Israel-Palestine: News

Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre Statement on the current events in Israel and Gaza

13 October 2023

07 October- 12 October 2023

The horrific escalation of the conflict between Hamas, other armed groups, and Israel has already resulted in thousands of deaths and immense human suffering. The Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre calls on all parties to the conflict to ensure that their actions, as a minimum, are strictly within the confines of international humanitarian law (IHL).

IHL sets out clear rules that seek to limit the human suffering caused by armed conflict. These rules are binding on all parties and apply to all armed conflicts. Violations of these rules committed by one party to an armed conflict do not release the opposing party from its obligations. Hamas, other armed groups, and Israel are legally obligated to abide by these rules, without exception. 

IHL is clear, the targeting of civilians is prohibited. The attacks carried out by Hamas on civilians on Saturday 7 October 2023 were in clear breach of this rule. Hamas also captured many civilians and is reportedly holding many individuals, including children and infants, hostage. These acts are also in clear violation of IHL. The deliberate killing of civilians, the taking of hostages, and the inhumane treatment of persons are war crimes. While the full scope of the violations committed by Hamas is yet to be comprehensively established, there is evidence indicating that other serious violations of international humanitarian law were committed including outrages upon personal dignity and disrespectful treatment of the dead which may also amount to war crimes. Hostages should be immediately and unconditionally released to a place of safety and whilst held in captivity must be treated humanely. Statements that have reportedly been issued by Hamas officials threatening to execute hostages in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Gaza are in clear contravention of these requirements, and acting on them would be an additional serious violation of IHL constituting a war crime. 

Hamas has also launched thousands of indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel. These attacks have resulted in civilian deaths and damage to civilian homes and infrastructure. In accordance with IHL, all attacks must distinguish military targets from civilians and civilian objects. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under IHL.  

In response to the attacks by Hamas, Israel has launched relentless and extensive airstrikes on Gaza and imposed a siege to stop all fuel, water, electricity and food entering Gaza. These supplies are essential for the survival of the civilian population, and as such are specifically protected under IHL which prohibits attacking, destroying or rendering useless such essential supplies. Furthermore, starvation as a method of warfare, by way of depriving civilians of objects indispensable to their survival, amounts to a war crime. The IHL Centre is gravely concerned by the Israeli government’s decision to tighten the closure that it has been imposing on Gaza since 2007 by subjecting it to an outright siege, and by the rhetoric surrounding this decision. This concern extends to statements made by high level political figures in third states. We remind Israel, and the international community, that the vast majority of those living in Gaza are civilians. Prohibiting essential supplies of food, electricity and fuel into Gaza will result in the immense suffering and deaths of civilians. Children, pregnant women, persons with disability, older persons and those dependent on medical treatment such as dialysis will be particularly vulnerable. Collective punishment, whereby a group is punished, sanctioned, or harassed for the actions of others, is strictly prohibited under IHL.  

Israeli forces have clear IHL obligations to ensure that all military operations distinguish between fighters and civilians, attacks are strictly limited to lawful military objects, and remain strictly bound by rules prohibiting indiscriminate attacks. The numbers of casualties and scope of devastation being reported increases the concerns engendered by the statements of Israeli officials that Israel is acting in disregard of the protections provided for in IHL. Moreover, even where a military objective is identified, the attack launched must be proportionate to the anticipated military advantage and all feasible precautions must be taken to limit harm to civilians. There are specific concerns over harm inflicted upon medical and humanitarian personnel, food storages, schools and hospitals. Violations of these protections, in particular those with special protection, may amount to war crimes.  

Gaza, is a small enclave, with a population of 2.2 million people, as such it contains many densely populated areas. Heavy explosive weapons shouldn't be used in these areas, as they will almost certainly result in significant harm to civilians. As of 12 October 2023, there is no safe passage available to civilians in Gaza that wish to flee the violence nor corridors to ensure that humanitarian supplies can get in. Humanitarian access is protected by IHL and both Hamas and Israel are obligated to ensure that the essential humanitarian supplies can reach civilians trapped in Gaza.  

All parties to the conflict must immediately respect their clear legal obligations as set out under international humanitarian law. In addition, the international community must utilize all their available resources and uphold their legal responsibilities to ensure parties to the conflict strictly adhere, as a minimum, to their obligations under IHL. It is essential to initiate efforts immediately to ensure that individuals who violate IHL are held accountable through criminal justice procedures.

UPDATE: 13 October 2023, 10.00am 

The IHL Centre is further gravely concerned by the notification that the Israeli authorities have issued to the northern Gazan population, requesting them to relocate to southern Gaza within 24 hours. Northern Gaza is home to more than 1 million persons. This unrealistic request, set against the backdrop of the siege, carrying potential devastating humanitarian consequences does not change Israel’s legal obligations to respect the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions during attacks, as well as respect those regulating ordered and forcible displacement. Such warnings cannot be misused as a justification to target civilians who choose to stay in the area for any reason, or to use as justification for long term displacement. This rises further concerns in relation to not only war crimes, but other international crimes.