When Will We Learn? The Crimes of War in Israel and Gaza

25 October 2023// Ictj.org

On October 7, the world watched in horror as members of the militant group Hamas slaughtered over 1,400 Israelis, most of whom were civilians including children and the elderly, in a premeditated and sophisticated attack. After hours of brutal and indiscriminate violence, the armed group retreated into Gaza with more than 200 hostages whose fate remains largely unknown. For their families and friends, engulfed in a sea of uncertainty and despair, news about their whereabouts trickles out drop by drop. At least four have been confirmed dead, while another four have been released. This assault, the worst of its kind in Israel’s 75-year history, has reignited the flames of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians—Jews and Arabs—in a longstanding and unresolved conflict that has all but defined the two nations for the better part of a century.

Israel’s response has so far been no less horrific. Incessant waves of indiscriminate airstrikes on Gaza have hit residential buildings, medical facilities, and other critical civilian infrastructure, besieging the entire enclave—the densest populated territory in the world—and blocking food, water, medical supplies, fuel, and other basics from entering it. Only after nearly two weeks of persistent calls from around the world to allow essential and desperately needed humanitarian assistance into the occupied territory has a limited number of trucks carrying humanitarian aid been granted access through the Egyptian border crossing. According to different sources, at the time of this writing, more than 5,000 people in Gaza, including 2,000 children, have been killed in the Israeli offensive. With a large-scale Israeli ground invasion looming, the death toll in Gaza is expected to rise, most likely dramatically.

Unfortunately, these tragic and unspeakable atrocities—the condemnation and rejection for which we have run out of words—are not isolated events happening in a vacuum. They are, in fact, just the latest episodes in a 75-year-yearlong cycle of violence. Too many have lost their lives, too many have been gravely injured, too many are grieving the death of those dearest to them. Among the countless who have never known peace or justice in their daily lives, some have lost all hope and their spirits have been contaminated by the poison of hatred and violence.

What have we learned from this conflict so far, and what can we expect to learn from it as it drags on? If anything at all, we know that the bloodshed we are witnessing today sits atop a mountain of impunity for past crimes, for the continuing breach of agreements, and for the violation of the norms we once all agreed upon to govern our shared world and live in peace. As obvious and naïve as it may sound amidst the ceaseless bombardments, indescribable death and destruction, and cries of distress and grief, had the parties to this conflict respected the international rule of law, with all its standards and norms, we would not be where we are now.

While Hamas and the Israeli Defense Force exchange blame and propagate rhetoric justifying their actions, what we see from both sides is the commission of crime after crime. Targeting civilians and extrajudicial killings  are war crimes. Taking civilians hostage is a war crime. Indiscriminately or disproportionally bombing civilian infrastructure such as residential buildings, places of worship, and medical facilities is a war crime. Blocking civilian access to food, water, electricity, and medical care is a war crime. Attacking a hospital full of civilian workers, medical personnel, patients including the sick and wounded, and numerous families seeking refuge is a war crime.

Hamas committed war crimes when they gunned down or captured unsuspecting revelers at a dance party and people sleeping in their homes. Israel Defense Forces committed a war crime—that of the forcible transfer of a population—when it warned more than a million civilians to evacuate northern Gaza on short notice.

As Israel and Hamas battle for control of the narrative, as they blame and demonize one another, we must remember that their words do not change the number of victims, the intensity of human suffering, or the gravity of their atrocities. Most importantly, they cannot, or at least should not, take attention away from the victims and their needs.

Will these crimes go unpunished? Will victims on both sides ever see any measure of truth, justice, and reparation? Will world leaders—especially those with the power and responsibility to influence in the situation and uphold the standards they loudly preach in other corners of the globe—recognize that without respect for international law, accountability for the crimes committed, and justice for victims, peace will never be possible?

The vast financial, human, and material resources that have been deployed for war should rather be invested in strategies to find lasting solutions to the historical injustices and grievances at the root of the conflict, achieve accountability for these heinous crimes, and deliver as much justice as possible to all victims. Otherwise, if we continue as we always have, we will soon mark a century of war. If we have learned nothing else, we have learned that this armed conflict will never end by force.