By Dion Nissenbaum | McClatchy Newspapers
EZBT ABED RABBO, Gaza Strip — The Israeli soldiers outside Majdi Abed Rabbo's home were after the three Hamas fighters holed up next door, and they wanted Abed Rabbo to be their point man.
For the next 24 hours, Abed Rabbo said, the soldiers repeatedly forced him to walk through the battle zone to see whether the militants were dead or alive.
Abed Rabbo wasn't alone. Eight other residents in this northern Gaza Strip neighborhood told McClatchy in separate interviews that Israeli soldiers had conscripted them to check homes for booby traps, to smash holes in the walls of houses so that soldiers could use them as escape routes or to try to pull dead Palestinian militants from the rubble.
Conscripting Palestinians during the recent fighting in Gaza would appear to violate not only international law, but also Israel's court-imposed ban on using civilians as human shields.
"The laws of war make it clear you must distinguish between civilians and combatants and you cannot force a civilian to take on a combat role," said Daniel Reisner, a legal scholar who spent nearly a decade as the head of the Israeli military's international law department. "Using a human shield is illegal."
The issue is especially charged in Israel because its government has said that Hamas fighters put innocent Palestinians in harm's way by hiding in crowded Gaza neighborhoods and using civilian homes, schools and mosques to stage attacks on Israeli forces.
The Israeli military told McClatchy that it's investigating a variety of allegations about its Gaza operation but it categorically rejected suggestions that soldiers forced any Palestinians to work for them.
"Of course we don't use human shields," Israeli military spokesman Capt. Elie Isaacson said. "Just the opposite. We do everything in our power to avoid harm to civilians, bearing in mind that we know Hamas purposely puts them in harm's way."
U.S. and Israeli human-rights groups dispute that.
"There is powerful evidence that Israel used the tactic that they are accusing Hamas of using," said Fred Abrahams, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher who's investigating what happened in Gaza during the recent Israeli military offensive, which killed more than 1,200 Palestinians.
The Abed Rabbo case also is under investigation by the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, which led a long campaign that eventually persuaded the Israeli Supreme Court to order the Israeli military in 2005 to stop using Palestinians as human shields.
"The testimony seems pretty extensive and presents grave suspicions that Israeli soldiers forced Palestinians to perform dangerous tasks," said B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli. "And the fact that we're seeing these allegations on such a wide scale leads us to suspect that this was policy and not the decisions of one or two random soldiers."
Abed Rabbo's appears to be the most extreme of the cases that the two human rights groups are investigating.
Abed Rabbo, whose extended family dominates the neighborhood that bears its name, is a 40-year-old personal guard for the Palestinian Authority intelligence agency, which Hamas forces ousted from Gaza in 2007. He said he was at home on Jan. 5 with his wife and son when there was a knock on his door.
Mohammed Daher, a 23-year-old neighbor, was standing outside with Israeli soldiers, and he said they'd forced him to help them check the area for militants.
Daher, a graduate of Gaza City's Fatah-leaning Al Azhar University, said that soldiers already had compelled him to use a sledgehammer to break through house walls in the neighborhood so the Israelis could avoid any booby-trapped doors.
Then, Daher said, the soldiers led him down a narrow dirt alley between the neighborhood mosque and a three-story apartment building where Israeli forces suspected that militants were holed up. As they slowly proceeded, Daher said, one of the soldiers kicked a small, remote-controlled explosive buried in shallow dirt.
The soldiers rushed into Abed Rabbo's home and, guns trained on Daher and him, eventually ordered the two Palestinians upstairs.
On the roof, the soldiers directed Abed Rabbo to smash a hole in the wall so the group could crawl onto the roof of the neighboring building with the militants inside.
"They were holding a gun to my head as we walked down the stairs," Abed Rabbo said.
When one of the soldiers apparently spotted the militants inside, the group quickly fell back to Abed Rabbo's roof. Abed Rabbo and Daher said the Israeli unit grabbed them both, rushed down the street and took refuge with them in the mosque as a firefight broke out.
