by Simon Adams
There is arguably no conflict in the world as politically polarising as the one between Israel and Palestine. While the conflict has been on the agenda of the United Nations since at least 1947, it wasn’t until 2005, at the UN World Summit – the largest assembly of heads of state and government ever convened – that the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) was unanimously adopted as a means of protecting people from four mass atrocity crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The current crisis in Gaza has posed difficult and proximate questions for some of R2P’s advocates, raising awkward issues regarding selectivity, sovereignty and responsibility in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
At the heart of R2P is a global commitment to protect people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or statehood (or lack thereof), from crimes that offend and diminish us all as human beings. This means, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon insists, that the Responsibility to Protect applies everywhere and at all times. That includes Israel and Gaza.
But there is also a requirement for political and legal precision. As the Gaza crisis escalated in mid-July, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect began closely monitoring the situation and assessing whether the human rights abuses being perpetrated had elevated to the level of mass atrocity crimes. When we released a public statement on Thursday 17 July, right as the temporary five-hour “humanitarian ceasefire” ended in Gaza and armed hostilities between Israel and Hamas resumed, we argued that attacks on civilians and civilian property in Gaza and Israel violate international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes.
The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to international humanitarian law and must be adhered to regardless of where a conflict is occurring, or whom it is occurring between. With ongoing rocket attacks on Israel and unrelenting retaliatory airstrikes in densely populated parts of Gaza, both Hamas and the Israeli government appeared to be potentially violating the fundamental laws of war.
At the time of our statement, Palestinian armed groups operating in Gaza had launched more than a thousand rockets into Israel, with most aimed towards residential areas. These rocket attacks were indiscriminate and fired with the deliberate intention of killing or wounding civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure. As such they were war crimes, despite the fact that the inaccuracy of the rockets and the effectiveness of the Israeli “Iron Dome” defence system had kept Israeli civilian fatalities to a minimum. Responsibility for the rockets lay with Hamas, which is clearly the controlling authority in Gaza and is culpable for the attacks.