Human shield trial - Ilan Assayag - Oct. 3, 2010
Friends of the convicted soldiers in court, Oct. 3, 2010 Photo by Ilan Assayag
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A military court convicted two Givati brigade soldiers yesterday for using a civilian as a human shield during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in early 2009.

The Southern Command military court convicted the soldiers of exceeding their authority, endangering human lives and conduct unbecoming of a soldier. The maximum sentence for exceeding authority is three years in prison.

Israel Defense Forces regulations have forbid the use of human shields, known as the "neighbor" procedure - forcing a neighbor, instead of a soldier, to knock on the door of a wanted man - ever since the Supreme Court ruled the practice illegal.

The incident occured when soldiers were searching for two wanted men in the southern Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa in January 2009.

According to the indictment, the soldiers ordered an 11-year-old boy to open bags they believed contained bombs.

This is the first indictment for use of the neighbor procedure during Operation Cast Lead.

As they read their ruling yesterday, the judges on the panel said the testimony of the defendants, who are no longer in the army, was contradictory.

In another case in which Golani brigade soldiers were accused of using the neighbor procedure, Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit limited his response to the command level, because an investigation showed that the owner of the home where the incident took place insisted on going inside, where militants were holed up. The battalion commander was disciplined in the case.

Friends of the two soldiers convicted yesterday congregated outside the courthouse in a show of support. In a reference to the United Nations fact-finding commission headed by Judge Richard Goldstone that investigated Operation Cast Lead, with which Israel refused to cooperate due to its alleged bias, friends of the defendants came to court wearing shirts that read "We are all victims of Goldstone."

Supporters called the trial a stab in the back after the soldiers had served their country, and criticized the state for pressing charges against them when the state itself sent them to fight in Gaza.

They said they would no longer report for reserve duty over the convictions. They also criticized Givati brigade commanders whom they said did not back the defendants.

The case against the two Givati soldiers began after the incident was brought to the army's attention by the office of the United Nations special representative for children and armed conflict.

The IDF Spokesman's Office has said that during Operation Cast Lead, soldiers were told they could not force civilians to assist in operational activities, particularly when it could endanger lives.

The verdict yesterday is the second conviction against soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead. Last year, a Givati soldier was sentenced to seven and a half months in prison for stealing a credit card and withdrawing cash from the owner's bank account.