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Human shield is a military and political term describing the deliberate placement of non-combatants in or around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking these targets. It may also refer to the use of persons to literally shield combatants during attacks, by forcing them to march in front of the soldiers.

Using this technique is illegal by nations that are parties to the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Geneva Conventions.

13th-century Mongols

During a siege the Mongols would gather a crowd of local residents or soldiers surrendered from previous battles, and would drive them forward in sieges and battles. These "alive boards" or "human shields" would often take the brunt of enemy arrows and crossbow bolts, thus leaving the Mongol warriors safer.[citation needed]

20th century

World War II

After World War II, it was claimed by German SS general Gottlob Berger that there was a plan, proposed by the Luftwaffe and approved by Adolf Hitler, to set up special POW camps for captured airmen of the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces in large German cities, to act as human shields against their bombing raids. Berger realized that this would contravene the 1929 Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire—as a result, this plan was not implemented.[1][2]

Wehrmacht and later SS forces extensively used Polish civilians as human shields during Warsaw Uprising when attacking the insurgents' positions.[3][4]

At the Wola massacre in Poland on 7 August 1944, the Nazis forced civilian women onto the armored vehicles as human shields to enhance their effectiveness. In Belgium in May 1940, at least 86 civilians were killed by the German Wehrmacht known as the Vinkt Massacre, when the Germans took 140 civilians and used them as shields to cross a bridge while under fire.

During the Battle of Okinawa, Japanese soldiers often used civilians as human shields against American troops.

When the Japanese were concerned about the incoming Allied air raids on their home islands as they were losing their controlled Pacific islands one by one to the Allies in the Pacific War, they scattered major military installations and factories throughout urban areas, therefore, historians argued that Japan was using its civilians as human shields to protect their legitimate military targets against Allied bombardment. As a result, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) was unable to strike purely military targets due to jet streams, the limitations of their bombsight, the mixing of military installations and factories with urban areas, and the widespread of cottage industry in Japan's cities. This led the USAAF in early 1945 to switch from precision bombing to carpetbombing which destroyed 67 Japanese cities with incendiary bombs and the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[5][6][7][8]

Persian Gulf War

One of the most famous uses of human shields occurred in Iraq in 1990, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Saddam Hussein's government detained hundreds of citizens of Western countries who were in Iraq for use as human shields in an attempt to deter nations from participating in military operations against the country. A number of these hostages were filmed meeting Hussein, and kept with him to deter any targeted attacks, whilst others were held in or near military and industrial targets.[9] While the United Nations debated its response to the invasion of Kuwait, several international statesmen and peace campaigners visited Iraq to try to secure the release of the human shields, many returning with around 10 or 12 each time.[citation needed]

In 1991, during the operations in the Gulf War, the U.S. submitted a report to the UN Security Council denouncing Iraq for having “intentionally placed civilians at risk through its behaviour”. The report cited the following examples of such behaviour:

  • (a) The Iraqi Government moved significant amounts of military weapons and equipment into civilian areas with the deliberate purpose of using innocent civilians and their homes as shields against attacks on legitimate military targets;
  • (b) Iraqi fighter and bomber aircraft were dispersed into villages near the military airfields where they were parked between civilian houses and even placed immediately adjacent to important archaeological sites and historic treasures;
  • (c) Coalition aircraft were fired upon by anti-aircraft weapons in residential neighbourhoods in various cities. In Baghdad, anti-aircraft sites were located on hotel roofs;
  • (d) In one case, military engineering equipment used to traverse rivers, including mobile bridge sections, was located in several villages near an important crossing point. The Iraqis parked each vehicle adjacent to a civilian house.[10]

21st century

War in Afghanistan

According to various accounts—including that of the American ambassador to the U.N., the Taliban used women and children from their own population as human shields against coalition forces in 2006,[11] and 2007,[12] and when the British attacked during August 2008 during the war in Afghanistan.[13]

Israeli-Palestinian conflict


During the Second Intifada (2000–2005) Palestinian gunmen used civilians and children as human shields, by surrounding themselves with children while shooting on IDF forces.[14]

In November 2006, Palestinian women volunteered as human shields to allow the escape of Hamas gunmen from Israeli forces in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip. The armed Palestinians had barricaded themselves in a mosque, which was surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks. According to a Hamas spokesman, a crowd of women gathered outside the mosque in response to an appeal on the local radio station for women to protect the Hamas fighters. The Palestinian gunmen escaped by dressing in women's clothes and hiding in the large group.[15]

Also in the same month, the Israeli Air Force warned Mohammed Weil Baroud, a Palestinian leader said to be responsible for firing Qassam rockets at Israel, to evacuate his home in Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip in advance of an airstrike. Instead, hundreds of Palestinians, including many women and children, gathered outside Baroud's house. Israel suspended the airstrike out of fear that the human shields would be killed or injured. In response to Israel's reaction, another Palestinian leader said: "We have won. From now on we will form human chains around every house that is threatened with demolition."[16]

On October 29, 2007, in response to criticism of Israel's bombing of a Beit Hanoun Elementary School for boys run by UNRWA, the Israel Defense Forces released drone footage of mortars shot from a street adjacent to the school. Israel warned Ban Ki Moon about the danger and requested an investigation.[17] Local eyewitnesses later confirmed that Hamas militants had fired at Israeli troops from adjacent a UN school for girls where hundreds of Palestinians had sought refuge.[18][19] Forty-three Palestinians were reported killed when a street outside the school was hit by return fire.[20] Israel accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields. A report from the IDF brigade responsible for the attack stated that militants had launched a rocket into Israel from a yard adjacent to the UN building and the paratroop brigade had fired three rounds of mortars at the position. A GPS error led to one of the mortars hitting the building.[21]


The IDF admittedly used Palestinians as human shields, a practice subsequently banned by Israel's High Court of Justice.[22] The Israeli Defense Ministry appealed this decision.[23]

Amnesty International[24] and Human Rights Watch[25] said the Israel Defense Forces used Palestinian civilians as human shields during the 2002 Battle of Jenin. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that "for a long period of time following the outbreak of the second intifada, particularly during Operation Defensive Shield, in April 2002, the IDF systematically used Palestinian civilians as human shields, forcing them to carry out military actions which threatened their lives".[26][27] Al Mezan reported the systematic use of "human shields" during the invasion of Beit Hanoun in 2004.[28]

The practice was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Israel in 2005 but human rights groups say the IDF continues to use it, although they say the number of instances has dropped sharply.[26][29] In 2006, the IDF again used civilians as human shields in Beit Hanun.[30] In February 2007, Associated Press Television News released footage of an incident involving Sameh Amira, a 24-year-old Palestinian. The video appears to show the West Bank resident serving as a human shield for a group of Israeli soldiers.[29][31] The Israeli Army launched a criminal investigation into the incident.[29] In April 2007, the Israeli army suspended a commander after the unit he was leading was accused of using Palestinians as human shields in a West Bank raid.[32]

During the 2008-2009 Gaza War known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military forces were accused of continuing to use civilians as human shields by Amnesty International and former Israeli soldiers (see Breaking the Silence). According to testimonies, Israeli forces used unarmed Palestinians including children to protect military positions, walk in front of armed soldiers; go into buildings to check for booby traps or gunmen; and inspect suspicious objects for explosives.[33][34]

The UN Human Rights Council also accused Israel of using human shields during 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict[35][36]

The Guardian has compiled three videos[37] and testimony from civilians of alleged war crimes committed by Israeli soldiers during the Gaza war, including the use of Palestinian children as human shields, the targeting of medics and hospitals, and drone aircraft firing on civilians deliberately.[38] Three teenage brothers from the al-Attar family have claimed that "they were taken from their home at gunpoint, made to kneel in front of tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing at them and sent by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian houses to clear them".[38]

An Israeli military official responded to these allegations: "The IDF operated in accordance with the rules of war and did the utmost to minimise harm to civilians uninvolved in combat. The IDF's use of weapons conforms to international law." An Israeli embassy spokesperson considers these allegations suspect because of Hamas pressure, adding: "Anyone who understands the realities of Gaza will know that these people are not free to speak the truth. Those that wish to speak out cannot for fear of beatings, torture or execution at the hands of Hamas."[38]

However, in a report on the Gaza conflict,[39] released July 2, 2009, Amnesty International wrote that Israel did use human shields in Gaza. Amnesty claimed to have found cases in which "Israeli troops forced Palestinians to stay in one room of their home while turning the rest of the house into a base and sniper position, effectively using the families, both adults and children, as human shields and putting them at risk. The report also criticized Hamas for human rights violations, but "found no evidence Palestinian fighters directed civilians to shield military objectives from attacks, forced them to stay in buildings used by militants, or prevented them from leaving commandeered buildings".[40] The Israeli military responded only by calling the report "unbalanced" and saying that it ignored "blatant violations of international law perpetrated by Hamas".

On March 12, 2010, the Israel Defense Forces prosecution filed indictments against two staff sergeants of the Givati Brigade for allegedly forcing a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open a number of bags they thought might contain explosives in January 2009. The IDF said it opened the investigation after the incident was brought to its attention by the United Nations.[41] On October 3, 2010, a conviction in this matter was handed down by the military court against both defendants, though neither soldier was jailed.[42][43][44]

Iraq War

During the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, a group of people chose to travel to Iraq to act as human shields. Their purpose was to prevent American-led coalition forces from bombing certain locations. Of about 200 to 500 human shields who traveled to Iraq before hostilities, at least eighty stayed. Of the human shields who stayed throughout the war, none were killed or injured and none of the sites where they were residing were destroyed.[citation needed]

Lebanon War

Australian journalist Chris Link reported and photographed incidents during the 2006 Lebanon War in which Hezbollah used Lebanese civilians as human shields to dissuade the IDF from firing at gunmen and rocket launchers,[45] although Human Rights Watch then conducted its own investigation and reported that Hezbollah did not "deliberately" use civilians as a deterrent from IDF attack. HRW did however conclude Hezbollah stored weapons "in or near civilian homes" and fighters launched rockets within populated areas and near UN observers.[46] HRW also accused Hezbollah of using Lebanese homes as sites for rocket launchers, usually without the homeowner's knowledge or permission, putting large numbers of civilians at risk.[47]

On July 25, 2006, Israeli forces attacked and destroyed an UN observer post in southern Lebanon, resulting in four deaths.[48] One of the fatalities, Canadian Major Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener, had sent an e‑mail to his former commander, retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, several days before his death in which he described the Israeli bombardment, writing "The closest artillery has landed within two meters of our position and the closest 1,000 lb aerial bomb has landed 100 meters from our patrol base. This has not been deliberate targeting, but rather due to tactical necessity". MacKenzie interpreted this language for a reporter: "What that means is, in plain English, 'We've got Hezbollah fighters running around in our positions, taking our positions here and then using us for shields and then engaging the (Israeli Defence Forces).'"[49][50]

Siege of Lal Masjid

According to the Pakistan Army spokesman, Islamic militants used girls as human shields in Pakistan during the 2007 Siege of Lal Masjid. The mosque's head cleric denied the allegations.[51][52]

On December 4, 2009, terrorists attacked a Friday prayer ceremony in a mosque in Rawalpindi, Pakistan,[53] where Bilal Riaz, a graduate student, acted as a human shield to save his nephew's life.[54]

Sri Lanka

According to a Human Rights Watch report published on February 19, 2009, the LTTE had been preventing Tamil civilians from fleeing out of rebel held area and using them as human shields against a Sri Lankan Army offensive.[55]

Libyan Civil War

Some Gaddafi loyalists were acting as human shields in the Libya no-fly zone, to try to protect Gaddafi's compound and airports.[56]

Syrian Civil War

During the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Armed Forces and loyalists were accused by Human Rights Watch of using residents of towns as human shields when advancing on opposition held areas, forcing them to march in front of the army. Witness from different towns across the country said that the army had kidnapped people and forced them to march in front of them when attacking towns and villages. The purpose of this was to protect the army from attack. HRW said "The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice." Witnesses stated that the army forcibly used children and elderly people as well to deter anyone from firing on the soldiers.[57]

