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  • Writer's pictureAlaa Bahnasy

Terror in Gaza: International Humanitarian Law Is Violated in the Name of Fighting Hamas

Editors’ Note: The current Israel-Hamas war is part of a long and complex history. The issue is emotionally and politically charged which makes it all the more difficult to discuss the current situation in a rational and unbiased manner. Recognizing this, we nonetheless consider it important to debate and raise awareness on ongoing events and to provide a platform for diverse perspectives. In doing so we seek to be as reflexive, objective, and critical as possible while taking a firm stand against all forms of discrimination and injustice – racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or otherwise. If you think that there is a mistake or problematic statement in our content, we are always open to feedback which you can send to us through our contact form.

Quoted from Reuters: “In Gaza's deadliest day, hospital strike kills about 500!” Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in the center of Gaza City was sheltering thousands of people when an attack on October 17 killed more than 500 of them, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The blast at the hospital has sparked outrage and controversy. Palestinian authorities were quick to condemn Israel for the attack while Israel denied all involvement claiming that a projectile fired by the Islamic Jihad had hit the hospital. Meanwhile, efforts to establish the details of what has happened and to determine who is responsible have so far been inconclusive.

Yet, what the attack highlights is that even though the war is described by many, including the Israeli government, as one between Israel and Hamas, vast numbers of Palestinian civilians bear the brunt of this war. The World Health Organization said the attack on the hospital was “unprecedented in its scale”. It said earlier on Tuesday there had been 115 attacks on healthcare facilities in Gaza and the majority of its hospitals were not functioning. In a sort of context, between October 7 and October 12, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on the area, which is densely populated. This amount is equal to all bombings carried out on Gaza throughout the 2014 Gaza War. Additionally, Israel’s military instructed the 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza on October 13 to leave their homes right away, possibly in anticipation of a ground attack.

“A Textbook Case of Genocide”

The Israeli military has conducted airstrikes in Gaza as part of what they label the "Israel-Hamas war," claiming they are targeting Hamas militants. The Israeli authorities, condemning Hamas as a terrorist group, legitimize under this all acts of escalation and violence against civilians. In other words, Israel is attacking civilian Palestinians who are used as human shields by Hamas (as described by the IDF) to be able to reach and eliminate Hamas factors from within. The UN has issued warnings of “a new instance of mass ethnic cleansing and a risk of genocide of the Palestinian people.

In Jewish Currents, associate professor of Holocaust and genocide (Stockton University) Raz Segal writes:

“Israel’s campaign to displace Gazans – and potentially expel them altogether into Egypt – is yet another chapter in the Nakba [...] But the assault on Gaza can also be understood in other terms: as a textbook case of genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.”

Acts such as the intensification of the siege of Gaza, the large-scale bombing of the territory – including the use of phosphorus bombs – and the displacement of more than a million Palestinians living in Gaza could also fall under the definition of genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Elements of Crimes. Article 6 (a), (b) & (c) describes Genocide by killing, Genocide by causing serious bodily or mental harm, and Genocide by deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction respectively.

The actions of the Israeli government and military might also fall under the conditions under Article 7 (1) (a), (d) & (f) describing Crime against humanity of murder, Crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer of population and Crime against humanity of torture (see Amnesty International and Al Jazeera) respectively. On the war crimes section, Netanyahu and the Israeli military might be accused of the crimes listed under Article 8 (2) (c) (i)-1, (e) (i), (e) (viii): War Crime of murder, War Crime of attacking civilians, and War Crime of displacing civilians. While Israel does not recognize the ICC, Palestine does. Thus, any potential violation of international law that takes place on Palestinian territory falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC enabling them to investigate and prosecute.

Along with their actions, the Israeli government and military officials’ discourse reflects a flagrant disregard for the protection of civilians and international humanitarian law. Upon ordering the “complete siege” of Gaza – which affects the entire Palestinian population located there rather than merely Hamas – defense minister Yoav Gallant stated that “[w]e are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” This strategy seems to include the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza with, as army spokesperson Daniel Hagari put it, an emphasis “on damage not accuracy” which puts civilians and places such as hospitals and safe zones that are protected under international humanitarian law in harm's way thus constituting a violation of the same.

This collective condemnation and punishment of Palestinians is reflected in national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s statement that “[a]s long as Hamas does not release the hostages in its hands - the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tons of explosives from the Air Force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid.” Although the Israeli government maintains that it has no intent of expelling Palestinians from Gaza, some far-right members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party hold a different view. Knesset member Ariel Kallner goes so far as to announce on social media: “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!”

State Terrorism

Israel’s retaliation against Hamas in Gaza undoubtedly spreads terror in the name of counter-terrorism and self-defense. In light of the skyrocketing number of civilian casualties and the number of allegations of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law against Israel, one might wonder if Israeli authorities are in fact not so different from that which they claim to fight.

