Since the onset of the ground invasion of Gaza 10 days ago the total Palestinian death toll has risen to 1,058 after 147 bodies were recovered from ruined buildings over the past day (28 July 2014). Israel also announced that another soldier was killed, bringing its total military losses to 43. To this one should add the three civilians that have been killed in Israel by rockets fired from Gaza.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has released a report showing that 218 children – some as young as three months old – have been killed in Gaza, and children comprise 21 per cent of the Palestinian killed to date. Many people in Gaza, Israel and the world are horrified by the death of civilians during the conflict. No one should be surprised about this outcome; armed conflict inevitably results in death, and not just the death of soldiers, but also of civilians. However, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Israeli governments have been guilty of serious human rights violations for some time prior to this latest renewal of armed hostilities.
In 2009, the U.N. Human Rights Committee (“HRC”) commissioned a fact-finding mission to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009. The fact-finding mission (known as the “Goldstone Report”) found Israel liable for several violations during the 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict. Specifically, the mission found violations of the: (1) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), (2) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (3) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, (4) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“CAT”), (5) Convention on the Rights of the Child, and (6) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Hamas, the Islamist political party that holds the majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament, and notoriously hostile toward Israel, has been designated by the European Union, the United States, and Israel, a terrorist organization. It has been estimated that 1,750 rockets and 1,528 mortar bombs were fired from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip against communities in southern Israel in 2008 alone. Hamas’s leadership in Gaza has led to a substantial increase in hostilities toward Israel. Since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Fatah, Palestine Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Resistance Committees have indiscriminately launched more than 6,000 mortar bombs and rockets on Israel. With no more than a handful of possible exceptions, virtually all the attacks have been on civilian targets as much of the artillery used has little or no guidance or military targeting.
Palestinian and Israeli attacks in Gaza clearly violate many provisions of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. In fact, the attacks violate one of the most basic rules of international humanitarian law: the rule of distinction, which requires combatants to aim all their attacks at legitimate targets—enemy combatants or objects that contribute to enemy military actions. Violations of the rule of distinction constitute war crimes. One of the corollaries of the rule of distinction is a ban on the use of weapons that are not aimed at legitimate targets. The weapons being used by both sides have been launched in areas where civilian casualties were likely and should have been expected. Such indiscriminate attacks clearly violate international humanitarian law (i.e. the laws of war).
The Palestinian attacks must also be seen as terrorist attacks under a related international convention: the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings. This convention makes it a crime to bomb public places (such as city streets) with the intent to kill civilians. This Convention relates to bombings carried out by persons that are non-nationals of the state of which the victims are nationals. Also under this Convention, the Palestinian attackers are considered international terrorists.
To expect or even suggest that a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible might be idealistic and perhaps even unrealistic at this juncture. However, doesn’t the international organization in charge of monitoring compliance with human rights law have certain obligations to innocent civilians dying as a result of the conflict? What could the United Nations do on behalf of the civilians who are stuck in the crossfire of this seemingly never-ending conflict? Is the United Nations stuck by the politics of the Security Council composed by nations concerned with their own political interests? Is the UN losing credibility as an international organization when it allows human rights violations such as the ones occurring in Syria, Gaza, South Sudan, Central Republic of Africa, Nigeria, Ukraine, etc.?