JERUSALEM – Israel's Supreme Court on Thursday banned the military's practice of using Palestinian civilians as "human shields" in arrest raids, saying it violates international law.
The ruling was a rare instance in which the court took a stand in Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. The Supreme Court has often deferred to security arguments despite international condemnation of some Israeli practices. It has upheld practices such as targeted killings of Palestinian militants.
Human rights groups filed the petition in May 2002 in response to the army's use of Palestinian civilians in dozens of West Bank (search) arrest operations. In August 2002, the court issued a temporary injunction against the practice. Human rights groups have said the military has repeatedly violated the ban since then.
In Thursday's ruling, the court said the practice amounts to a "slide down the slope toward a severe violation of international law."
The army had argued that the practice should be permissible in some cases in order to prevent possible shootouts and bloodshed. Israeli hard-liners said the new restrictions would make it more difficult for the army to act against militants.
However, the three-judge panel said international law clearly prevents the army from using civilians in its military activities.
"No one among the civilian population should be `volunteered' to cooperate with the army," wrote Judge Aharon Barak. "The central tenet is that it is mandatory to distance innocent local residents from the area of the hostile actions."
The Justice Ministry said Israel would immediately act to implement the decision. The army spokesman would not comment.
The human shield practice became an issue in the spring of 2002, when the Israeli military carried out a major offensive in the West Bank, in response to a series of 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 (search). 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.
Daraghmeh's mother, Mona, said Thursday the decision re-opened the wound inflicted by the killing of her son.
"For me, this decision will not change anything," Daraghmeh said. "Perhaps it will be good for other mothers because for sure it will protect them from the bitterness that I have been living with since I lost my son."
Nidal Daraghmeh was the only "human shield" killed in an arrest raid. However, others have been injured in dozens of cases in which the army used Palestinians this way, said Marwan Dalal, an attorney for the Israeli human rights group Adallah, which led the petition.
"This is an important decision, but we need to see if the military will abide by it," Dalal said.
Effie Eitam, an Israeli lawmaker and a former general, lambasted the judges.
"This ruling ties the hands of the army," Eitam told Army Radio (search). "The judges are cut off from reality since we are located in the center of the world struggle of terror groups against free and democratic societies."