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FAQ on the situation in the Gaza Strip: International law is not always humane

Can Israel attack clinics? Does the destruction of Gaza with thousands of civilian casualties constitute a war crime? A look at international law.

Destroyed buildings in clouds of smoke.

Destroyed buildings in Gaza on November 17th Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

The fact that war and killing should be legal is inherently a somewhat human thought. Still, there are rules to war. “International humanitarian law” is intended to protect people who do not take part in hostilities, but allows civilian casualties under certain circumstances. “Strictly speaking, it’s a euphemism,” says Robert Stendel from the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. The term “law of armed conflict” is more appropriate, because even if the “humanitarian” rules are adhered to, a considerable amount of human suffering is permissible.

Is Israel allowed to take clinics?

Hospitals in particular were caught between the fronts in the Gaza war last week. Although they recently became the last refuges for tens of thousands of civilians in the north of the coastal strip, soldiers also broke into the clinics last week. Especially among the largest hospital, the Al-Shifa Clinic, the Israeli army suspects Hamas command posts. Hospitals enjoy special protection during war. However, they can lose this if they are used in such a way that they cause military damage to the opposing side.

“This includes storing weapons or using it as a command center,” says Leon Seidl, also a speaker at the Max Planck Institute. However, not every small weapon or even the treatment of injured fighters would revoke the protected status of a clinic. So far, the evidence published by Israel, which shows, among other things, assault rifles, explosive devices and uniforms, is not sufficient for a final assessment. In addition, even if special protection against an attack is lost, enough time must be allowed for evacuation, says Seidl.

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Civilians, injured people and medical personnel must continue to be protected. “Reports that Israeli soldiers have shelled the Al-Shifa buildings from outside are worrying in this regard.” On the other hand, from what is known so far, the operation inside the clinic appears to have been carried out in a targeted and proportionate manner . According to the army, the searches were carried out in collaboration with medical teams and accompanied by Arabic-speaking soldiers.

Does the Gaza blockade violate international law?

Since the Hamas attack, Israel has largely cut off the Gaza Strip from basic supplies of water, food, electricity and medicine. UN organizations are currently warning of a humanitarian catastrophe given the approximately 1.5 million displaced people. According to Stendel, that alone is not enough to constitute a violation of international law.

The fact that Israel allows aid deliveries, at least to a limited extent, is an indication that it is fulfilling its humanitarian obligations. Excluding fuel to a large extent is at least justifiable, despite the dramatic consequences for the people of Gaza due to possible abuse by Hamas. Ultimately, it must be weighed up with a view to international law: only when the suffering of civilians significantly outweighs the military benefits is a blockade illegal.

Can Israel force mass evacuations in Gaza?

Since the start of the war, around three quarters of Gaza’s population has been forced to leave their homes. Many Palestinians speak of a second “Nakba,” as the mass flight and expulsion when the state of Israel was founded in 1948 is called. According to Stendel, the calls for evacuation are even required under international law because of the dense population of the Gaza Strip.

On the other hand, these calls also came with obligations, for example with regard to the care and protection of refugees. With regard to the humanitarian situation, numerous UN organizations have announced that they will not support the recently widespread calls to clear parts of the southern Gaza Strip. Regardless, a mass evacuation should not lead to permanent displacement, said Stendel. Otherwise, Israel would be violating various human rights obligations.

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