The death toll in Gaza climbed exponentially as Israel continued its relentless airstrikes of civilian communities in Gaza city, killing at least 212 people, including 61 children, destroying 132 buildings and leaving 2,500 homeless. ;
while in Israel itself at least 10 people had been killed as a result of Hamas firing 3,300 rockets towards Jerusalem and other cities such as Ramat Gan ( New York Times, May 17, 2021).
The extent of the conflagration of Gaza is graphically depicted by the New York Times:
”Sewage systems have been destroyed, sending fetid wastewater into the streets of Gaza City. A critical desalination plant that helped provide fresh water to 250,000 people is offline, leaving at least 800,000 people without access. Landfills are closed, with trash piling up.
And dozens of schools have been either damaged or ordered to close, forcing some 600,000 students to miss classes on Monday.”
”The nine-day battle between Hamas militants and the Israeli military has created a humanitarian catastrophe that is touching nearly every civilian living in Gaza, a coastal territory of about two million people.” (The New York Times, 18 May, 2021)
Make no mistake, lethal violence directed at both Palestinian and Israeli Jewish civilians is utterly deplorable and should be condemned.
And yet the figures revealing the extent of devastation inflicted on both sides are revealing;
The number of civilian deaths in Israel pales in comparison to the grossly disproportionate number of dead Palestinians, especially women and children in Gaza;
At the time of writing, more than 20 times the number of civilians in Gaza were dying due to Israeli air strikes in comparison to those killed in Israel by Hamas’ rockets.
B’TSELEM, the Jerusalem based human rights organization, , explains why:
”The Israeli airstrikes are targeting one of the most densely populated places in the world, already gripped by a humanitarian crisis caused, in part, by 14 years of Israeli blockade imposed on its roughly two million residents.’ (B’TSELEM 15 May 2021).
Imagine living among 2 million Gazans hermetically packed together within a 25 mile long strip of the Mediterranean coast just 5 miles wide!
Living in the the world’ s largest open air prison, whose coastal, air and land borders are heavily guarded by prison wardens known as the Israeli Defence Force…
Where could one possibly hide, in what is considered to be one of the most densely populated places on earth, to avoid the IDF’s missile strikes?
Incredulously, the immediate reaction of the Israeli government under its caretaker Prime Minister, Netanyahu, was to invoke the right of Israel to ‘defend’ itself against Hamas’ rocket attacks by raining unrestrained destruction on the Gazan civilians —
destruction reminiscent of the the 2014 devastation of the coastal strip that killed over 2200 civilians and 500 children. (The 50 day war labelled by the Israeli Army as ‘Operation Protective Edge)
The fact is – Israel is the only remaining Settler Colonial ruler in the World today, illegally occupying Palestinian territory ever since colonialism was prohibited by the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Peoples and Territories.
The United Nations General Assembly14 December 1960 resolution 1514 (XV) reads:
”The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.
All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.
All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected.’‘ OHCHR | Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples
Israel’s brutal attack on unarmed children and their families is not one of self-defence, but one characterized by the insatiable need of a colonizer to exert total dominance on a defenceless people, whose lands they have illegally occupied for over 70 years
Gideon Levi for the Haaretz writes:
”Israel wreaks destruction on a terrifying scale. Sometimes it warns the residents and gives them an hour to save their entire world, sometimes it doesn’t. Because it can. Israel topples high-rise residential and office buildings like houses of cards in fearsome spectacles that are meant for the eyes and ears of the panic-stricken residents of Gaza, and no less than that for the eyes of the cheering residents of Israel.
We’ve got it. We’ve got power. Look how strong we are. An air force display…..
When U.S. President Joe Biden says unreservedly that Israel has the right to defend itself – the carte blanche to destroy is back. Bomb as much as you can, dear friends, after all you’re only defending yourselves, and for that purpose everything is permitted to you.” ( Gideon Levi, Haaretz, 20 May 2021)
Does the Israeli government have a right recognized under International law to defend itself against the rocket attacks launched by Hamas by inflicting collective punishment on children and their families in Gaza?
Unleashing forms of collective punishment on the civilian community in Gaza fails to recognize the principles of distinction and proportionality required under International Humanitarian law enshrined in the Geneva Convention.
The protection of civilians in occupied territories during armed conflict is provided for by the 4th Geneva Convention 1949:
‘‘In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities…. shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.” (Art.3)
The International Committee of the Red Cross further provides an authoritative explanation of the effect of the 1977 additional protocols of the Geneva Convention:
”Additional Protocol I Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I prohibits an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
”Additional Protocol I Under Article 85(3)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I, “launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects in the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects, as defined in Article 57, paragraph 2 a) iii) is a grave breach” ( ICRC , IHL Database, Customary IHL)
In other words, the principles of necessity deriving from the International law of armed conflict found in the additional protocols to the Geneva Convention obligate both Israel and Hamas to use only the amount of force needed to obtain a military objective;
While the principle of distinction imposes a further obligation on both parties ‘to attack only legitimate military targets and never deliberately attack civilians or civilian objects.’ ( Alston and Goodman, 2013, p.404).
Finally, the principle of proportionality imposes an obligation ‘to ensure any incidental loss or injury to civilian life is not excessive in relation to the military objective of an attack.’ ( Alston and Goodman, 2013, p.404).
So, just because Hamas is designated by the US, UK and Israel as as terrorist organization and Israel’s IDF is not does not mean that the 4th Geneva Convention’s rules of armed conflict and its additional protocols are not applicable to Israel.