Definitions of terrorism tend to be as complex as they are controversial particularly since there is no universal legal definition of the concept. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, terrorism is defined as:

“a method of coercion that utilizes or threatens to utilize violence in order to spread fear and thereby attain political or ideological goals. It is when A attacks B, to convince or coerce C to change its position regarding some action or policy desired by A. The attack spreads fear as the violence is directed, unexpectedly, against innocent victims, which in turn puts pressure on third parties to change their policy or position.”

Applying the concept to the actions of states is further complicated by a general absence of recognition of the very possibility of states committing acts of terrorism, and illegitimate use of violence by states being usually considered violations of international humanitarian law. In Rethinking Terrorism (2015), Colin Wight states that “[t]he state is a condition of possibility for terrorism, not a perpetrator of it” and argues that adding state terrorism to existing frameworks to states’ illegitimate use of violence complicates rather than aids such matters. In this regard, he clearly distinguishes between terror and terrorism.

However, attorney at law James P. Terry qualifies the notion that a conceptualization of state terrorism is not needed due to existing international legal frameworks as “unrealistic” and there are efforts – predominantly within academic research – to understand state violence through the lens of terrorism. International Relations scholar David Claridge (University of St. Andrews) argues that state terrorism is “in its psychological functions and basic methods of operations [...] essentially the same as anti-state terrorism, although actual tactics might differ.”

One defining aspect of state as well as non-state terrorism for Clardige is that it takes place outside a military context. This war, declared by Israel to start “Operation Swords of Iron,” involves not only attacking what it claims are Hamas and Islamic Jihad sites in Gaza but goes to the extent of cutting off the flow of water and fuel supplies to the Gazan populace. Israel has imposed a “complete siege” on Gaza, preventing the delivery of electricity, food, gasoline, and water. The siege does not end here but extends to the level of banning the entry of aid sent from neighboring countries and closing the way in front of them like what has happened at the Rafah crossing and holding up aid trucks at the border.

The question here is: What has the targeting of civilians and blocking of humanitarian aid to do with fighting Hamas? More than a war, it has all the appearance of a genocide or ethnic cleansing which is defined by the United Nations Commission of Experts as "… rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area." Palestinian people are witnessing what can be classified as crimes against humanity, and which can be assimilated to specific war crimes according to international law.

In light of this, Global Human Rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of using white phosphorus munitions in Gaza and Lebanon, in violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which lays down the responsibilities of states and non-state groups in an armed conflict. Linking these aspects to Claridge’s definition of state terrorism, it can be argued that the situation fulfills the first criterion for (state) terrorism: The collective punishment of the Gazan people for Hamas’s attack on Israel takes place outside a military context as the targets are unarmed civilians.

Claridge further argues that beyond being deliberate, an act of violence needs to be systematic, particularly in its aim to incite terror and fear so as to achieve specific goals, to qualify as terrorism. Israel is engaging in “displacement and exile” by ordering Palestinians to evacuate southwards. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Friday that Palestinian civilians “who want to save their lives” must heed Israel’s warning to evacuate southward from Gaza. Concerns have been raised regarding the intentions of displacing Palestinians to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. This evacuation order is not only an act of “psychological warfare” aimed at breaking Palestinian solidarity but also a violation of the neighboring states’ sovereignty without any mutual agreement or regional talks that could eventually lead to a wider regional conflict that no side would prefer.

While it is generally challenging to infer deliberation and systematic application of actions with an explicit intention to provoke fear, it is undeniable that along with the intensity of airstrikes, evacuation orders that displace more than a million people and invoke the generational trauma of the 1948 Nakba create a sense of terror among the civilian population. What provides evidence of a possible intent to provoke this effect, are the statements issued by Israeli officials that call for a new Nakba as well as for military action without any regard for the harm done to civilians.

Finally, acts of terrorism seek to provoke a response from groups beyond the immediate victims. Also, related to intent, this aspect provides another challenge. Clear is that Israel’s military offensives take a heavy toll on Palestinian civilians while the official target remains Hamas. If the Israeli government intends to target Hamas through the Palestinian population, this third criterion of state terrorism would be fulfilled. However, if civilians are indeed not a target but accepted by Israel’s leadership as collateral damage, or if the war against Hamas is merely a justification of genocide, the definition would not hold. As Claridge explains: “[...] states may slaughter entire political, religious or ethnic groups, again without the specific intention of placing other groups in terror; this is genocide.”

The International Community Must Prioritize Humanity

The situation in Palestine has become a humanitarian crisis that involves legally prohibited acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. The only way out of this is changing the perception of how we look at it, it is not “War on Terror”, it is terrifying, killing and displacing civilians and much worse blocking the world’s aid and assistance to them. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine says that if a state is unable to protect its own populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” then the international community must do something. The international community must consider, while witnessing the events and judging both sides, the definition of terrorism, answers to questions on blocking humanitarian aid and cutting off basic supplies, qualifications of crimes according to international law, and threatening sovereignty by calling to withdraw the dispute to an adjacent land in an indirect way and pushing the world to a Third World War. Based on this, the international community should make its rational choice and prioritize humanity overall.

Written by Alaa Bahnasy.

Cover photo by Mohammed Ibrahim.


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