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Starvation in Gaza likely key to UK legal advice on war crimes

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Emma Graham-Harrison



srael has faced questions about whether its war on Hamas inside Gaza broke international law ever since the first few days of the – campaign, when it cut off all food, water and fuel shipments to the enclave.

As the scale of death, – destruction and human suffering escalated, – concerns hardened into warnings that Israel risked committing war crimes, including from key allies. In January, the UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, said he was “worried” Israel may have breached international law.

Israeli attacks have killed more than 32,000 people, the majority women and children. Most residents have fled their homes, and – shortages of food, clean water and healthcare are so severe that children are dying of malnutrition.

Accusations that Israel is committing war crimes mostly centre on the protection of civilians. There are also concerns about the treatment of detainees, who include suspected Hamas members.

Israel has been accused of blocking aid shipments, and of collective punishment, as a result of controls on getting humanitarian supplies into Gaza and around the strip.

In bombing campaigns and during ground operations, the Israeli military has been accused of carrying out disproportionate attacks, indiscriminate targeting and mass destruction of civilian infrastructure. Satellite images suggest over half of all buildings in Gaza have probably been damaged or destroyed.

It has been accused of forced – displacement and failure to – protect civilians who do not comply with evacuation orders, even though choosing to stay does not end – civilians’ right to protection under international law. Israeli forces have been accused of abusingdetainees and killing unarmed people, including three Israeli hostages who had escaped captivity; both are illegal even if the individuals targeted are thought to be combatants.

Israeli public – figures, including politicians and journalists, have been accused of incitement to genocide, including in a letter to judicial authorities, signed by prominent Israeli intellectuals, politicians and former diplomats.

Sometimes a single action or set of actions can constitute more than one crime. Blocking food aid violates requirements for soldiers to meet basic needs of civilians in areas they control, and amounts to collective punishment of a civilian population.

Israel says it is fighting a war of self-defence against a brutal enemy bent on destroying the state, after Hamas militants killed 1,200 people on 7 October in cross-border attacks, the majority civilians, and took over 250 people hostage to Gaza. It denies blocking aid, saying any shortages are a result of logistics failures by humanitarian organisations or Hamas diverting supplies.

It says the military goes to great lengths to warn civilians to – evacuate areas where it plans campaigns, sometimes hindering its forces and putting troops at risk.

Attacks on civilian infrastructure are unavoidable, the Israeli – military says, because Hamas uses these structures – including hospitals and schools – to hide military infrastructure and treats Palestinians as human shields for its fighters.

The UN said that Hamas’s indiscriminate killing of non-combatants on 7 October and taking of – hostages broke international law. Other war crimes accusations against the group include using rape as a weapon of war, indiscriminate – firing of rockets at civilian areas in Israel, and using civilians and – civilian buildings as human shields during the conflict.

The laws of war are binding even when an enemy breaks them, however. Crimes committed by Hamas do not diminish Israel’s responsibility to protect civilians during its campaign to destroy the group.

And while Israel’s choice of – targets is likely to be argued over in international courts, the shortage of basic supplies – particularly food – in a territory where Israel controls all the borders, and its forces – dominate the ground, is much harder to defend.

Most recently, the international court of justice ordered Israel to allow unimpeded access of food aid into Gaza, saying “famine is setting in”, in a significant legal rebuke to Israel’s claim it is not blocking aid deliveries.

“The clearest case of violation of international humanitarian law is the issue of aid,” said Tara Van Ho, associate professor at Essex University’s Law School and Human Rights Centre.

“This is collective punishment because Israel is effectively saying that by virtue of being Palestinian, everyone living in Gaza is implicated in what Hamas does. And they are facing starvation as a consequence.”

Van Ho also said the scale of Israel’s attacks in Gaza might make it harder for the country to defend how it has conducted the war.

“There are legitimate defences that Israel has, but with attacks and destruction of civilian objects on the scale that we’re seeing in Gaza, a lot of those defences become more questionable,” she said.

“They can maybe justify a large number of civilian deaths on a one-off basis, that a particular strike happened to be an error. Or that targeting a hospital or a school or a university or a mosque was necessary, and the attack was proportionate. But you can’t justify it on the scale that we’re seeing and with the constant nature of what we’re seeing.”

Some experts are pushing for the large-scale destruction of homes and civilian infrastructure in Gaza to be recognised as a collective crime, of “domicide”, much as the term genocide recognises the collective impact of many individual war crimes.


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