Gaza: Another Incursion, Civilians Bear the Brunt Again

Gaza Strip, Impunity/Accountability, International Human Rights Law (IHRL), International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Israel / OPT, Press Release

As the violence further escalates in Israel and the OPT, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and FIDH call on the European Union (EU) and the  international community to act to ensure an immediate ceasefire, an end to the illegal closure of the Gaza Strip and the accountability for violations of international law by all parties.  

With an Israeli ground operation in the Gaza Strip now underway, the escalation of violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel is leading to a bloodbath.

The Gaza strip, being one of the most densely populated areas in the world, has seen large-scale civilian causalities since the beginning of Israel’s military operation. As of Thursday 17 July,   the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) counted 237 Palestinian fatalities, of whom 183 are civilians, including 52 children and 31 women. On Wednesday 16 July, four Palestinian children were killed in an Israeli bombing from the sea as they were playing on the beach in Gaza city. Since Israel’s military incursion in Gaza last night, the number of civilian causalities has been rapidly rising.

1,764 others Palestinians have been injured, mostly civilians, including 521 children and 372 women. Meanwhile 1,780 houses were destroyed or severely damaged and more than 33, 500 Palestinians have been displaced. On 15 July, the ICRC warned that hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza were without water and that the entire population may be short of water in the upcoming days. The ICRC has also voiced concerns about the impact of this on hospitals and the public health situation in Gaza. Four hospitals or health centres in Gaza have been damaged by Israeli airstrikes and one rehabilitation center for the disabled was destroyed.

This has further aggravated the already dire humanitarian situation of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents. Indeed, for over 7 years the population of the Gaza Strip has suffered under an Israeli imposed closure which, as confirmed by the ICRC, constitutes a form of collective punishment, a serious breach of international humanitarian law. As a result, 70 per cent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are dependent on humanitarian assistance while more than 70 per cent live below the poverty line. Israel’s indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, both during and after its repeated large scale military operations, prevent Palestinians from recovering from the damage and destruction of one offensive before next one hits.

Our organisations condemn violations by all parties, be it the rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups against Israeli cities or air strikes by the Israeli army into the Gaza Strip. Indeed, in all cases the indiscriminate and disproportionate killing of civilians in the context of an armed conflict is strictly prohibited and may amount to a war crime.

However, the ongoing Israeli military attack erupted in the context of an already ongoing armed conflict and belligerent occupation. As such, Israel cannot rely on the right to self-defence within the meaning of Article 51 of the UN Charter. It must instead act in accordance with the laws regulating the conduct of hostilities. This does not mean that Israel does not have an obligation to protect its own civilian population, but it must do so in accordance with the international laws on the conduct of hostilities. Furthermore, the unequal balance of power in favour of Israel cannot be overlooked nor can the fact that Gaza’s population is bearing the overwhelming brunt of these hostilities. Indeed, the physical, emotional and infrastructural damage suffered by the Palestinian civilian population contravenes the principles of necessity, proportionality and distinction. The principle of distinction requires all parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants, as well as between civilian objects and military objectives. The principle of proportionality prohibits launching an attack which may be expected to cause excessive incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects, in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Failure to abide by these principles of international humanitarian law may result in the commission for investigations of war crimes.

The Geneva Conventions provide that, in an armed conflict, only combatants and military objectives can be targeted. Civilians and civilian infrastructure must be protected from these attacks. In spite of this, the Israeli army has deliberately targeted homes and public places (hospitals, schools, mosques, sports clubs and cafes).  In the majority of cases, the destruction of houses is not dictated by a military necessity. Indeed, on 8 July, the IDF spokesperson announced that the Israeli military had deliberately bombed four homes of persons defined as senior Hamas activists. According to international customary law, a permissible military objective is “limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action or offers a definite military advantage’’. In these instances, the punitive targeting of the family homes of persons that may have links with armed groups and that are additionally not taking active part in hostilities, cannot be considered permissible.

An immediate cease-fire is necessary but it is not enough to achieve peace. Indeed, cease-fires depend on the good will of its protagonists; to date all cease-fires have been violated.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip has been further aggravated by the restrictions on the passage of humanitarian relief at the Rafah crossing. We therefore call on Egypt to facilitate humanitarian access to Gaza, and urge the EU and the international community to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities through an agreement that is based on the International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights law. This would include the lifting of Israel’s unlawful closure of the Gaza Strip and ending and reversing the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. This, coupled with the strengthening of the link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are critical first steps towards achieving sustainable peace in the region.

We call upon the international community to immediately and unequivocally condemn the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and civilian structures and to act to ensure that all perpetrators of violations of international law are held accountable. This includes conducting investigations in line with international standards, prosecuting those found responsible and guaranteeing redress to victims of such violations.

Military escalation and recurrent violence will not bring peace and justice to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, only a political solution based on international law can.