B’Tselem calls for ceasefire in Gaza Strip
In more than 70 days of war in Gaza, Israel has waged an unconstrained attack on the population that includes bombing on an unprecedented scale. Thousands of tons of bombs have been dropped on thousands of targets throughout Gaza, with the IDF Spokesperson clarifying that “the emphasis is on damage, not accuracy.”
The results on the ground are clear: large areas in the Strip are no longer habitable. Thousands of homes have collapsed, some with the occupants inside, while roads, public structures and infrastructure lie in ruins. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, nearly 19,000 people have been killed, about 70 percent of them women and children; some 50,000 people have been injured, and many are buried under the rubble.
The provisions of international humanitarian law require that every one of the bombed targets be defined a military objective that makes an “effective contribution” to Hamas’ actions, and that its destruction offer Israel a “definite military advantage.” Even if the thousands of targets Israel has struck meet these criteria, the law requires that the resulting harm to civilian life and property be proportionate. Yet there is no way to reconcile Israel’s strikes with these rules. Any claim to the contrary is not only legally flawed but morally unacceptable.
Throughout the war, Hamas has used residents of Gaza as human shields, hidden weapons in their homes, used tunnels it dug under their homes to protect its operatives, and fired at civilian targets in Israel from within the civilian population. By doing so, Hamas has endangered the lives of civilians in Gaza, in breach of international humanitarian law. Israel argues that therefore, any harm it inflicts upon Hamas necessarily entails harm to civilians, through no fault of its own. Yet this means that any Israeli action, horrific as its outcomes may be, would always be considered legitimate. Such an assertion is legally and morally baseless: the party carrying out the killing is responsible for the outcome, and Hamas’ actions in no way absolve Israel of responsibility for the consequences of its actions.
While implementing this bombing policy, Israel also closed all the crossings in and out of Gaza at the beginning of the war. More than two million residents were left without fuel, electricity, drinking and bathing water, food and medication. Even before the war, after 17 years of blockade, among other things, Gaza was in the throes of a humanitarian crisis: the power, water, and sewage infrastructure was verging on collapse, the healthcare system was barely functional, unemployment was at about 40 percent, and 80 percent of Gazans depended on humanitarian aid. Given this reality, crossing the closings plunged the Strip into an inconceivable humanitarian catastrophe – not a side effect of the war, but a direct policy move on Israel’s part.
Almost 1.9 million people – about 85% of the population in Gaza – are now concentrated in the southern area of Rafah, huddling together in UNRWA facilities. These facilities are overcrowded and lack basic conditions, with extreme shortages of water, food, blankets, mattresses, restrooms and showers. Living in such conditions significantly increases the risk of epidemics and disease outbreaks, which have already occurred in some places.
Water is lacking throughout Gaza, and UN agencies are also reporting an extreme shortage of food to the point of famine, especially in northern Gaza. Most hospitals have collapsed, and the rest are only partially functioning, at twice or even three times their capacity while facing shortages of electricity, water, medications, basic medical equipment and staff. The scant aid that Israel allows into Gaza is a drop in the ocean and cannot be transported to those in need due to the incessant bombing, Israeli restrictions on the movement of trucks, and the crowds filling the streets.
Israel launched the current attack on October 7, after hundreds of Hamas operatives and other residents of Gaza entered Israel, firing in every direction. They made their way into civilian communities and homes, shot and killed entire families and partygoers, burned down homes with the inhabitants inside, raped and sexually assaulted women, kidnapped families and committed other horrors. More than 1,200 people were killed that day and thousands injured. About 250 people, including babies, children, women and the elderly, were kidnapped and taken to Gaza. Some have since been released, others died in captivity, and others are still being held hostage – according to released captives, in harsh conditions without enough food and medication. These crimes cannot be justified. Any attempts to excuse them as part of a “struggle for national liberation” or for “decolonization”, or to justify them on other grounds, must be rejected and condemned.
In light of these events, Israel cites its right to self-defense as justification for the current attack on Gaza. It is Israel’s obligation to protect its citizens from Hamas, which continues to launch rockets into Israel and promises more attacks to follow October 7. However, the right to self-defense does not confer the right to employ unlimited, indiscriminate violence, nor does it allow parties to ignore the provisions of international humanitarian law and commit war crimes. Israel certainly cannot rely on this right to justify a policy that does away with any protection of civilians and assumes there are no bystanders in Gaza.
Since the beginning of the war, Hamas and Israel have demonstrated flagrant disregard for the rules of international humanitarian law. Continuing the fighting in these circumstances will inevitably lead to hundreds more civilians killed every day. The extreme crowding means that almost any Israeli airstrike or ground action results in a high death toll. This is certainly compounded by the fact that Hamas is operating from within the civilian population, displaying indifference to their lives. Clearly, the more Israel urges the population to move south, the greater the danger will grow, as will the humanitarian catastrophe.
The inescapable conclusion is that continuing the war will entail more human rights violations and more war crimes, and the fighting must therefore be stopped immediately to prevent further harm to civilians.
The international community must step in to protect the civilians on both sides. It must demand that until a long-term arrangement is in place, Israel cease military operations, allow unlimited entry of humanitarian aid and goods into Gaza, enable its reconstruction and permit residents to return home. The international community must also demand that Hamas unconditionally release all the people kidnapped on October 7 and cease rocket fire on Israel. Finally, the international community must ensure that all those responsible for the serious violations of international humanitarian law are held accountable.