Dura, occupied West Bank – Bahaa el-Din Abu Ras, 36, is a bearded man with brown hair that has gone a little grey in the middle, he’s not sure when exactly, but thinks it was two weeks ago.
Even though two weeks have passed since his ordeal, and despite being in his mobile shop surrounded by familiar items, he seems stressed to be retelling the tale of being used as a human shield to protect Israeli soldiers.
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On Monday, January 15, 2024, at 1:30pm, the Israeli army stormed Dura, south of Hebron, in about 10 military vehicles, stopping in the town’s downtown commercial area, near the Bahaa’s shop, and his ordeal began.
“The downtown is busy at midday, but the army stopped and started throwing tear gas bombs, quite heavily. We shut our door and as me and my coworkers were figuring out how to leave.
Then a group of masked soldiers came to the door and told me to open up. He was speaking Arabic, so I asked him why they needed my shop, and he said they needed to check if I was selling surveillance drones. I said I wasn’t, but they went in and began searching.
“We were outside, and I could hear the noise they were making in there, breaking things. The soldiers who were still outside asked me if I owned the shop and when I said yes, they laid into me. I was kicked, punched, verbally assaulted. They threw me face-down on the ground and attacked the two young guys who work with me, Musaab Shawamra, 25, and Mahmoud Hamdan, 17.”
As this was happening, Bahaa continued, another group of soldiers came up and joined the others, now suddenly there were more than 20 soldiers inside his shop, one of whom turned out to be the commanding officer.
“It was like an interrogation with me thrown on the ground in front of my own shop, being questioned. He went back to asking about surveillance drones – I said no again and, of course, they didn’t find anything in the shop but mobile phones and equipment to repair them.
“The officer made them leave after they’d been searching for about half an hour, but wouldn’t let me get up until a soldier came and kicked me and told me and my guys to get up.”
Bahaa found himself marched into the street, where Palestinians were putting up the only resistance they had: throwing rocks at the heavily armed invading soldiers. The commanding officer sent Musaab and Mahmoud home and made Bahaa walk in front of him, saying, “You go in front of me, we’ll see if anyone dares to throw stones at us now.”
The moments that ensued as he stood in the middle of the market area, shielding heavily armoured soldiers with his body, were beyond description, the father of four said.
In the moments of terror, as bullets whizzed past his head and the sounds of shooting rang in his ears, he thought of 10-year-old Aseel, eight-year-old Bilal, Lin, 6, and little Shahm, just one-year-old, wondering if he would see them or his wife again.
“So many questions went through my mind: Will I get to go back to my family? Will I be shot or would a rock hit me? Will I be arrested by these soldiers for whatever reason? When or how can I be released, in the middle of this warzone?
“I saw so many Palestinians being shot by the Israeli soldiers. Ahed Emtair was shot then, too, a young mother. The soldiers using me kept moving me left and right, trying to keep me between them and the stones that were still being pelted at them, from every direction.
“There was so much tear gas, it was so hard to breathe. I spent about an hour and a half like that, not sure when I would be killed and whether I would ever rest again. But throughout the whole thing, I kept reminding myself that what I was going through was nothing compared to what our steadfast people in Gaza were experiencing.”
Activist Imad Abu Hawash from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said using Palestinians as human shields is a policy Israel uses often in Palestinian territory, despite it being a crime prohibited by international law and the Geneva Convention and a violation of all norms.
Indeed, rights groups have documented countless cases, with Defense for Children International – Palestine saying Israel had used five Palestinian children as human shields in the first half of 2023 alone.
Hazem Masarwa, a 43-year-old volunteer with the Ibn Sina Ambulance Center in Jenin, told Al Jazeera how he and two colleagues were used the same way last year.
On July 4, the Israeli army raided the Jenin refugee camp that it had been attacking for a few days, and confrontations with resisting Palestinians began. Hazem and his colleagues were headed to evacuate injured people from around the Abdullah Azzam Mosque when Israeli forces fired at the ambulance to make it stop, then ordered them out.
“They used us three paramedics as human shields for more than half an hour, despite our official Palestinian paramedic uniforms. They were shooting from behind us, and the Palestinian gunmen were shooting back, what horrible, terrifying moments.”
The prohibition on the use of unarmed civilian humans to protect fully equipped soldiers is clearly stated in the first additional protocol of the Geneve Convention of 1949, stating the matter explicitly and simply, Aseed al-Awawda, professor of constitutional law at Hebron University, said.
Committing such acts opens up soldiers and officers to be tried and punished in the International Criminal Court if a request for prosecution is submitted.
However, it remains to be seen if such legal action will be brought.