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Alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law in the Israel-Palestine conflict: a simple explainer

United Nations officials are investigating possible war crimes committed by both Israeli forces and Palestinian groups, including Hamas, following violations of international humanitarian law in recent conflicts. This short explainer aims to give context and background to that investigation.

UN Raises Concerns Over Potential War Crimes in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

United Nations investigators have raised the spectre of potential war crimes in the ongoing hostilities between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas. Since the escalation of violence on October 7th, actions on both sides have come under scrutiny for alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a body of rules aimed at limiting the effects of armed conflict.

Scope of International Humanitarian Law (IHL):

IHL, rooted in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary international law, is designed to safeguard civilians and those no longer active in combat, such as surrendered soldiers, and to restrict weaponry and combat tactics. Its provisions, which are binding on all states and non-state armed groups in a conflict, prohibit indiscriminate attacks, targeting civilians, and collective punishment, regardless of reciprocal actions or military disparities.

Allegations Against Israeli and Palestinian Combatants:

Israeli Military Tactics: Criticism has mounted against Israel for tactics that appear to subject the civilian population of Gaza to collective punishment. The protracted blockade and recurrent airstrikes, which have led to high civilian casualties, especially among children, have prompted calls for investigations by international organizations. Reports indicate that since October 7th, Israeli operations have resulted in over 8,400 Palestinian fatalities, raising questions about the proportionality and discrimination of these attacks.

Use of Prohibited Weapons: There are also serious allegations that Israel has employed white phosphorus, a substance with devastating effects on human tissue, in densely populated areas of Gaza. Such use in civilian areas could contravene IHL due to the indiscriminate suffering it causes.

Palestinian Armed Groups’ Conduct: On the Palestinian side, armed groups stand accused of war crimes for the intentional targeting of Israeli civilians, the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israeli territories, and the usage of human shields. These actions breach the cardinal rules of IHL and have resulted in approximately 1,400 Israeli deaths reported by the government since the conflict’s resurgence.

Occupation and Settlement Issues: The UN report also reiterates the longstanding international view that Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the displacement of civilians, potentially constitute war crimes. Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the UN maintains that Israel’s effective control over the area continues, with obligations under IHL to provide for the basic needs of the population.

Accountability Measures:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been identified as a potential avenue for prosecuting severe violations like war crimes and genocide. Despite Israel’s contention that the ICC lacks jurisdiction and questions surrounding Palestine’s statehood, the ICC’s mandate has garnered considerable international support. Palestine’s accession to the ICC in 2015 and subsequent calls for investigation into Israeli settlements underscore the gravity of the situation.

Human Rights Dimensions:

The extensive duration of the Israeli occupation has brought additional scrutiny under international human rights law. Both the Israeli government and Palestinian governing bodies, including Hamas as the de facto authority in Gaza, bear the responsibility to uphold the human rights of the populations under their control. Allegations of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians have been leveled by rights groups, adding layers of complexity to the legal and moral framework governing the conflict.

Call for Legal Clarity and Action:

In light of the ongoing investigation by the ICC and mounting evidence collected by human rights organizations, there is a pressing call for clear statements from legal authorities on the applicability of international law to the current situation. The objective is to signal that any entities, irrespective of their political or military stature, found responsible for war crimes may face legal repercussions. The pursuit of accountability is viewed as a crucial step toward halting the cycle of violence and upholding the principles of international law.

In conclusion, the UN’s continued effort to gather evidence and document these potential infractions underscores the importance of adhering to the established rules of war. The international community awaits further developments, as the imperative for accountability and a just resolution remains paramount.