Physicians for Human Rights v. Commander of the IDF Forces in the West Bank

HCJ 2117/01
Download Judgment: English
Country: Israel
Region: Asia
Year: 2002
Court: Supreme Court
Health Topics: Disasters and emergencies, Violence
Human Rights: Right to life
Tags: Armed conflict, Health care professionals, Health care workers, Humanitarian crisis, Military, Militias

Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers allegedly shot at ambulances and wounded the medical teams travelling in them.  Petitioners filed a prospective petition, requesting that the Court order the State to explain such shootings and demand their cessation.

According to the State, the IDF soldiers had fired on the ambulances because Palestinian fighters had, on several occasions, used the ambulances to transport explosives. The State also confirmed that it had instructed its combat forces to act in accordance with the rules of international law.

The Court considered the protection for medical service and personnel against attack by combat forces set forth by Article 19 of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field (the “First Geneva Convention”).  However, the Court concluded that “the ‘Medical Service’ has the right to full protection only when it is exclusively engaged in the search, collection, transport and treatment of the wounded or sick.” As per Article 21 of the First Geneva Convention, protection of medical service and personal ceases if such personnel are committing acts outside of their humanitarian duties which are harmful to the enemy, provided that armed forces first provide due warnings.

Thus the Court held that the IDF must instruct its soldiers to give reasonable and fair warnings to medical teams before firing and to balance the threat of Palestinian fighters disguising themselves as medical personnel against their obligation to uphold humanitarian rules.

“The instructions which are to be given to soldiers should deal with, among other things, the reasonable and fair warnings which should be given to medical teams. These guidelines should be subject to the circumstances, and should be carried out by the IDF in a way that balances the threat of Palestinian fighters camouflaged as medical teams against the legal and moral obligation to uphold humanitarian rules regarding the treatment of the sick and wounded. Such a balance should take into consideration, among other things, the imminence and severity of any threat.”