, Summary, August 2006.
  39. "Deadly Hezbollah chess match", The Washington Times, 26 October 2006.
  40. "Israeli bomb kills UN observers", BBC News, July 26, 2006.
  41. "Hezbollah was using UN post as 'shield'", Ottawa Citizen, July 27, 2006.
  42. "Annan's Claims On Casualties May Unravel", The New York Sun, July 27, 2006.
  43. Pakistan's Red Mosque Showdown: Jihadists Using Girls as Human Shields?, Spiegel International, July 5, 2007.
  44. "Pakistani soldiers storm mosque". BBC News. 2007-07-10. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
  45. "War on the displaced", Human Rights Watch, February 19, 2009
  46. "Human shield Britons quit Baghdad", The Telegraph, March 2, 2003
  47. "UK bus owner defends Iraq trip",, March 4, 2003.
  48. Coughlin, Jack; Kuhlman, Casey; and, Donald A. Davis. Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper. St. Martin's Press, (2005.
  49. "ISM report", 5 May 2003

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