Even the most severe and violent conflicts and wars are governed by principles and rules of international law, that requires respect for human rights, ensuring the safety of civilians, and allowing access to basic needs, relief work, medical services, and humanitarian aid to them.
However, this doesn't always come to pass, and not all parties involved in the conflict consistently adhere to these principles. Such is the case in the current Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, which broke out on October 7th, following the launch of the "Al-Aqsa Storm" operation by the Hamas movement.
In just six days of heightened hostilities, over 2,700 individuals on both sides have been killed, with more than 10,000 injured. Additionally, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, resulting in a dire humanitarian crisis in the region, especially in the Gaza Strip, which stands as one of the world's most densely populated areas, covering roughly 360 square kilometers and housing approximately 2.3 million people, all under a comprehensive blockade imposed by Israel for 16 years.
These distressing conditions have sparked widespread condemnation from the international human rights community, including various United Nations organizations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and others. Several of these entities and organizations have meticulously documented what can unequivocally be termed "war crimes" committed by both parties involved in the conflict - Israel and Hamas.
"Israel, as the occupying power in this conflict, has a clear legal obligation under international law to ensure that the basic needs of the civilian population in Gaza are met."
Human Rights Commission: Gaza residents are subjected to prohibited collective punishment
During a briefing from Geneva on October 13th, the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, stated emphatically, "As we have stressed, civilians must never be used as bargaining chips," whether in Gaza or Israel. She went on to emphasize, "Yet, we continue to receive heartbreaking messages of helplessness from people in Gaza, who are moving from house to house, terrified, seeking elusive safety. And civilians continue to be held hostage by Palestinian armed groups – in clear violation of international humanitarian law."
Shamdasani called on both parties to immediately cease the escalation and violations of international law and to uphold the human rights of civilians on both sides. She criticized Israel's decision to evacuate northern Gaza, deeming it a measure that "impacts more than a million Palestinians, including children, older and sick people, forcing them to relocate with little or no transport and with scant guarantees for their safety, amidst continuing hostilities." She called for the revocation of this measure to "avert a calamitous situation."
The Commission's spokesperson also noted that international humanitarian law unequivocally prohibits the targeting of medical and relief personnel. She called for their protection by both parties without specifying responsibility. She further stated that Israel's "complete siege" was already giving rise to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, pointing out that the deprivation of water, food, fuel, and basic necessities amounts to "collective punishment of civilians, a practice strictly prohibited by international law."
UN Special Rapporteur: A significant part of Gaza's population is facing genocide
UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Francesca Albanese, asserted on October 12th that "a significant part of the Palestinian population in Gaza is being wiped off. Not differently from what has happened before... but with increased ferocity."
Albanese viewed Israel's decision to cut off water, electricity, food, and other essential supplies to Gaza as a method of "starving the besieged population in Gaza and depriving them of necessities," which she argued amounts to "a war crime and a crime against humanity." She stressed that "Israel, with its extensive bombardment of the Gaza Strip, is also endangering its own citizens who are held captive by Hamas in Gaza."
In addition to calling for an immediate halt to the targeting of civilians and the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, Albanese urged the rapid establishment of humanitarian corridors to transport the wounded and critically ill from Gaza for medical treatment. She emphasized, "The West bears significant responsibility due to its unconditional support for the Israeli entity."
Amnesty International: Palestinian civilians are not responsible for crimes committed by Hamas
From the very outset of the conflict, Amnesty International issued warnings that "civilians on both sides are paying the price for the unprecedented escalation," urging "Israel and Palestinian armed groups" to "make every possible effort to protect the lives of civilians."
As highlighted by Agnès Callamard, the Secretary General of the organization, it is imperative to recognize that "Deliberately targeting civilians, carrying out disproportionate attacks, and indiscriminate attacks which kill or injure civilians are war crimes." Additionally, Callamard pointed out "that Israel has a horrific track record of committing war crimes with impunity in previous wars on Gaza", and that "Palestinian armed groups from Gaza, must refrain from targeting civilians and using indiscriminate weapons, as they have done in the past, and most intensively in this event, acts amounting to war crimes."
On the sixth day of this recent escalation, Amnesty International called upon Israel to put an end to the "illegal and inhumane blockade that it has imposed on Gaza. The situation has grown increasingly dire, particularly with the depletion of fuel supplies for the power plant. Amnesty International underscored that the "shutdown of Gaza’s only power plant will exacerbate an already desperate humanitarian crisis for more than 2.2 million people trapped in the Gaza Strip, amid a massive bombing campaign by Israel."
