Mideast civilians at risk - report
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Israeli and Palestinian forces are putting civilians' lives at risk, according to a report by a leading human rights watchdog.
Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organisation based in the United States, says the Israel Defense Forces routinely coerces civilians to assist in its military operations and calls on it to stop and condemn such actions.
It also says the Palestinian Authority must prevent armed Palestinians from putting civilians in danger and urges the international community to call on both sides in the conflict to condemn civilian suffering.
Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority have yet commented on the report, which primarily looks at the alleged use of civilians by the IDF.
The report, based on interviews by victims and eyewitnesses, says: "Since violent clashes broke out in September 2000, the conflict has been marked by attacks on civilians and civilian objects, by Israeli security forces and Palestinian armed groups.
"Both Israeli and Palestinian authorities have failed to take the steps necessary to prevent the security forces under their control from committing abuses. They also have failed to investigate and punish the perpetrators."
Its 24-page document -- In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians During IDF Arrest Operations -- reports that the IDF has taken civilians at gunpoint to open suspicious packages, knock on doors of suspects, and search the houses of wanted Palestinians during its military operations.
The report is the result of investigations of four IDF raids in late 2001 and early 2002 into the Palestinian towns of Beit Rima, Salfit, Artas and Tulkarem.
The instances examined in the cases "exemplify current IDF practices in other incursions," the report said.
It added: "Eyewitnesses and victims described to Human Rights Watch how friends, neighbours and relatives of 'wanted' Palestinians were taken at gunpoint to knock on doors, open strange packages, and search houses in which the IDF suspected armed Palestinians were present.
"Some families found their houses taken over and used as military positions by the IDF during an operation while they themselves were ordered to remain inside.
"In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a civilian was held as a hostage in order to pressure his brother to surrender."
Journalists, doctors, and other civilians have reported being coerced at gunpoint to assist soldiers during the most recent IDF incursions into the West Bank, the group said.
It cited the case of Maher Shalabi, a journalist with Dubai Television who told CNN last month Israeli troops had strip-searched him and used him as a human shield as they moved through a building searching for armed Palestinians in Ramallah.
"I said, 'This is against your rules and against international rules. I am an American citizen and I have a journalist press card,'" Shalabi recounted.
"They said, 'We don't care about anything. You go in front of us.' They put a gun to my head and I had to go in front of them from room to room, to make sure -- for them to make sure it's empty. No Palestinian police would shoot at them."
The involvement of civilians in military operations as a result of direct or indirect pressure, or threat, violates the prohibition on coercion contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention, the group said.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Israeli government to "cease immediately the coerced use of civilians to assist IDF military operations." All military and security personnel should be held accountable for human rights violations, it said.
The group also recommended the immediate deployment of independent international monitors in the West Bank and Gaza to monitor and verify compliance with international humanitarian laws.
With regard to the Palestinians, Human Rights Watch pointed out cases in which armed Palestinians endangered civilians by firing on Israeli soldiers from locations that exposed civilians to IDF return fire.
The group said the Palestinian Authority should take special care to prevent Palestinians from firing on Israelis when civilians are at risk of getting hurt.
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