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Gaza 'human shields' criticised

Israeli soldiers in a Palestinian house
Homes have been taken over and residents forced to stay, Amnesty says

Amnesty International has accused Israel and Hamas of endangering civilian lives in the conflict in Gaza, including the use of "human shields".

Israeli troops had forced Palestinian civilians to stay in their homes after taking them over as sniper positions or bases, it said quoting sources in Gaza.

"This increases risk to families and means they are effectively being used as human shields," the group said.

Hamas fighters also put civilians in danger by firing from homes, it added.

"The use of these tactics at a time when armed confrontations are taking place in streets in the middle of densely-populated residential areas underlines the failure of both sides to respect the protected status of civilians in armed conflict," said Amnesty's Malcolm Smart.

The use of human shields in conflict is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions.

Article 51.7 states the presence of civilians "shall not be used to... shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations".

The Israeli military says it is operating within humanitarian law and takes all possible steps to minimise civilian casualties.

'Illegitimate targets'

Amnesty also criticised Israeli forces for bombing civilian homes after they had been used to launch militant attacks when the attackers had probably fled.

"The army is well aware gunmen usually leave the area after having fired and any reprisal attack against these homes will in most cases cause harm to civilians - not gunmen," said Mr Smart, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

He stressed that even if either side did carry out attacks from civilian buildings it did not make the buildings or inhabitants legitimate military targets.

"The use of these tactics at a time when armed confrontations are taking place in streets in the middle of densely-populated residential areas underlines the failure of both sides to respect the protected status of civilians in armed conflict," Mr Smart added.

In several well-documented cases in the past, Israeli troops have forced Palestinian civilians, at gunpoint, to go before them into buildings from which they feared attack.

Israeli judges banned the practice in 2005, but Amnesty says troops "frequently" imprison Palestinian families in homes used as military observation and firing positions.

Israeli officials have stated repeatedly they mean no harm to civilians in Gaza and have accused Hamas of deliberately operating in civilian areas and preventing civilians from fleeing to shield them from Israeli bombing missions.



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