Use by anti-war activists

In recent years civilian volunteers have attempted to use themselves as human shields to prevent military conflict. In January 2003, anti-war activists organised Human Shield Action to Iraq in advance of the March 2003 invasion. Ultimately, Human Shield Action brought 200 people to Iraq. Many of them left as they ran out of money and the likelihood of war became greater.[58][59] Several of these human shields had to be rescued by U.S. Marines after Iraqis threatened them for opposing the invasion of their country.[60]

Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, Western International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers in the Palestinian territories, who died in 2003 and 2004 respectively have been described as human shields campaigning against house demolition. ISM, however, strongly objects to the use of the term human shield to describe their work, preferring it be used only to refer to when the military uses civilians as shields.[61]

See also


  1. Berger statement to Allied intelligence officers, Nuremberg, 19 October 1945
  2. The Last Escape - John Nichol, Tony Rennell - 2002 Penguin UK
  3. (Polish) Adam Borkiewicz: Powstanie warszawskie. Zarys działań natury wojskowej. Warszawa: Instytut wydawniczy PAX, 1969, p. 99
  4. Antoni Przygoński: Powstanie warszawskie w sierpniu 1944 r. T. I. Warszawa: PWN, 1980, p. 242. ISBN 83-01-00293-X.
  5. Bill Van Esveld (August 17, 2009). Rockets from Gaza: Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups' Rocket Attacks. Human Rights Watch. p. 26. ISBN 1-56432-523-7. 
  6. Library of Congress (October 2, 2007). The Library of Congress World War II Companion. Simon & Schuster. p. 335. ISBN 0-7432-5219-5. 
  7. History of World War II: Victory and Aftermath. Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 2005. p. 817. ISBN 0-7614-7482-X. 
  8. The Law of Air Warfare - Contemporary Issues. Eleven International Publishing. 2006. p. 72. ISBN 90-77596-14-3. 
  9. BBC News. "1990: Outrage at Iraqi TV hostage show". Retrieved 2 September 2007.
  10. "United States of America Practice Relating to Rule 23. Location of Military Objectives outside Densely Populated Areas". International Committee of the Red Cross. 
  11. "Taleban use children as shields to fight British", The Times online, June 20, 2006
  12. "Taliban 'using civilians as human shields'", ABC Australia 2007
  13. Thomas Harding."Taliban 'used civilians as human shields' when British attacked", The Telegraph, August 18, 2008
  14. Harel, Amos (August 3, 2004). "Analysis / Stoking an appetite for revenge". Haaretz. Retrieved September 30, 2011. "The photographs from recent operations show that the armed Palestinians use the many civilians in the area, including children, as a "human shield". Since this is done routinely, harming children (some, it is possible, by Palestinian fire) becomes almost impossible to prevent." 
  15. Butcher, Tim (November 4, 2006). "Women shot dead in Gaza mosque gun battle". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved October 1, 2011. 
  16. Gaza: Use of human shields continues", The Jerusalem Post, November 19, 2006.
  17. Witnesses: Hamas fired from school
  18. Residents: Hamas Militants Staged Attacks from Cover of UN School, Associated Press, January 6, 2009.
  19. Israel: Hamas mortars prompted attack near UN school, CNN, January 6, 2009.
  20. UN backtracks on claim that deadly IDF strike hit Gaza school , Haaretz.
  21. "IDF investigation shows errant mortar hit UN building in Gaza", Haaretz January 12, 2009
  23. "IDF to appeal human shield ban". BBC News. October 12, 2005. 
  24. "Israel and the Occupied Territories Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin and Nablus". Amnesty International. 4 November 2002. Archived from the original on 2003-07-03. Retrieved 2007-09-09. 
  25. Human Rights Watch, Jenin: IDF Military Operations, VII. Human Shielding and the Use of Civilians for Military Purposes, May 2002.
  26. 26.0 26.1 B'Tselem, "20 July 2006: Israeli Soldiers use civilians as Human Shields in Beit Hanun", July 20, 2006.