As Alston and Goodman explain:
“The rights and responsibilities of actors do not change according to the purported justness of one’s cause.’ ( Alston and Goodman, 2013, p.404″
The stark reality of Israel’s attack of Gaza points to a violation by the IDF of both principles of proportionality and distinction, constituting a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, —
one which obligates all states parties to prosecute or to extradite violations listed as such, aut dedere aut judicare.
Because they are war crimes, the commission of grave breaches must be prosecuted by High Contracting Parties on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction. Note: Grave breaches | How does law protect in war? – Online casebook (icrc.org)
Evidence of possible war crimes committed by the IDF in Gaza is further supported by Amnesty International’s findings:
“There is a horrific pattern emerging of Israel launching air strikes in Gaza targeting residential buildings and family homes –
in some cases entire families were buried beneath the rubble when the buildings they lived in collapsed.
In the cases documented below, no prior warning was given to the civilian residents to allow them to escape.”
”Shortly before midnight on 14 May Israeli air strikes hit the three-storey building of the al-Atar family in Beit Lahia killing 28-year-old Lamya Hassan Mohammed Al-Atar her three children Islam, seven, Amira, six, and Mohammed an eight-month-old baby.” ( Amnesty International , 17 May 2021)
Amira Hass for the Haaretz describes the horrific realities experienced by Palestinian families :
”Fifteen Palestinian nuclear and extended families lost at least three, and in general more, of their members, in the Israeli shelling of the Gaza Strip during the week from May 10 through to Monday afternoon. Parents and children, babies, grandparents, siblings and nephews and nieces died together when Israel bombed their homes, which collapsed over them. Insofar as is known, no advance warning was given so that they could evacuate the targeted houses.” (Haaretz, 19 May, 2021)
If you consider the Israeli Defence Forces’ actions of wiping out of entire Gazan families as a one-time, extraordinary event necessitated by ‘existential’ threats posed to Israel, think again.
As Amira Hass explains: ”Wiping out entire families in Israeli bombings was one of the characteristics of the war in 2014. In the roughly 50 days of the war then, UN figures say that 142 Palestinian families were erased (742 people in total).” (Haaretz, 19 May, 2021)
Were the rocket attacks by Hamas totally unprovoked? A claim the Israeli government would want the world to believe.
Significant events leading to Hamas’ rocket attacks on Jerusalem: The Israeli Police’s encroachment of the Al- Aqsa Mosque prayer grounds
Days before Hamas launched rocket attacks on Jerusalem, tensions were already high at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem when the Israeli police stormed the prayer grounds of the Al- Aqsa Mosque, firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at hundreds of Palestinian worshippers who hurled rocks at them. About 250 injured Palestinians, some critically injured, were taken to hospital. (Haaretz, 10 May , 2021)
Was this an attempt by the police to uphold law and order in Jerusalem while preserving “freedom of worship and tolerance for all” as Netanyahu reportedly remarked (Haaretz, 10 May , 2021) , —
or were the actions of the Police a blatant disregard of the rights of the Palestinian to freely gather and worship at what is considered one of the most sacred sites in Islam during the Holy month of Ramadan.
In fact, this Israeli Police’s raid on the Al – Aqsa mosque was not their first;
About 27 days before Hamas began firing rockets at Jerusalem a group of Police officers brazenly entered the Aqsa mosque courtyard and cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast prayers to the faithful from four medieval minarets.’ purportedly because the Israeli president’s speech delivered at the Western Wall lying below the mosque would be drowned by the prayers. (New York Times, May 15, 2021)
Following this, the Palestinians’ rights to freedom of movement and assembly was further curtailed by the police when they barricaded the plaza outside the Damascus Gate which acts as a main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem and a place for Palestinians to gather at night during Ramadan. (New York Times, May 15, 2021) .
To the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem since the 1967 Israeli Arab war which saw Israel occupying East Jerusalem, the police’s actions were perceived as ‘discriminatory’;
a further attempt by their occupiers to deprive them of their communal space by pushing them out of their own city. (Patrick Kingsley, New York Times, May 15, 2021).
“It made it feel as though they were trying to eliminate our presence from the city,” said Majed al-Qeimari, a 27-year-old butcher from East Jerusalem. “We felt the need to stand up in their faces and make a point that we are here.” (New York Times, May 15, 2021).
The fact that the Palestinians have been subject to Israel’s settler colonial violence for more than half a century– terrifying night raids of their homes by an Israeli police and military having no qualms about detaining and torturing child suspects, land theft, home demolitions and evictions as a result of increasing Jewish settlements arising in the West Bank [State-Backed Settler Violence | B’Tselem (btselem.org)]-
leaves one wondering why anyone in their right mind would consider, even for a moment, Israel’s disingenuous claim to be entitled to self defence.
Live Updates: Humanitarian Catastrophe Deepens in Gaza, New York Times, 18 May 2021.
Over 330 Palestinians Wounded in Clashes With Israeli Police at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Haaretz, 10 May 2021.
After Years of Quiet, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Exploded. Why Now?, New York Times, 15 May, 2021.
‘Israel/ OPT: Pattern of Israeli attacks on residential homes in Gaza must be investigated as war crimes‘, Amnesty International, 17 May 2021
Analysis | Gaza Lives Erased: Israel Is Wiping Out Entire Palestinian Families on Purpose Amira Hass, Haarerz, May. 19, 2021.
Opinion | A Pampered Israel Carries Out Violence Because It Can Gideon Levy, Haaretz, May 20, 2021