Friday, March 23, 2007

Using children as human shields

Gideon Levy, Haaretz, Mar 22, 2007

This article was originally published by Haaretz and is republished with permission.

Palestinian boys play in the narrow streets of the historic old city of Nablus, where recently Israeli soldiers used Palestinian children as human shields. (Amanda Nunn, IMEU)
When it was all over, the soldiers gave her a cookie and some halva. And just to be on the safe side, they added a threat: "Don't you dare tell your parents; otherwise we'll kill you," they told her before letting her go, knowing they had done a terrible thing. But little Jihan did tell, and so did her parents: The IDF is using children as human shields.

Regarding this practice, known as "early warning" or the "neighbor procedure," then Supreme Court president Aharon Barak wrote in October 2005: "These considerations lead me to the conclusion that the 'Early Warning' procedure is at odds with international law. It comes too close to the normative 'nucleus' of the forbidden, and is found in the relatively grey area of the improper. The result is that we turn the order nisi into an order absolute, in the following way: we declare that the 'Early Warning' procedure contradicts international law." Thus the practice was declared illegal, banned by the Supreme Court. But so what? Instead of using men, how about a little girl? The "neighbor procedure" is prohibited? So we'll use the "neighbor's daughter procedure."

Jihan Dadush, 11, who lived in the Nablus casbah, was rewarded with halva and a cookie after soldiers had her leave her house early one evening and lead them to the hiding place of wanted suspects, enter a dark and abandoned apartment to check if anyone was hiding there or if there were any explosive devices inside. They did the same thing with Amid Amira, a 15-year-old boy from another part of Nablus. He, too, was sent into a dark apartment, at dawn, to scout out the place himself. Arfa Amira, 12, was sent in to investigate who was in his own apartment. Instead of the famous "After me!" ethos of the IDF heritage, now we have "After her!" - a young girl led off by armed soldiers who hide behind her.

We walk through the alley-ways of the Old City of Nablus - thousand-year-old buildings whose beauty rivals those in Jerusalem's Old City - with two excellent investigators from the B'Tselem organization, Salma Dab'i and Abdel Karim Sa'adi. Two weeks after the operation, the casbah is full of people. Now is the time of the 'aqub, a plant that grows in the mountains and has a very short season. Its price is already on the rise: This week it was selling in the casbah for NIS 25 per kilo - the truffles of Nablus.

Passing stands that sell grape leaves and lamb ribs, we enter a dim stone building. In its inner courtyard, where woolen blankets are now being aired out, 14 people were killed during Operation Defensive Shield. Five years later, in Operation Warm Winter, four times soldiers have raided this winding, mysterious compound, with its narrow staircases leading off in every direction. Only the locals really know these alleyways and the passages between them. The soldiers were searching for tunnels here, but in the Old City of Nablus, one can pass from building to building via the rooftops.

Related stories

Steep stone steps lead us to the apartment of the Dadush family - Tahni, Nimr and their four children, who live in three small, neat rooms, with arched, damp ceilings. While we wait for Jihan to return from school, her mother, Tahni, recounts her own nightmares from Operation Warm Winter. On Sunday, February 25, when the operation began, soldiers took over two of the neighboring apartments. The Hawah and Jadallah families had to crowd into one small room. And here's the punch line: When one group of soldiers burst into the Hawah family's apartment, they found another group of soldiers already there. "They were in shock when they saw other soldiers in the apartment," laughs Tahni.

A few hours later, they arrived at her home. Nine people, including in-laws and a sister, were forced to gather in this tiny living room where we are now sitting. The father, Nimr, was arrested and sent to Hawara for interrogation. He returned 14 hours later. Soon, he, too, will join our conversation, when he finishes his shift at the restaurant in the casbah where he works. Around midday, the soldiers asked to go up to the roof. In the afternoon, they left. During the night, the family was too frightened to sleep. With the IDF around the whole casbah was tense.

The next evening, around 8 P.M., they returned to the apartment, the same soldiers from the day before, and were surprised to see that Nimr had been released. This time the soldiers were carrying a lot of equipment, which frightened Tahni very much. She asked to go into the kitchen to prepare for what might be a prolonged occupation of her home, and the soldiers consented. How did they treat her? "Some were nice and some weren't." The soldiers ordered the two daughters, 15-year-old Hanan and 11-year-old Jihan, to leave the apartment. Outside, they separated the girls and asked them if they knew where the wanted men were hiding.

A pale neon light illuminates the tiny living room during the day, too. A neighbor's rooster crows. The two girls returned from the brief interrogation, straight into the arms of their frightened mother. But a little while later, a soldier came in again, looking for Jihan. He instructed the child to go outside. Tahni cried out to the soldier, "She's little, she's a little girl and she's scared," but he ignored her. Her mother was also worried because Jihan has a congenital heart defect. The soldier prevented Tahni from leaving the apartment to see what was happening to her daughter. She says she was close to fainting. She tried to phone one of the assistance organizations, like Medical Relief, for help, but was told that they couldn't come into the casbah because of the curfew.

