Gaza is under constant blockade and subject to multiple airstrikes every day — with little regard for avoiding civilian harm. This is a breach of international humanitarian law, which places specific legal imperatives on combatants not only during war but also as occupying forces after war. In this article, Professor of Humanitarian Studies Dorothea Hilhorst critically discusses Israel’s responsibilities in its role as a combatant, as an occupying force, and as a neighbouring country.
International humanitarian law (IHL) has suddenly become a very popular phrase in political discourse. The Dutch government, in its support of Israel, notes that it expects the country to uphold ‘international humanitarian law’ (sometimes referred to as ‘the law of international war’). These conventions and laws cover various aspects of how a country can act during combat, for example around questions of whether Israel can target civilian infrastructure if it is located above a Hamas tunnel. More specifically, though, IHL relates to strengthening and maintaining humanitarian help for civilians.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic. Within the space of just a few days, around one million elderly people, men, women, and children have been driven from their homes. Around half of these people have sought shelter in a UN building, for example a UNWRA school, which are now so overcrowded that most people sleep outside on the street. There is less and less food, and water has had to be limited to under one liter per person per day — for those that are lucky to get anything at all. Operations and medical treatments are no longer being carried out, or if they are it is without anesthetic.
At the same time, there is a huge queue of trucks waiting at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. These are full of humanitarian aid supplies: medicines, fuel, and food. At the time of writing, 20 trucks have been allowed in Gaza, but that is far short of the minimum of 100 trucks needed on a daily basis. Other than that, the border between this convoy and the people of Gaza remains closed, with the WHO saying that the supplies could help doctors at medical institutions operate on 1,500 people daily — if they reach the people of Gaza in time. It is Israel that holds the key to unlocking this aid, with the border deemed unsafe (and so kept closed) due to rocket attacks and air strikes. Last week dozens of people were killed in such strikes at the border.
It is usual to speak of and work towards ‘humanitarian corridors’ during conflicts, i.e. specific routes that are safe for people to evacuate through, or for aid to travel via. Under IHL, combatants in war are required to work towards creating and maintaining these corridors. This, and much of IHL, is based on the principle that citizens are innocent during conflicts and that civilian deaths should be avoided at all costs. This principle applies both to minimizing civilian death from combat and also maximizing access for life-saving humanitarian aid. Israel has stated it maintains Gaza under siege to avoid aid being captured by Hamas. However, this fear cannot be a reason to abandon Gazanian civilians and let them perish. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffith commented on Wednesday that humanitarian access and help have become a question of life and death, that withholding help can cost countless innocent lives.
Israel has various legal responsibilities both as a combatant and as an occupying force (both Gaza and the West Bank are occupied territories and have been since 1967). Marco Sassoli, an internationally renowned expert in IHL at the University of Geneva, has made it clear that Israel’s blocking and cutting off of electricity, water, aid, and food from Gaza since October 9 is in clear breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention, which Israel has signed. The 1949 Convention makes clear that an occupying force cannot collectively punish civilians, whilst it also specifically requires an occupying force to maintain medical systems such as hospitals. Then, we must look at Israel’s role as a neighbour — with a moral imperative to allow access and open borders to humanitarian assistance — whilst the border between Israel and Gaza remains hermetically sealed.
It is not clear how much pressure various countries are putting on Israel behind the scenes to open the Rafah border crossing (and other borders), but it is time for this pressure to be reflected in public statements that condemn the withholding of humanitarian aid and directly state that preventing humanitarian help breaches international humanitarian law.
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About the author:
Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.
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