Soaring Gaza civilian toll casts doubt on Israeli claims of compliance with law of war

LONDON: In August 1949, just 15 months after its establishment, the State of Israel became a signatory to UN Treaty No. 973.

On the same day, UN member states ratified three other conventions that update and strengthen international agreements adopted to protect sick, wounded and captured combatants in times of war.

But the still raw memory of the many horrors endured by millions of civilians during the long years of World War II, in which noncombatants accounted for more than 60 percent of all deaths, prompted the need for a new convention.

Never before in the history of modern warfare have so many civilians been subjected to so much barbarism, including that perpetrated by the Nazis during the German occupation of much of Europe between 1939 and 1945.

In 1949, few countries had a better reason to support the adoption of the so-called Fourth Geneva Convention than Israel, which after the war became home to tens of thousands of European Jews who survived the Holocaust but would carry it with them forever. the memory of the 6 million members of their community who did not escape the Nazi “Final Solution”.

No wonder, then, that on August 12, 1949, dr. Menahem Kahany, the Israeli delegate in Geneva, eagerly grasped for treaty no. 973, “Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”.

The convention is comprehensive, its 159 articles describe and prohibit almost every possible humanitarian crime that armed forces could commit against helpless civilians.

In order to avoid any doubt about the humanitarian responsibility of the armies in the occupied territory, an amendment was later added. This was “Protocol 1”, which specifically prohibits “indiscriminate attacks”, which it defines as “indiscriminate 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 immediate military advantage expected. “

Fast forward 75 years to 2024 and to the unacceptable level of destruction and loss of civilian life in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military, which even the United States, Israel’s staunchest supporter, considers.

Since Israel’s retaliatory ground invasion of Gaza began on October 27, there have been numerous incidents in which its heavy-handed warmongering has cost civilian lives.

One of the most publicized of these—ironically, given that six of the seven victims were Westerners and only 25-year-old Saifeddin Abutaha Palestinian—was the April 1 attack on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy.

The Israeli military, aware that the eyes of the world were on it, conducted a hasty internal investigation. The report concluded that the drone team responsible mistook the bag for a gun, but also managed to include some victim blaming, saying the large markings on the roof of the vehicles were not visible at night.

The army admitted the attack was a “gross accident” and fired the colonel and major it believed were responsible.

Barely a month later, on May 27, a week after the UN International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its offensive on Rafah, an airstrike on a refugee camp in the city torched tents and killed at least 45 people, including women. and children and dozens of wounded.

In the face of global backlash, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the airstrike was a “tragic accident”.

But as deplorable as such individual incidents are, the sheer scale of death and destruction experienced by Gaza and its civilians would tip the scales of justice if the International Criminal Court had its way and Israel’s leaders ended up on the docks at The Hague.

More than 36,000 Palestinians, including more than 15,000 children, have been killed in Gaza since October 7, according to the latest figures from the Palestinian Ministry of Health released on Sunday, June 2. More than 10,000 are missing, believed to be buried under the rubble, and more than 80,000 are injured.

Even if the war stopped tomorrow, Israel’s systematic campaign of destruction would leave Gaza mostly in ruins, with more than half of the homes, more than 200 mosques and most of the schools and hospitals damaged or destroyed.

On May 20, Karim Khan, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, issued arrest warrants for five people on war crimes charges. The first three were for Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip; Mohammed Diab Ibrahim Al-Masri (also known as Deif), commander-in-chief of Hamas’ military wing; and Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas Political Bureau.

But in a move that angered the Israeli government but surprised few even among the country’s friends, Khan accused Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant, his defense minister, of “war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on the territory of the State of Palestine (in the Gaza Strip) since at least on 8 October 2023.”

The charges were brought under several articles of the current Rome Statute of the ICC, which Israel signed in 2000 but later said it would not ratify.

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Announcing the warrants and revealing the vast amount of evidence gathered by forensic investigators, Khan said Israel’s crimes against humanity were committed “as part of a widespread and systematic attack on the Palestinian civilian population in accordance with state policy.”

Israel “deliberately and systematically deprived the civilian population in all parts of Gaza of items indispensable for human survival.”

Like all countries, he added, Israel has the right to act to protect its population. But this right “does not absolve Israel or any country of its obligation to respect international humanitarian law.

“Regardless of whatever military goals they may have, the means Israel has chosen to achieve those goals in Gaza — namely the intentional infliction of death, starvation, great suffering and serious injury to the body or health of the civilian population — are criminal.”

The Israeli government has steadfastly rejected any comparison between its actions and those of Hamas.

Of course, according to the ICC, Hamas leaders are also guilty of war crimes. The rapes, murders and kidnappings during the October 7 attack on Israel shocked people around the world, including in the Middle East.

But Israel is not a militant group. It is a country, a member of the UN and, in the words of its founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, committed to the historic moral mission of being a “light to the nations”.

As such, her critics say, she should be held to – and should be held to – a higher moral standard.

“Yes, Hamas’ behavior is a threat, but that doesn’t give you the right to do what Israel is doing in Gaza,” said Yossi Mekelberg, professor of international relations and fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program. at London’s Chatham House Institute of Politics.


• According to the local health ministry, 36,470+ Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its offensive.

• 120 hostages seized by Hamas and allies who are still missing.

• 12,000 people were killed during Hamas attacks on southern Israel on October 7.

“I don’t think it’s morally right, and I think it’s counterproductive to the survival and prosperity of Israel in the long term.”

“The terrible atrocities that took place,” he added, were violations of the written – and unwritten – rules of civilized behavior.

“Israel benefits from being a so-called liberal democracy, with all the support and trade agreements and military support and so on that come with it,” he said.

“It’s like belonging to an exclusive club – it has to do with following certain rules of behavior.

“But Israel, especially after Netanyahu, wants to have its cake and eat it, and it will take years to restore Israel’s reputation.”

Many Israelis and their supporters have found themselves conflicted by the ICC charges.

“I don’t think the decision is justified,” said Shaiel Ben-Ephraim of the US, host of the Israel Explained and History of the Land of Israel podcasts.

“The ICC is there to deal with the most blatant violations of international law, such as the deliberate targeting of civilians as a matter of policy. Meanwhile, Israel is waging a war whose aims are military.

“Don’t get me wrong,” added Ben-Ephraim, who describes himself as a “liberal Zionist.”

“The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) has not always followed humanitarian law. Terrible mistakes were made. In particular, the soldiers were not always disciplined, and civilians were killed when this could be prevented.

“However, I am convinced that the general Israeli policy remains to avoid disproportionate harm to civilians, and many of us feel that the ICC is unfairly singling out Israel.”

He added: “Israel could have avoided this if it had been more careful. Netanyahu has always preferred domestic interests to international ones. Especially since his government was overthrown by the right in 1999, it’s a mistake he’s vowed never to repeat.

“But he neglected foreign interests far too much in this war and is now paying the price. In fact, he is said to be completely obsessed with these tasks and wishes he had done more to prevent them.’

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and peace negotiator whose NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem works to shed light on the activities of illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, believes that Israel is “well … within its rights to respond militarily on October 7, and it cannot there can be no military action without inevitable civilian casualties.”

But “Israeli action in Gaza has often exceeded any reasonable interpretation of a proportionate response. As has been pointed out several times, the prime minister and the defense minister should be held accountable according to international law.”

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