Israeli forces have killed more than 200 Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip over the past 23 days. In order to obfuscate this harsh reality, Israeli officials claim “self-defence” and contend that civilian deaths are justified because Hamas allegedly uses Palestinians in Gaza as human shields. Israel is an occupying power that is attacking and destroying an occupied Palestinian civilian population. These civilian deaths are not collateral damage. They are war crimes.
On July 20, around 2:20 am, 16-year-old Anas Mahmoud Hussein Muammar from Rafah went out onto the second-floor balcony of his home to join his older brothers for a cup of coffee. Soon after, an Israeli drone-fired missile directly targeted him and his brothers, according to documentation collected by Defense for Children International Palestine. His brothers were killed instantly. Anas suffered fatal injuries and was pronounced dead at Abu Yousef An-Najjar Hospital about 10 minutes later.
A complete disregard of international humanitarian law and the direct targeting of civilian homes, schools, hospitals, and civilians such as Anas have so far characterised Israel’s military offensive on Gaza.
For Palestinians in Gaza, where 43 percent of the population is under 14 years of age, Israeli military offensives are not new. Over the past 14 years, not including the most recent killings, Israeli forces are responsible for the death of over 1,400 children in the occupied Palestinian Territory, including over 1,000 in Gaza alone. Most recently in November 2012, 33 children were killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza. Between December 2008 and January 2009, Israeli forces killed at least 353 children.
To justify the current onslaught on the Palestinian civilian population of the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials repeatedly assert that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. Speaking by phone recently to his Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “Hamas uses innocent civilians as a human shield for terrorist activity.” Israeli military spokesperson, Lt Col Peter Lerner, alleged Palestinian armed groups were “intentionally abusing” hospitals and “other international protected symbols to indiscriminately attack Israel.”
To be clear, the use of civilians as human shields is prohibited under international law and involves forcing civilians to directly assist in military operations or using them to shield a military object or troops from attack. The rhetoric continually voiced by Israeli officials regarding “human shields” amounts to nothing more than generalisations that fall short of the precise calculation required by international humanitarian law when determining whether something is actually a military object.
Civilians, including children, must never be targeted, and civilian structures and infrastructure are presumed not to be legitimate targets, yet Israel continues to carry out direct attacks on civilian homes, schools, hospitals and mosques.
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In order to qualify as a military objective, the object must be used for a military purpose and its total or partial destruction would result in a definite military advantage. Only military objectives can be lawful or legitimate objects of an attack. This standard is inflexible and does not change based on another party’s conduct.
In Khan Younis on July 20, 19 children from the Abu Jami’ family were killed when an Israeli fighter jet targeted and destroyed their home where they were sheltering. Israeli officials stated that the intended target was a Hamas member visiting the house at the time of the strike.
The mere alleged presence of a member of a Palestinian armed group is an insufficient justification for an attack on a family home. Based on a preliminary investigation, the Abu Jami’ home was not being used for any military purpose at the time of the attack and was unlawfully targeted by Israeli forces.
A civilian home, school, or hospital that is in some way deemed by Israeli forces to be “affiliated” with Hamas or another Palestinian armed group does not in itself provide legal justification under international humanitarian law to direct an attack at that object. The standard demands much more, and requires an exacting calculation. Precision is necessary because imprecision leads to war crimes.
Palestinian civilians must not be blamed for their own deaths. Even if Hamas or another Palestinian armed group may have violated the laws of war and used civilians as human shields, this does not relieve Israel from its obligations under international law nor does it justify an attack on civilians or civilian structures.
A generation of Palestinian children in Gaza have been shot, shelled and bombed since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. Their homes and schools have been attacked and destroyed, sometimes repeatedly, and they have come of age witnessing death and suffocated by a life under siege. They have lost parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, and entire families.
In addition to an immediate ceasefire, the international community, including the US, must demand an end to Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza and challenge systemic impunity by investigating allegations of war crimes and holding perpetrators accountable.
Brad Parker is a staff attorney and international advocacy officer with Defence for Children International Palestine, an independent child-rights organisation dedicated to defending and promoting the rights of children living in the occupied Palestinian Territory. DCI-Palestine provides free legal assistance to children, collects evidence and conducts advocacy targeting various duty bearers.