After a series of intense Israeli assaults using heavy-caliber machine guns, Abed Rabbo said, an officer told him that the fighters were dead. The officer ordered Abed Rabbo to go into the house to collect the fighters' clothes and weapons, Abed Rabbo said.
As Abed Rabbo crept through the hole on his roof and down the stairs, he called out to the fighters. Surprisingly, the three men were still standing.
The fighters, one of whom appeared to be wearing a suicide vest, wore Hamas bandannas and told Abed Rabbo to carry a message back to the Israeli soldiers: "We're still alive."
When Abed Rabbo returned with the news, Israeli forces fired guided missiles at the building and then ordered the increasingly reluctant Abed Rabbo to go back inside.
The apartment was on fire, but the militants were still alive. Abed Rabbo said he took back a new message from the militants: "If you are real men, come and face us yourselves."
The Israeli forces called in an Apache helicopter, which mistakenly hit Abed Rabbo's empty house. A second strike hit the militants' building, Abed Rabbo said.
Sent back yet again, he said, he found the militants trapped by rubble but still alive.
The standoff had dragged on for more than 12 hours. The Israeli soldiers were growing angry and began to suspect that Abed Rabbo was lying to them, he said. One of the soldiers taunted the militants over a loudspeaker, telling them that their leaders had abandoned them and they should give up.
At dawn, the soldiers sent Abed Rabbo in yet again. He returned with the same news: The militants were alive.
The Israeli officer, Abed Rabbo said, exploded in anger and grabbed two other men from the neighborhood.
One of them, Zaher Zidane, said the officers gave him a digital camera and told them to go into the house to take pictures of the militants.
The 27-year-old taxi driver said the soldiers threatened neighbor Jamal Qatari and him, leaving them no real choice.
Inside, Zidane said, he, too, found the Hamas fighters badly injured but alive.
Eventually, the Israelis ended the standoff by calling in a bulldozer to bring the building down on top of the Palestinian fighters, Daher and Abed Rabbo said.
After the building collapsed, Daher said, the soldiers ordered another man and him to pull the bodies out of the rubble. The dead militants, however, were trapped under the wreckage.
Daher, Abed Rabbo and Zidane weren't the only ones in the neighborhood who said they were forced to work for the Israeli forces.
Sami Rashid Mohammed, a 45-year-old police officer for the Palestinian Authority, said that Israeli soldiers forced him to enter houses to check for fighters and booby traps.
At one point, Mohammed said, Palestinian militants opened fire on the Israeli soldiers he was with as they crept through a small orchard. Mohammed said the Israeli forces kept him trapped in the middle of the firefight and used him as cover.
"The spent bullets were flying over my shoulder," Mohammed said.
Rashad Abu Saffi, a 60-year-old businessman who runs a livestock feed business that Israeli forces destroyed during the military operation, said Israeli soldiers forced him to lead them into the neighborhood mosque to check for militants and booby traps.
When the soldiers later ordered Abu Saffi, his wife and two of their friends to leave the neighborhood, he said, soldiers opened fire on the group. Abu Saffi and neighbor Hani Al Mabhooh said that one shot hit Abu Saffi's wife in the hip and leg.
The two men said they dragged the wounded woman through the empty streets until they found safety in a friend's home nearby.
In another section of Ezbt Abed Rabbo, Castro Abed Rabbo said that Israeli forces sent him to check homes for fighters and booby traps before they sent in specially trained dogs with high-tech surveillance equipment.
Legal scholar Reisner said that if the allegations were true, they should be the subject of a serious investigation by the Israel Defense Forces.
"Israel had a policy in the past called the 'neighbor policy,' where soldiers would ask neighbors to persuade terrorists to come out of their houses," he said. "The Supreme Court reviewed this procedure and ruled that this was unlawful. The answer is very clear: It is illegal. The IDF should look into such charges."
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)