Nimr, 36, told the soldiers: "Take me to jail or to hell, but don't touch the girl." But they pushed him away, told him to be quiet and made him stay in the room. A little while later, Tahni decided to open the door, and saw that the soldiers and Jihan were no longer near the doorway. The family's nightmare had begun.

Jihan could not tell her parents what had happened until a few days later. The soldiers, apparently along with someone from the Shin Bet who was not in uniform, had taken her outside and said that her father had told them that she knew where the wanted men were hiding. They also told the girl that her father said she knew the location of the wanted men's tunnel. She told them she had no idea about any tunnel or any apartment. They said she was lying. Jihan said the soldiers tried to bind her hands, but that she resisted and they relented. "At that moment, out of fear," says her mother, "she pointed to one of the neighbors' apartments, an apartment that has stood empty for years, and told them that that's where the people were hiding."

Three soldiers took her to the abandoned apartment she had pointed out. They ordered her to enter the dark apartment and followed, their rifles aimed at her. One of the soldiers lighted the way. Jihan pleaded with them to let her go home.

Now Hanan arrives, wearing her striped school uniform. Then Nimr comes home from work. He speaks Hebrew. Finally, Jihan arrives, too, also in her school uniform. A sixth-grader, she looks mature for her age, a cheerful, energetic girl with a long ponytail. She surprises us with her readiness to tell her story:

"The soldiers told me to come with them. One of them asked me about the tunnels and the shabab. I told them that I didn't know anything. One of them said that I was a liar. He threatened that they'd arrest me. I was scared, so I told him that there was an empty apartment, maybe the wanted men used it to sleep in. The soldiers took me to the apartment, I pointed it out to them and then they brought me back. About a half hour later, two soldiers came back and asked me to come outside. They put me in the lead and walked behind me. The soldiers pointed their rifles at me from behind. When I got to the apartment, they asked me to go inside. They used a laser beam from their rifle to light the way for me. They told me to go into the kitchen and all the rooms and then they asked me how to get up to the roof."

Jihan knew her way around the apartment. Until a few years ago, it had been the home of the Sirasi family, whose mother was a friend of her mother's. Jihan says that the soldiers spoke Hebrew to each other inside the apartment, and she didn't understand. They left her in one of the rooms and went up to the roof. The whole thing lasted about an hour and a half.

After being led out by the soldiers, she returned home at about 10 P.M. and got straight into bed, pulled the covers up over her head and didn't say a word. Her mother says that she looked very frightened. Every so often, she called out to her mother from her bed: "Have the soldiers come back for me?" In her hand were the halva and cookie the soldiers had given her. Her mother says that Jihan has recently started wetting the bed at night.

The Al-Balat quarter of Nablus, a few minutes' drive from the casbah and Jihan's house. Amid Amira, 15, woke up along with the rest of his family to the sound of a loud boom. This was at about five in the morning on February 25, the day that Operation Warm Winter started. There were seven people at home; his father was in America. A stun grenade exploded right next to the front door; the soot marks are still visible. The holes in the door, in the walls and the ceiling attest to gunfire by soldiers inside the house.

Na'ima, the mother, opened the door and was startled to see soldiers standing there. They instructed her to get everyone in the house to come outside. The whole family, which includes two babies and an 80-year-old grandmother, had to move into the neighbors' apartment, with the Quseini family. Three families were crowded in there, one family to a room. The soldiers instructed Manal, Na'ima's 17-year-old daughter, to go into their apartment, turn on all the lights, open all the windows, closets and doors. Manal didn't understand the soldiers' broken Arabic and so they took Arfa, 12, and ordered him to open all the doors and turn on all the lights for them.

In his still childlike voice, Arfa relates that one of the soldiers butted his forehead with his helmet. "My head hurt a little," the boy says. The soldiers were searching for Amer, one of the sons, and Ala, the fiance of Manal, whose brother, Omar Aqub, is on the list of wanted men. They questioned a son, Ahmed, 28, and when he told them that he had no idea where those two were, they took Amid with them.

Amid: "They said: Tell us where your brother Amer is, or we'll shoot you. I told the soldier that I didn't know, and then he hit me from behind. Then they asked me who the apartment next door belonged to and I told them that it was my uncle's. They told me to go with them to the apartment. There, they told me to go into the house, open all the doors and all the closets and turn on all the lights. They threw a smoke grenade into the house and then they told me to go in and they followed me. They spread out in all the rooms and they put me in the last room. When they didn't find anything, they led me outside." He didn't get any halva or cookies.

The IDF spokesperson responded that the incidents are under investigation.

No comments: