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War Crimes in Gaza

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May 19, 2021

Why in news?

More than a week into their fourth war, Israel and the Hamas militant group already face allegations of possible war crimes in Gaza.

Which side is breaching the international law??

  • International law prohibits targeting civilians or using indiscriminate force in civilian areas.
  • Israel says Hamas is using Palestinian civilians as human shields, and critics say Israel is using disproportionate force.
  • It is hard to say who is right, especially in the fog of battle.
  • The firing of hundreds of imprecise rockets into Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian groups is fairly clear-cut.
  • But in Gaza, where 2 million people are packed into a narrow coastal strip, the situation is far worrying.

Why is the situation worse in Gaza?

  • Both sides operate in dense, urban terrain because that is all there is.
  • Tight space and intense bombardments is the reality there.
  • So, there are few safe places for Gazans to go.
  • A blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized power in 2007 makes it virtually impossible to leave.

What role does Hamas play?

  • As a grassroots movement, Hamas is deeply embedded in Palestinian society.
  • Its political operation and charities are separate from its secretive armed wing.
  • Israel and Western countries view Hamas as a terrorist organization.
  • But it is also Gaza’s de facto government.
  • It employs tens of thousands of people as civil servants and police.
  • So just being connected to Hamas doesn’t mean someone is a combatant.
  • In fact, there are many in Gaza who oppose the group.
  • But all are equally exposed with nowhere to run.

What are the key violations of international law?

  • Earlier in 2021, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation.
  • This was to look into possible war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militants during the last war, in 2014.
  • Both sides already appear to be using the same tactics in this one.
  • One of them is the urban combat.
  • Palestinian fighters are clearly operating in built-up residential areas.
  • They have positioned tunnels, rocket launchers and command and control infrastructure in close proximity to schools, mosques and homes.
  • This is to benefit from protections afforded to noncombatants during war.
  • Other issues are to do with proportionality and underground army.

What is the issue of proportionality?

  • Israel’s critics often accuse it of the disproportionate use of force.
  • Israel is an undeclared nuclear power, and it is the region’s most powerful military.
  • This is waging war on a militant group armed with little beyond long-range rockets.
  • And the majority of such rockets are intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile defenses.
  • Given this disproportion, as in the past, the toll in the current conflict is dramatically lopsided.
  • At least 200 killed were in Gaza, nearly half of them women and children, and 10 in Israel, all but one of them civilians.
  • Challenges - Proportionality in international law also applies to individual attacks.
  • But, proving a specific attack as disproportionate is extremely difficult.
  • One would need to know what was targeted, what military advantage was gained.
  • It is also to be shown whether it exceeded the harm inflicted on civilians and civilian property.
  • So, in practice, only the most extreme cases are likely to be prosecuted under this.
  • Example - Israel recently bombed a 12-storey building.
  • It housed the Gaza offices of The Associated Press and the Al-Jazeera news network.
  • The military says there was a considerable Hamas presence in the building.
  • But it has provided no evidence.

What is the underground army tactic?

  • The International Committee of the Red Cross defines a combatant as -
  1. someone with a “continuous combat function” (or)
  2. those engaged in combat at the time they are targeted
  • So even if a building were filled with die-hard Hamas supporters, it would not be considered a legitimate target unless they were actively involved in combat operations.
  • Members of Hamas’ armed wing rarely, if ever, wear uniforms or identify themselves in public.
  • They go underground as soon as hostilities begin, along with the political leadership.
  • The vast majority of Hamas supporters are not involved in fighting, which means they are not supposed to be targeted.


Source: The Indian Express

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