In Gaza, Israel is normalising war crimes

Nidal Eissa stands on ruins of the Said al-Mishal Institute for Culture and Science after it was bombed by Israel on August 9.

Gaza’s fuel crisis remained unresolved a week after a United Nations humanitarian official warned on August 8 that hospitals and water sanitation facilities would soon shut down as a result.

“Despite our continued engagement with the concerned bodies, we have not encountered any preparations to contain the fuel crisis that threatens health services and facilities in the Gaza Strip,” the health ministry in the territory stated on August 13.

Six human rights groups urgently petitioned Israel’s high court on August 9 to reverse all restrictions on the movement of goods through Gaza’s sole commercial crossing, which is controlled by Israel.

Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza last month, banning imports to and exports from the territory with the exception, at its discretion, of food and medicine.

Gisha, one of the groups petitioning Israel’s high court, noted: “Gaza's devastated economy is almost entirely dependent on the operation of the Israeli-controlled crossing”. It added the new sanctions “threaten an already delicate humanitarian situation”.

The tightened blockade is a new disaster for Gaza’s economy, all but destroyed after 11 years of siege and successive full-scale military assaults. Unemployment had soared beyond 50% even before the new ban on the movement of goods.

Collective punishment

The ban on exports and imports is a form of collective punishment that Israel has admitted is “intended to mount pressure on Hamas in response to incendiary kites and balloons being launched from Gaza,” Gisha said.

“Collective punishment of the civilian population for actions that are beyond its control is both immoral and illegal, further propelling Gaza toward a foreseeable humanitarian disaster,” Gisha added. Collective punishment is a violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In 2010, the International Committee of the Red Cross affirmed that Israel’s blockade on Gaza — imposed after Hamas won legislative elections and began administering the internal affairs of the territory in 2007 — “constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law”.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the high court ordered the state to respond to the petition by August 11.

Citing a report by a Gaza manufacturers association, Haaretz added that the continued closure of the commercial crossing would result in the folding of hundreds of companies.

Mulling assassinations

Haaretz reported on August 12 that Israel was prepared to assassinate senior Hamas figures in Gaza in response to the Great March of Return protests held along the eastern perimeter of the territory since March 30.

Israel has killed more than 125 Palestinians during the Great March of Return demonstrations, and 50 more men, women and children in Gaza in other circumstances since that date.

On August 13, Israel’s defence minister Avigdor Lieberman  made the outlandish claim that every Palestinian killed by Israel in Gaza since March 30 was a member of Hamas — an assertion later rescinded by his office.

Lieberman’s claim is demonstrably untrue. Those killed have included a pregnant woman and her toddler daughter sleeping in their home when it was hit in an airstrike, as well as 23 children, some as young as 11, gunned down during protests.

It also has no bearing on the legality of Israel’s actions, human rights groups have previously said.

In July, Lieberman inadvertently confirmed that he makes no distinction between civilians and combatants killed during the ongoing crackdown on popular protests. “There are 159 dead terrorists, there are some 5,000 wounded,” he claimed.

The principle of distinction between civilians and combatants is the first rule of international humanitarian law governing armed conflict.

Lieberman’s statements could therefore potentially be viewed as evidence of intent to commit war crimes by International Criminal Court prosecutors currently examining the situation in Gaza.

Lies and threats

Lieberman previously claimed without basis that Yaser Murtaja, a journalist who was wearing a flak jacket marked with the word “PRESS” when he was shot dead by an Israeli sniper on April 6, was a high-ranking member of Hamas’ military wing who used drones to collect intelligence on Israeli forces.

The International Federation of Journalists accused Israel of “fabricating lies to justify murder”.

Lieberman reportedly stated at the end of an August 13 meeting with the Israeli army chief of staff and other military and intelligence officials: “I want to thank the determined commanders and soldiers, who are infused with the spirit of battle and do holy work for the sake of ensuring the security of Israel’s citizens.”

He also declared Israel’s intent to inflict further violence on Gaza after pounding the territory in more than 150 strikes earlier this month.

“The question of the next round is not a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when’. I am sure that we will do what is necessary, the way it needs to be done,” he said, according to Israeli media.

The military reportedly seeks to defer a full confrontation until at least the end of next year, when an “above- and below-ground obstacle” along Gaza’s perimeter is due to be completed.

Haaretz reported that “completion of the barrier will be the most important strategic event on the Gaza front, a senior defense official recently told a closed forum”.

Such a calculation further demonstrates that any future major assault on Gaza will be another of Israel’s wars of choice aimed at maintaining Israeli ascendancy through the violent, permanent subjugation of millions of Palestinians.

Last month Lieberman indicated that Israel would once again target civilians in any new major operation to exact political concessions from Hamas.

“Unfortunately, residents of Gaza will be among those who will have to pay the price,” the defence minister stated.

Israel targeted civilian infrastructure during its bombing campaign in Gaza last week.

Cultural centre bombed, medic shot

Drones and warplanes struck a building housing the Said al-Mishal Institute for Culture and Science and the Egyptian delegation in Gaza with several missiles on August 9, obliterating the five-story structure.

Al Mezan, a human rights group based in Gaza, said that at least 24 people were injured during the airstrikes, among them four children, four women and a journalist. Nearby buildings sustained substantial damage.

According to Al Mezan, the Said al-Mishal Institute was “founded in 1996 to promote cultural development by providing space, resources, and opportunities for creative children and young people in Gaza”.

It opened a cultural centre in 2004 featuring “a theatre, conference hall, library and digital library, research and study centre and computer labs”, as well as art exhibition galleries.

“A cultural centre is civilian property enjoying protection under international humanitarian law, as in Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” Al Mezan stated.

Cultural sites are also protected under the Hague Convention and the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, “whereby making cultural property the object of retaliatory attacks is prohibited, and under the principles set out by UNESCO,” Al Mezan added.

“The unnecessary destruction of the cultural centre, which affords Israel no military gain, points to an act of retaliation,” according to the rights group.

Noting that “attacks on civilian targets have become a feature of Israel’s military engagement in the Gaza Strip,” Al Mezan added that such attacks “must not become normalised”.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has reiterated its call for the protection of health workers, patients and health facilities following the killing of a medic during the August 10 Great March of Return protests.

Abdallah al-Qatati, 22, was a volunteer medic providing care to a 55-year-old man who had been shot when he too came under fire. Both al-Qatati and the injured patient he was treating, Ali Said al-Aloul, died from their injuries.

The third medic killed during the Great March of Return demonstrations, al-Qatati was in the final year of his psychology degree at a Gaza City university.

Since January he had been volunteering with Nabd al-Hayat (Pulse of Life), providing first aid training and mental health and psychosocial support around Rafah in southern Gaza, according to the World Health Organization.

Al-Qatati and Nabd al-Hayat had been volunteering as first responders since the outset of the Great March of Return demonstrations.

He “liked to be photographed in his white coat, and his colleagues say he was proud of the work he was doing and the service he could offer to his community”, the World Health Organisation said.

[Abridged from Electronic Intifada.]