International rights experts are raising the alarm over the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza that has killed 1,100 Palestinians and destroyed schools and hospitals while the besieged enclave remains under a blockade.
Activists say the Israeli government’s decision to cut power, water and fuel supply to the enclave amounts to collective punishment of its entire population of 2.3 million people and violates international laws.
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Israel says no water and fuel will be restored until Hamas returns Israeli captives taken on Saturday following the deadliest attack inside Israel carried out by the Palestinian armed group.
At least 1,200 Israelis have been killed and 3,000 injured after Hamas fighters entered Israel using paragliders and went on a gun rampage in neighbourhoods close to the Gaza border fence. An estimated 150 people have been taken as captives by the Palestinian fighters.
US President Joe Biden has announced to send munitions to Israel after promising “unwavering” support to the country in the wake of the Hamas attack. According to media reports, in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden held back from urging Israel to exercise restraint during its military offensive.
“We uphold the laws of war,” said the US president in a speech that same day.
But what, precisely, are the laws of war? And are they being upheld as Israeli bombing has killed at least 260 children and 230 women?
What are the laws of war?
According to Human Rights Watch, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is regarded as an “ongoing armed conflict” under international humanitarian law, governed by Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, supplemented by the Additional Protocols of 1977.
These laws of war forbid collective punishment of a population. At their most basic level, they say warring parties must:
- Distinguish between combatants and civilians
- Preserve civilian infrastructure, such as homes, schools and hospitals
- Give prior warning of attacks if civilians are present in targeted locations
- Refrain from harming medical staff and depriving medical facilities of electricity and water
- Allow the passage of impartial humanitarian aid
- Leave civilians and captured combatants unharmed. Murder, cruel treatment, torture and the taking of hostages are forbidden
Power imbalances between parties are not taken into account, meaning that Hamas and the Israeli government would be judged solely on the basis of their actions.
Hamas’s killing of civilians have been widely condemned. Now, international attention is turning to Israel’s indiscriminate hammering of the entrapped population of the Gaza Strip, the suffering set to escalate further with the impending ground offensive.
Is Israel breaking the laws of war?
Israel’s actions over the past few days have raised alarm bells.
On Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called Palestinians a “beastly people”, ordering a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip – “no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed”. Tuesday’s air strikes on the Rafah border post with Egypt reportedly impeded trucks with fuel and food from entering Gaza.
Gallant told troops massed at the border with Gaza that he had “released all restraints”. “Hamas wanted a change in Gaza, it will change 180 degrees from what it thought,” he threatened. Gaza, he said, would never return to what it was.
Gaza, already under blockade for the past 16 years, has indeed hit new lows, plunged into darkness after the territory’s only power station ran out of fuel. Aerial targets include refugee camps, residential blocks, and critical infrastructure such as the telecommunications company, hospitals and schools that provide the sole form of shelter for displaced Gazans – 340,000 and rising fast.
Deprived of electricity and running out of medicine, the territory’s hospitals are unable to treat the wounded – 5,339 people at the last count.
“We are suffering … and the world is not moving a finger. This is an SOS to the whole world,” said a representative of al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Wednesday. Marwan Jilani, director general of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, spoke of a “deliberate targeting” of four emergency workers.
“Crucial life-saving supplies – including fuel, food and water – must be allowed into Gaza. We need rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access now,” the UN chief posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Thursday.
On Tuesday, UN rights chief Volker Turk called the conflict “an explosive powder keg”. “The imposition of sieges that endanger the lives of civilians by depriving them of goods essential for their survival is prohibited under international humanitarian law,” he said.
“There’s history here that makes Israel’s actions especially egregious,” said Srinivas Burra, a professor of law at the South Asian University in New Delhi, India.
The laws applied equally to Hamas and Israel, he said. But, he added, Israel’s decision to deprive the Gaza Strip’s population of basic commodities carried particular weight because of its historic role as enforcer of a blockade against the coastal enclave. He considered the total siege to be a clear violation of international humanitarian law.
How is the international community responding?
The International Criminal Court announced on Tuesday that its 2014 mandate to investigate alleged war crimes committed in “the State of Palestine” extends to the current conflict. Prosecutors are gathering information for their probe.
Breaking: @IntlCrimCourt Prosecutor's Office speaks out, making clear that "crimes committed in the current context" fit within their mandate, that they're gathering information as part of their formal probe into serious crimes in Palestine & encouraging victims to come forward. https://t.co/bSJBmBlwQm
— Omar Shakir (@OmarSShakir) October 10, 2023
Under the court’s statute, starvation under siege is considered a war crime. One example is Bashar al-Assad’s “kneel or starve” strategy to force the opposition to buckle during the civil war. Currently, human rights lawyers are mounting a dossier against Russia’s weaponisation of food in Ukrainian towns Chernihiv and Mariupol to submit to the court.
The UN’s Human Rights Council announced it already has “clear evidence” of war crimes committed by both sides. On Gaza, it said: “The Commission is gravely concerned with … Israel’s announcement of a complete siege on Gaza … which will undoubtfully cost civilian lives and constitutes collective punishment.” An Independent International Commission of Inquiry is investigating.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Egypt was discussing plans with the US and others to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, but rejected moves to set up safe corridors for refugees fleeing Gaza. One of the sources said this was to protect “the right of Palestinians to hold on to their cause and their land”.
Sami Abou Shehadeh, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, has blamed Biden and other leaders for giving Israel “a green light for ethnic cleaning”.
Writing in the London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed, he said: “Israel is not killing the Hamas leadership; they are not getting revenge out of Hamas. There is collective punishment for 2.2 million people.”