Israeli Commander Suspended for Using Palestinians as Human Shields

The military has suspended the commander of an operation in which troops ordered two Palestinian youths in the West Bank to stand in front of their vehicle to protect it from stones thrown by locals, the army spokesman's office said Friday.

Video footage capturing this incident in Nablus on Wednesday is the latest piece of evidence suggesting the army continues to use human shields in violation of international law and a landmark Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2005 barring the practice.

"Following the incident in which IDF soldiers apparently made prohibited use of civilians, Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh ordered the suspension of the commander of the mission from all operational activity, in addition to the ongoing investigation into the matter," the army statement said.

Additionally, the chief military counsel has ordered a military police investigation into the incident, the statement said.

The footage was filmed by a foreign peace activist in the course of a raid on the home of a wanted militant, and aired on the Yediot Ahronot newspaper Web site. During the operation, troops damaged the house, but the fugitive was not inside.

For years, Palestinians had complained about the army's use of human shields, but proof was difficult to come by. Then in late February, Associated Press Television News captured footage of a Palestinian man forced to lead heavily armed soldiers, on a manhunt for wanted militants, in a house-to-house search.

Others, including an 11-year-old girl, have been emboldened to come forward with similar accounts of being compelled to walk ahead of soldiers looking for militants.

International law, including the Geneva Conventions and Hague regulations, prohibits placing civilians in harm's way during military operations.

The APTN video prompted the army to launch a rare criminal investigation into whether its soldiers have broken the law as critics claim. The army has promised a vigorous investigation.

Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti denounced the suspension as window-dressing.

"They are treating it as an isolated incident," he said. "The problem is systematic and...they (troops) continued the practice despite the court order," he said.

Human rights groups say the use of civilians in military operations has dropped sharply since the Supreme Court banned it outright. But the recent cases suggest the practice continues.

The landmark Supreme Court ruling was prompted by an outcry over the army's widespread practice, in a 2002 West Bank offensive, of forcing Palestinian civilians to approach fugitives' hideouts.

The army, which launched the offensive following a rash of suicide bombings, defended the practice at the time, saying it kept civilians out of harm's way and encouraged militants to surrender peacefully. And it says it never allowed troops to use civilians for cover during battles.

But in August 2002, a 19-year-old Palestinian student was killed in a gunfight that erupted after he was forced to knock on the door of a building where a fugitive was hiding.