  27. UN Doc Chronological Review of Events November 2002, 6 Nov A military court in Israel sentenced two junior officers to 28 days imprisonment because they had used Palestinian civilians as "human shields", Israel Radio reported. A platoon sergeant who had made a navigation error and ended up in a Palestinian village with his soldiers had forced a villager to drive them to a safe place, the radio said. During the sergeant's investigation, a similar incident had come to light in the same battalion, during which a squad commander had made a Palestinian drive him and his soldiers to safety.
  28. A paper on the IOF Invasion of the town of Beit Hanoun (29 June – 5 August 2004). Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, 12 August 2004. On [1]
    "Another 36 homes were occupied by Israeli soldiers and used as watch posts. In every case of home occupation the IOF detained the inhabitants inside one room of the house"
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 "Israel Probes "Human Shield" Allegations", CBS News, 11 April 2007.
  30. Human rights groups on the attack on GazaB'Tselem: Israeli soldiers use civilians as human shields in Beit Hanun, 20 July 2006
  31. "Israelis use Palestinian as human shield", The Denver Post, April 12, 2007.
  32. Israel "Human Shield" Suspension, BBC News, April 14, 2007
  33. Amnesty International Report "Operation Cast Lead": 22 Days of Death and Destruction pg 48-50""
  34. Breaking silence on Gaza abuses, BBC, 15 July 2009
  35. James Bone. UN accuses Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza, The Times, 16 September 2009
  36. Associated Press report, UN Human Rights Council endorses Gaza war crimes report, demands Israel, Hamas investigate, New York Daily News, 16 October 2009
  37. "Gaza War Crimes Investigation"
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 Chassay, Clancy (2009-03-23). "Guardian investigation uncovers evidence of alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza". London: The Guardian.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "gazahumanshield" defined multiple times with different content
  39. Impunity for War Crimes in Gaza-Southern Israel a Recipe for Further Civilian Suffering, Amnesty International.
  40. "Israel 'Used Human Shields in Gaza: Amnesty", AFP (2 July 2009).
  41. "Two IDF soldiers charged with using 9-year-old 'human shield' in Gaza war". Haaretz. March 12, 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  42. "IDF soldiers convicted of using 11-year-old as human shield in Gaza". Haaretz. October 3, 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-03. 
  43. "Two Israeli soldiers guilty of using human shield in Gaza". BBC News. October 3, 2010. 
  44. "Israeli troops demoted over Gaza 'human shield' boy". BBC News. November 21, 2010. 
  45. "Photos that damn Hezbollah", Herald Sun, 30 July 2006.
  46. Human Rights Watch, Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon, Summary, August 2006.
  47. "Deadly Hezbollah chess match", The Washington Times, 26 October 2006.
  48. "Israeli bomb kills UN observers", BBC News, July 26, 2006.
  49. "Hezbollah was using UN post as 'shield'", Ottawa Citizen, July 27, 2006.
  50. "Annan's Claims On Casualties May Unravel", The New York Sun, July 27, 2006.
  51. Pakistan's Red Mosque Showdown: Jihadists Using Girls as Human Shields?, Spiegel International, July 5, 2007.
  52. "Pakistani soldiers storm mosque". BBC News. 2007-07-10. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 
  53. 17 children among 37 martyred in Pindi attack, Geo News, December 4, 2009.
  54. Remembering Bilal Riaz, anasimtiaz, December 5, 2009.
  55. "War on the Displaced", Human Rights Watch, February 19, 2009
  56. Hartley-Parkinson, Richard (March 22, 2011). "For the sins of his father: Gaddafi's son 'killed in kamikaze pilot attack on barracks'". Daily Mail. London. 
  57. Syria: Local Residents Used as Human Shields
  58. "Human shield Britons quit Baghdad", The Telegraph, March 2, 2003
  59. "UK bus owner defends Iraq trip",, March 4, 2003.
  60. Coughlin, Jack; Kuhlman, Casey; and, Donald A. Davis. Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper. St. Martin's Press, (2005.
  61. "ISM report", 5 May 2003

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