16 January 2009
At approximately 10:00 pm on Wednesday, 14 January 2009, artillery shells began landing in close proximity to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) compound as Israeli military forces
shelled targets in Gaza City. The facility is the main UNRWA storage warehouse in the Gaza Strip for humanitarian goods desperately needed by the tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians. Last week, this compound had been officially declared as one of the 41 UNRWA locations throughout the Gaza Strip sheltering some 38,000 fleeing civilians. Israeli military authorities were notified by UNRWA of the compound’s location and the intention to use it as a shelter for displaced persons. Following Wednesday night’s shelling, UNRWA did not deem it necessary to evacuate the civilians from the compound based on assurances by the Israeli military forces.
In the early morning hours of Thursday, 15 January 2009, an Israeli artillery shell penetrated the compound severely damaging the facility, the humanitarian goods inside and injuring three civilians. It is estimated that there were 700 civilians sheltering in the compound at the time of the attack. Between 10:15 and 10:30 am, three phosphorus shells also hit the compound setting ablaze a warehouse storing medicine and humanitarian aid and causing the emission of toxic fumes. At the time of writing, the fire at the compound was still burning out of control.
Also yesterday morning, Al-Quds Red Crescent hospital in Gaza City was shelled by an Israeli tank formation, in what the International Committee of the Red Cross described as a “direct hit.” One hundred patients and medical staff on the second floor of the hospital had to be evacuated to another part of the building as a result of the damage. It was further reported that patients and staff were initially prevented from evacuating the premises due to the fact that Israeli military forces had surrounded it, impeding their safe passage. There were an estimated 500 patients and medical personnel inside the building at the time of the attack.
Under customary international humanitarian law, the principle of distinction holds that civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals and humanitarian facilities cannot be subject to attack. Under Article 18 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, reflective of customary international humanitarian law, it is explicitly prohibited to attack, fire upon, or in any way to prevent hospitals or medical units from performing their medical and humanitarian duties. Similarly, it is a provision of customary international humanitarian law that personnel, transports and compounds of humanitarian relief operations must be respected and protected under all circumstances.
Only when compelling evidence exists that hospitals, humanitarian transports or compounds are being used for activities outside of their humanitarian purposes amounting to acts that are "harmful to the enemy," does international humanitarian law permit, subject to strict limitations, the targeting of such objects. However, prior to an attack on a hospital which is being used for such unlawful purposes, international humanitarian law requires that a warning be issued and the attack carried out only after the warning has remained unheeded. If these procedural requirements are not fulfilled, such attacks are in violation of international humanitarian law.
The Israeli military forces operating in the Gaza Strip must, at all times, abide by the customary international humanitarian law principle of proportionality. When targeting military objectives - namely those objects or places which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action - the Israeli military forces must refrain from launching an attack if the incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects outweighs the direct and concrete military advantage anticipated.
In the context of urban warfare, meticulous care must be taken in the choice of methods of warfare in order to prevent the launching of indiscriminate attacks. In densely populated areas such as Gaza City, where hospitals and relief agencies are located, the Israeli military forces are wilfully failing to adopt all the necessary precautions compatible with the protection of civilians and civilian objects.
As the Gaza Strip is part of an occupied territory, customary international humanitarian law, as detailed in Article 49(2) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, provides the Occupying Power with a means to further fulfil its obligation to protect the population. When the safety of the population so requires, they may be evacuated by the Occupying Power to places of refuge within the occupied territory.
The brutal attacks over the last two days are but the most recent examples of the unrelenting Israeli violations of international humanitarian law that have been intensified over the past 20 days. Further, such violations have been an all too pervasive feature of the 42-year long Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. Given Israel’s long and well-documented history of total disregard for international law and the international bodies entrusted with its enforcement, neither ostensible admission of mistake nor apology for unlawful attacks should be exploited by the international community as a pretext for inaction.
Al-Haq is gravely alarmed by the lack of protection afforded to the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. The recent attacks on hospitals and humanitarian facilities have further highlighted the ever increasing vulnerability of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, with nowhere left to seek refuge or assistance. Al-Haq, therefore, urges the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to individually and collectively implement, in a graduated and cumulative manner, sanctions, both economic and diplomatic, to induce Israel to comply with its legal obligations under the Convention, as required under Common Article 1.
Other attacks by Israeli military forces on humanitarian facilities, hospitals and news outlets in the Gaza Strip were reported yesterday, but Al-Haq was unable to confirm the details of such incidents at the time of writing.
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