The young Palestinian man was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt on a cold winter morning as he walked in front of heavily armed Israeli soldiers on a door-to-door sweep of three apartments in a crowded West Bank neighborhood.
The scene – caught by an Associated Press Television News camera – has raised questions about whether the Israeli army is still using Palestinian civilians during military operations, despite a Supreme Court order barring the practice.
Human rights groups call the tactic a violation of local and international law that places innocent civilians in the line of fire.
In its initial reaction to the footage, the Israel Defense Forces said there appeared to be no wrongdoing by its soldiers. In a statement, however, the army pledged it would “pursue a thorough inquiry” into the case.
The incident occurred Sunday in Nablus, where the army has been conducting broad arrest raids throughout the week. The army says most suicide bombings over the past year, including an attempted attack last week, have originated in the Nablus area.
In the AP video, the young Palestinian man is seen leading soldiers to the door of a home. He stands outside as troops move in, then leads the soldiers up some stairs to the apartment's main entrance.
The man enters the home ahead of the soldiers. Gunshots are heard as several soldiers stand guard outside. The man then leaves the home, walks down the stairs and escorts the soldiers around the side of the building, where he said he led soldiers into two more apartments out of view of the cameras.
Later, he is seen on the footage being led down stairs with several suspects. He and the other men are all placed into a military vehicle.
In interviews with the AP, the Palestinian man, Sameh Amira, 24, said he was awakened at about 5 a.m. by soldiers and ordered to go with his family to a neighboring home. About an hour later, he said he was forced to lead troops into three apartments, including his own. He said he was not allowed to put on warmer clothes.
“They asked me to walk in front of them against my will,” he said, adding that he was occasionally prodded along at gunpoint.
Inside his home, he said soldiers opened fire at bedroom closets. “All the time, I was scared, terrified. Anything could happen,” he told the AP, pointing to bullet holes in the floor, closet doors and clothing in the closets.
Amira, who said he was released from army custody after several hours, said he is not a member of any Palestinian armed group, though he said he has a cousin who belongs to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has carried out numerous attacks on Israelis. He also said he was jailed by Israel for more than three months, but never charged with a crime. His cousin, the apparent target of the raid, is in hiding, he said.
Fourth complaint filed by rights groupInternational law, including the Geneva Conventions and Hague regulations, prohibit placing civilians in harm's way during military operations.
In its 2005 ruling, the Israeli Supreme Court barred the use of civilians in arrest operations, even if they volunteer to help. The court specifically banned using neighbors to knock on doors of houses with suspected militants.
The ruling rejected the army's assertion that the tactic of having civilians knock on their neighbors' doors and warn them of an impending raid actually protected civilians by encouraging them to leave their homes. The army also contended the practice spurred militants to surrender peacefully.
Israeli military practices became an issue in the spring of 2002, when the army carried out a major offensive in the West Bank in response to suicide bombings by Palestinian militants. During arrest raids, soldiers would sometimes force Palestinian civilians to approach the homes and hideouts of wanted people.
In August 2002, a 19-year-old Palestinian student, Nidal Daraghmeh, was killed in such an incident in the West Bank town of Tubas. At the time, troops called Daraghmeh out of his house and forced him to knock at the door of a neighboring building where a senior Hamas fugitive was hiding. Gunfire erupted and Daraghmeh was killed.
The Hamas fugitive later died in a shootout with soldiers.
After the AP footage of the Nablus incident was broadcast on Israeli TV earlier this week, B'Tselem, a leading human rights group, sent a letter to the army requesting an investigation.
“As you know, no doubt, the Supreme Court has prohibited any use of human shields in any possible form,” the letter said, adding that it was the fourth time the rights group has complained to the army about the practice.
'Most moral and logical thing in the world'Jessica Montell, B'Tselem's executive director, said “the video raises serious concerns that the army is violating the high court judgment and forcing a Palestinian to ... illegally take part in the military's operations.”
She added, however, that known violations have been rare since the 2005 court order.
While the army declined to comment on the video beyond its statement, a military official said the army has carefully obeyed the Supreme Court ruling and would launch a criminal investigation into suspected violations. The official, who was not allowed to be identified under military rules, said he had not seen the video.
“The procedure is the most moral and logical thing in the world,” he said. The court's ban, he said, “seems liberal, but is in fact a bad decision for the residents of the house and for other civilians nearby.”
Addressing the issue of Amira being taken to his own home by the soldiers, Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B'Tselem, said the issue is “danger to the civilian,” not which apartment he is sent to by soldiers, even his own.