Nine days into Israel’s war on Gaza and Pope Francis made a speech at the Holy See that triggered Tel Aviv. “Humanitarian law is to be respected, especially in Gaza,” he said. “Please, let no more innocent blood be shed, neither in the Holy Land nor in Ukraine nor in any other place.”
Not only was Pope Francis indirectly accusing Israel of violating international humanitarian law in its war on Gaza, he also drew attention to Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine and the latter’s right to defend itself with Western support. As the US, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK align themselves with Israel, supplying it with the most sophisticated weaponry that exists in its war on Gaza, it is an analogy that the Palestinians have also repeatedly made.
Israel, predictably, protested. How could the pope express worry “primarily” for Gazan civilians when Israel is burying 1,300 people who were murdered, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was quoted as saying, according to a statement by his ministry.
“There’s no room for unfounded comparisons,” intoned Cohen. “Hamas, a terrorist organisation worse than ISIS, invaded Israel with the intention of harming innocent civilians while Israel is a democracy that is trying to defend its citizens from Hamas.”
The Israeli narrative, which reserves condemnation for Palestinians and restricts empathy solely for “Jews” and “Israelis”, has been eagerly adopted by Western capitals, extending their complicity with Israel in undermining international humanitarian law, say legal experts.
While comparing the Palestinians with Ukraine may be unwelcome in Western capitals, it is a comparison that aid agencies grappling with the unfolding horror of Israel’s heavy bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip have also invoked to highlight the gravity of the humanitarian situation.
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Tuesday, more than 1,030 Palestinian children in Gaza had been killed by Israel since 7 October, according to the Palestinian chapter of Defence for Children International (DCI) organisation.
“In nine days, the Israeli military has killed twice as many kids in Gaza than Russia has killed in Ukraine in nearly two years of war,” said DCI-Palestine.
International rights groups and present and former UN officials are among the growing number of voices that accuse Israel of committing war crimes that include genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Any or all of these qualify it to be the subject of a serious probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC), experts say.
Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Palestine and Israel director, urged the ICC Office of the Prosecutor to accelerate its formal probe into crimes committed in Palestine which was initiated in 2019 but has not moved forward since.
The ICC’s first reaction to the war came on 10 October in a brief statement confirming that its mandate applies to the current conflict and adding that it is “continuously gathering information” in support of the probe. It had come under fire for its silence over the war which had dominated world news since 7 October.
“The ICC prosecutor sent a team of investigators to Ukraine to document and investigate war crimes as soon as the war started,” Sarah Leah Whitson, former executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, said on Twitter. But over a week into this war ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan “has yet to utter a word regarding the ICC’s active investigation in Palestine”.
After cutting off water, electricity, fuel, and all other essential supplies to Gaza on 9 October, Israeli forces ordered 1.1 million Palestinians in north Gaza to move to the south within 24 hours as it continued to pound the enclave.
This “amounts to ethnic cleansing”, said Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Mass forced displacement of Palestinians occurred in 1947-49 and in 1967 and has continued ever since, she added. “This time it risks being as cruel as ever, under our watch, with some [UN] member states even enabling it,” Albanese said in reference to the US and other allies of Israel.
Both HRW and Amnesty International say their investigations have verified that the Israeli army has used white phosphorus in Gaza and South Lebanon. The internationally prohibited chemical has an incendiary effect that can set civilian infrastructure, even fields, aflame. Upon contact, white phosphorus burns people, thermally and chemically, down to the bone.
“The use of white phosphorus in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, magnifies the risk to civilians and violates the international humanitarian law prohibition on putting civilians at unnecessary risk,” HRW said.
As tens of thousands began to evacuate their homes earlier this week, Israeli air strikes hit civilians fleeing south, repeatedly shelling ambulances and paramedics attempting to rescue survivors or unearth bodies from beneath the rubble of residential buildings.
An investigation by Amnesty International’s research team found that a convoy, including a truck carrying around 30 people, eight cars, and others on foot nearby, including women, children, and people with disabilities, was attacked. Ambulances arriving at the scene were hit in a second attack and rescuers injured. At least 70 died. The attack occurred on a road that the Israeli army had declared was one of just two safe evacuation routes.
Israel also demanded the evacuation of hospitals. While some complied, others could not, finding it impossible to move babies in incubators and hundreds of wounded civilians, many in critical condition, in the absence of medical supplies.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) — which described the situation in Gaza as a matter of “life or death” — says four hospitals in north Gaza are no longer functioning as a result of bombing and 21 hospitals in Gaza have received instructions from Israeli forces to evacuate. “Forced evacuation of hospitals may amount to a violation of international humanitarian law,” WHO said in a statement on 15 October.
Israel also cut the Internet in Gaza. Its population of 2.2 million is now reeling from dehydration, lack of food and a total news blackout as Israel continues its vengeful bombardment and, according to international rights groups, indiscriminate killing of civilians. Israeli strikes have killed more than 3,500 Palestinians and wounded 12,500 in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry.
On Monday, Spain’s Social Rights Minister Lone Belarra accused Israel of carrying out “a planned genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza. The minister said her party has formally asked the Spanish government to file a petition with the ICC to investigate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for possible war crimes in Palestine.
The enclave has been under a strict air, sea, and land blockade imposed by Israel for 17 years. Its only gateway to the world is via the Rafah border crossing to Egypt which Israel jointly controls, determining who and what enters or exits Gaza. Israel has continued to occupy Gaza in various forms since the 1967 War, even when it came under the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction in 1993. While Israel denies it occupies Gaza, the fact it controls access of all supplies to the Strip renders its denials meaningless, say experts.
“Starvation as a tool of war… cutting off water, electricity, and fuel is collective punishment which is a war crime under international law,” says Shakir, HRW Palestine and Israel director.
“Gazans have been living under constant occupation for half a century,” Shakir added. The majority of Gaza’s residents are descendants of refugees forcibly displaced from their homes in historic Palestine in 1948.
“Palestinians live a reality of apartheid and persecution,” he continued. “It’s important to underscore the extent to which we are seeing significant violations of international law. And the rhetoric of the Israeli government has made it very clear that they’re going to punish the entire population, signalling clear criminal intent to commit large scale atrocities.”
US-led sanctioning of these violations of international law, Shakir suggested, poses a threat that even exceeds the mass atrocities currently being committed by Israel in Gaza. Israel’s decades-long flagrant disregard for international law “undermines the entire international order”.
“When calls for accountability and respect for international law are not adhered to formally, you undermine the entire system,” he warned.
“I don’t mean to be alarmist or extreme, but when there is such flagrant disregard for these norms, when we see thousands of people, children and others being killed, it’s a risk to all of us.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly