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War In Gaza – Retaliation Or Punishment?

Protesters march through Trafalgar Square in support of Palestine
Protesters march through Trafalgar Square in support of Palestine (photographed by George Moulton)

Treasurer Naz Karadede sets out the extent of the human suffering in Gaza and ponders on the motives behind Israel’s actions in the region.

On Saturday October 7, Hamas launched its biggest attack on Israel in decades, coded ‘Operation Al-Aqsa Flood’. The attacks began at around 6.30 in the morning with the firing of more than 5,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip to towns and cities in central and Southern Israel. Simultaneously, militants also began to infiltrate Israel from Gaza using trucks, pickup trucks, motorcycles and other vehicles, opening fire on civilians and soldiers, and taking hostages including women, children and the elderly.

On the same morning, Hamas terrorists committed a massacre at the Supernova music festival near Re’im, which coincided with the religious Jewish festival of Sukkot. At least 260 people, predominantly young Israelis, were killed and dozens were taken hostage, some of whom have still not been rescued.

Only 5 hours after the attacks began, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel was “at war”, promising that the “enemy would pay an unprecedented price”. Soon enough, the Israeli defence forces launched their counteroffensive operations against Hamas with airstrikes on Gaza, and Israel commenced its response to the attacks.

On October 8, the Israeli Defence Forces imposed a lockdown on the West Bank. The following day, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announced a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip that would cut electricity and block the entry of food and fuel into Gaza. The siege will not cease until the remaining Israeli hostages are released. In the meantime, the bombing of Gaza by Israeli warplanes was intensified.

It is undeniable that the attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians were not and cannot in any way be justified. Hamas has ruthlessly killed Israeli civilians, taking women and children hostage and threatening to execute them. It has deliberately used civilian hostages to target, threaten and take revenge on the Israeli state. It has massacred Israelis on a religiously significant day and ravaged peaceful Israeli communities, called kibbutzim. Reports of the massacre at Kfar Aza, a kibbutz bordering the Gaza Strip, state that entire families, including babies, were murdered by Hamas militants and that victims of the massacre were mercilessly beheaded. By attacking and massacring innocent Israelis, Hamas has committed the gravest of war crimes.

However, hundreds of Palestinian civilians are being killed by the Israeli state as well, and the West seems to be turning a blind eye. More than 1,300 Israelis were killed in the Hamas attacks and up to 200 are being held hostage. As I am writing this article, the death toll in Gaza due to Israeli airstrikes has reached more than 9,000 and more than 15,000 people have been wounded, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. 60% of those who have been wounded and killed are women or children. More than 260,000 people have been displaced.

What’s more is that because of the blockade, the Palestinian people are being deprived of essential food, water, fuel, and medical supplies. The sole power plant in Gaza seized operations on October 11 due to fuel shortages. The city no longer has access to stable electricity or water supplies, and no proper access to the internet. This means that hospitals are unable to operate effectively, so people cannot receive the medical aid that they need. Indeed, according to the UN sexual and reproductive agency, 50,000 pregnant women are unable to access essential health services and clean water in Gaza.

International humanitarian law states that all combatants must protect the lives of civilians in times of war. According to Article 8 of the Geneva Convention of 1949, which Israel is a signatory of, it is prohibited to target civilians or civilian objects during times of war, and parties to the conflict must take all feasible precautions to avoid and minimise civilian casualties. Moreover, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classifies intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as a war crime.

The killing of Israelis by Hamas is a grave violation of both conventions.

However, Israeli authorities have denied that they are committing similar war crimes in Gaza. They have argued that they are merely fulfilling their right to self defence by attacking Gaza and that they are acting in accordance with international law. But how can they be acting according to international law when Palestinian civilians, the majority of whom are women and children, are being killed by the thousands? How is killing Palestinian women and children adhering to international law? And how is it not a war crime to cut off an entire city’s access to food, water, electricity, and medical supplies?

It is indisputable that the Hamas attacks were the gravest of war crimes and should be condemned and punished in accordance with international laws. However, what Israel is doing in Gaza is no short of constituting war crimes and should be treated accordingly. Palestinian civilians, the majority of whom are women and children, are being killed collectively, according to the UN, and indiscriminately, according to Médecins sans Frontières, in airstrikes. Mosques, universities, schools and hospitals have been bombed. Civilians are being deprived of essential supplies they need to survive because of the blockade.

Israeli politicians and Western leaders have reiterated their support of Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. They claim that the Hamas attacks were an act of war against the Israeli state and people and that the Israeli government and military are simply retaliating by attacking Gaza. Civilians are not being deliberately targeted but killed as a result of Israel’s continuing war with Hamas. But it isn’t that simple. Whilst Israel’s war is with Hamas, the Palestinian civilians are the ones who are paying the price.

The bombing of schools, mosque and hospitals, the siege of Gaza and the forced displacement of Palestinians prove not only that the Israeli military and government are indifferent to the loss of civilian life, but that Israel has been reckless towards civilians in its airstrikes on Gaza. This raises the question: is Israel’s war a retaliation for the Hamas attacks or a collective punishment for the Palestinian people? And who are the real victims of Israel’s war? Hamas or Palestinian civilians?

On Friday, Israel issued a warning to the 1.1 million civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate the city within the span of hours in light of its plan to launch a full-scale invasion by air, sea and land. This includes the evacuation of 22 hospitals in northern Gaza, where more than 2,000 patients are being treated. A few hours after the warning was released, Israeli airstrikes allegedly hit a convoy leaving Gaza City, killing 70 civilians, including young children. 

The forced evacuation of Palestinians from their homes and hospitals is not only a death sentence for many Palestinians, but also a war crime under the Geneva Convention, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s General Secretary. Article 18 of the Geneva Convention clearly outlines that civilian hospitals must “at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict”. Similarly, Article 49 prohibits “individual or mass forcible transfers as well as deportations of protected people from the occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power”. Not to mention that Article 57 obliges parties to take the most reasonable precautions they can to protect civilians in air attacks. Whilst Western politicians and leaders were quick to condemn the terrorist attacks by Hamas, few have condemned the collective killing of Palestinian civilians in airstrikes, the forced evacuation of civilians and the blockade of Gaza as war crimes. The calls for ‘restraint’ are insufficient.

Just over a week into the war, it is already on its way to causing the largest humanitarian crisis that the Middle East has seen in decades. And it is only going to escalate from here, as Israel plans to launch a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza. It cannot be denied that the attacks by Hamas were inhumane, unjustifiable and punishable by international law. We must respect the grievances of both sides and accept that both sides have suffered heart-breaking losses. But Palestinian civilians should not be the ones paying for the crimes of Hamas.

UN experts have warned that Israel’s reprisal attacks against in Gaza amount to “collective punishment” which is a clear violation of international humanitarian law. Even if Israel is not deliberately targeting civilians in its attacks, the majority of the victims of Israelis have been Palestinian women and children, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health. Not to mention that the blockade and forced evacuations have primarily harmed the most vulnerable groups in the Palestinian population. Given Israel’s long history of persecuting, displacing and killing Palestinians in the West Bank, and bombing neighbourhoods in Gaza in response to Hamas attacks, one cannot help but wonder whether this war is retaliation or punishment.

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