Humanitarian hypocrisy, double standards and the law in Gaza

Western governments are failing in their responsibility to act in the face of credible accounts of war crimes being committed in the Israeli–Hamas conflict. Calls for a ‘humanitarian pause’ are a distraction and a derogation of humanitarian responsibilities. Only a ceasefire can stop the bloodshed.

8 November 2023//

There is widespread consensus that war crimes are being committed in Gaza. Oxfam stated just days after the start of the Israeli response to the Hamas attack on 7 October that the siege on Gaza constitutes collective punishment and violates international law. Amnesty International is documenting unlawful attacks on civilians and is calling for these to be investigated as war crimes. Condemning atrocities against civilians on both sides of the conflict, the International Committee for the Red Cross nonetheless spoke out against Israel’s orders for Gazans to evacuate their homes, without access to basic necessities, as incompatible with international humanitarian law.

Calls for a ceasefire get louder as casualties mount

Protesters on the streets of London and other major cities are demanding a ceasefire. Jewish human rights activists in New York refuse to accept a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza conducted in their name. Over 400 eminent legal experts and retired judges in the UK have called on the British government to uphold its duty to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and do everything in its power to secure a ceasefire, stop the export of weapons from the UK to Israel, and work towards a peaceful settlement of this conflict.

Meanwhile, the casualties continue to mount: on 6 November Gaza’s health ministry estimated that nearly 10,000 Palestinians, among them over 4,000 children, had been killed. An estimated 29,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, including hospitals and health centres, schools and industrial facilities. Fears are growing of a wider regional conflagration dragging in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, Iran and Turkey.

“International law has been consigned as a footnote”

Despite this mounting tally of death, destruction and devastation, it appears that international humanitarian law has been consigned to a footnote, an afterthought, as Israel’s allies show steadfast solidarity and support to a seemingly unfettered right to self-defence. Although Israel’s allies increasingly reiterate that Israel’s offensive must be conducted within the laws of war, as the violations escalate, they have not backed this up with condemnation and efforts to stop them.

“The double standards are evident”

There was, rightly, no such silence in the aftermath of the Hamas-led massacre of Israeli civilians, which Human Rights Watch and many others have indicated are war crimes. The killing and kidnapping of over 1,600 Israeli civilians sparked global outrage. But international humanitarian law is clear: the commission by one party to a conflict – including an armed group – of serious violations of international humanitarian law does not justify their commission by another. So why is the killing of Israeli civilians an outrage, and that of Palestinians collateral damage? Why has the world woken up to this decades-long conflict only when Israeli lives are lost?

There’s no question that Hamas’ vow to ‘annihilate’ Israel and Israelis is abhorrent, but Western leaders must judge Israeli words and actions with equal moral clarity and courage. The double standards are evident: clearly, Palestinian life is valued less in a conflict where Palestinians have been dehumanised, including being depicted as ‘human animals’ by Israeli government officials.

This hypocrisy of Western governments is not being lost on the rest of the world. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s willingness to condemn attacks against civilian infrastructure as war crimes in Ukraine, and her simultaneous refusal to acknowledge the suffering inflicted by Israeli bombing on Palestinian civilians, is far from exceptional. Such double standards are plain to see for those in the global South, and are a propaganda gift to countries such as Russia and China.

Western governments and media continue to marginalise Palestinian voices

Much has also been made of mis/disinformation on social media in disseminating false facts about the war, but more dangerous is the skewed Western media coverage that legitimises Western political support for Israel. This continues a decades-long practice of marginalising Palestinian voices and minimising Palestinian suffering, while ignoring the repression and dispossession that has characterised Israeli policy towards Gaza and the occupied territories.

Many Palestinians rightly question why they were only invited to speak after Hamas’ attacks on 7 October, or are being called upon to ‘denounce’ Hamas first, before being given a platform. Western governments have vilified protesters and restricted civic space for opposition, including through pre-emptive clampdowns on academic freedoms and Palestinian voices discussing the history of the Israeli occupation.

“A humanitarian pause only delays more civilian deaths”

A month into this current escalation, the US, UK, EU and others have finally called for a ‘humanitarian pause’. Clearly Israel has responsibilities under international humanitarian law to stop its obstruction of aid into Gaza, and aid is urgently required to limit the humanitarian catastrophe. But the sole focus on increasing aid supplies is a distraction and a derogation of humanitarian responsibilities: no amount of assistance can offset the besieging and indiscriminate bombing of over two million people.

A humanitarian pause only delays more civilian deaths. Although the majority of state members adopted a resolution at the UN General Assembly on 27 October calling for an immediate and sustained humanitarian truce in Gaza, the Resolution was non-binding and offered little to those most directly affected by the violence. The only just way forward is to build peace based on the principles of human rights and within the framework of international law.

“Western democracies are violating their most fundamental commitments to international law and human rights”

Legal experts are clear that Israel, even as it acts in self-defence, cannot justify committing war crimes such as collective punishment of Palestinians, attacks on civilians, forcible transfer of a civilian population and the bombardment of civilian localities, and its failure to allow humanitarian relief into Gaza. States’ failure to prevent these violations of international law will be viewed as complicity.

Western democracies are violating their most fundamental commitments to international law and human rights, and the rest of the world is watching them do so in real time. The full consequences of this collective failure to condemn or halt Israeli violence will be felt for decades to come.