There is a unanimous international consensus affirming that "Palestinian civilians cannot be held responsible for the actions of armed groups". Acts like "starving" the population and enforcing a "full siege" constitutes a form of undeserved "collective punishment"
Callamard made a crucial point regarding Israel's obligations, saying, "Israel, as the occupying power in this conflict, has a clear legal obligation under international law to ensure that the basic needs of the civilian population in Gaza are met."
Amnesty International, while condemning Israel's indiscriminate collective sanctions imposed on all Gaza residents, has firmly stated that such "collective punishment" will not bring justice to the victims of war crimes committed by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, nor will it enhance the security of civilians in Israel.
She continued, "Palestinian armed groups’ horrific mass killing of Israeli civilians and other serious violations do not absolve Israel from upholding its obligations to respect international humanitarian law and to protect civilians."
Amnesty International also highlighted the results of "extensive video footage verification and interviews of survivors", which have "shown that Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have carried out cruel and brutal crimes including mass summary killings, hostage-taking, and launching indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel."
The organization concluded with a resounding message:“As Israeli forces’ retaliatory attacks pummel Gaza, Amnesty International insists that neither security nor justice will be achieved by a civilian bloodbath in Gaza and collective punishment”. They pledged to persist in documenting human rights violations committed by both sides.
Human Rights Watch: Israel used white phosphorus in its operations in Lebanon and Gaza
In a similar vein, Human Rights Watch accused "Hamas attackers" of perpetrating actions such as "killing people in their homes, orchestrating massacres during music festivals, and abducting children, the elderly, and others." These actions were categorically labeled as "war crimes" necessitating the prosecution of the individuals responsible.
Amnesty International: “As Israeli forces’ retaliatory attacks pummel Gaza, Amnesty International insists that neither security nor justice will be achieved by a civilian bloodbath in Gaza and collective punishment”
HRW also emphasized that all of these occurrences do not negate the fact that "cutting off electricity and fuel to all of Gaza's inhabitants due to the actions of specific individuals amounts to a form of collective punishment." They underscored that Israel's decision to halt the flow of water, electricity, and fuel to the territory constitutes "war crimes," similar to using starvation as a weapon of war.
In another report, the organization issued a warning about Israel's use of internationally prohibited white phosphorus in military operations in Gaza and Lebanon, warning that this "puts civilians at risk of serious and long-term injuries," including "excruciating burns and lifelong suffering."
White phosphorus can cause painful and enduring injuries on contact, burning people, "down to the bone." This substance, "highly soluble in fat, and therefore in human flesh, can thermally and chemically burn individuals. White phosphorus fragments can exacerbate wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream and cause multiple organ failure."
In addition, "Already dressed wounds can reignite when dressings are removed and the wounds are re-exposed to oxygen. Even relatively minor burns are often fatal. For survivors, extensive scarring tightens muscle tissue and creates physical disabilities. The trauma of the attack, the painful treatment that follows, and appearance-changing scars lead to psychological harm and social exclusion."
Deep concern regarding the suspension of aid for Palestinians
In a related context, Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern about recent statements from various European governments announcing the suspension of development aid to Palestine. Denmark ($13 million), Sweden ($5 million), Germany ($131 million), and Austria ($20 million) have all halted their bilateral development aid programs, which also encompass funding for United Nations agencies, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and civil society organizations. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has initiated a review of its development programs without suspending or discontinuing aid payments.
HRW cautioned, "The perpetrators of the October 7 attacks are unlikely to bear the brunt of these aid freezes by Germany, Austria, Sweden, and others. Hamas has long been designated as a terrorist organization and would have been ineligible for aid anyway... The damage will be inflicted upon millions of Palestinian civilians who are already experiencing unparalleled repression and violence."
It is crucial to note that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued an urgent appeal on Friday to secure approximately $294 million in funding to support 77 humanitarian partners. These partners consist of 13 UN agencies, 29 international NGOs, 35 local NGOs, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. The funds will be allocated to address the pressing needs of 1,260,000 people in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
In the same vein, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has confirmed that nearly 339,000 people in Gaza have been internally displaced as they sought refuge in UNRWA schools. UNICEF MENA has warned that thousands of children in Gaza are facing a catastrophic situation, marked by a lack of safety and the basic necessities for life.
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