Hamas and Israel have both been accused of breaking international law during their latest conflict, and the United Nations says it is collecting evidence of war crimes by all sides.
Has Hamas committed war crimes?
Hamas has attacked and killed civilians – including children and elderly people – in their homes and neighbourhoods and kidnapped scores of others. Israel says at least 1400 people died and 199 others were abducted.
Haim Abraham, a lecturer in law at University College London, said: “They massacred civilians at their homes. They kidnapped civilians, taking them hostage. All of these things are clearly war crimes,” he said.
Jeanne Sulzer, a lawyer with the Commission for International Justice of Amnesty International France, said the Geneva Conventions state that “civilians should never be taken hostage. If they are, that may be characterised as a war crime”.
Has Israel’s response been legal?
The Israeli military has pounded Hamas-ruled Gaza with airstrikes, blocked deliveries of food, water, fuel and electricity and told people to leave the northern half of the strip ahead of a possible ground invasion. Gaza authorities say 2800 people have died and 11,000 have been injured during days of bombardment.
The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross has said the instruction for hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes, “coupled with the complete siege explicitly denying them food, water, and electricity, are not compatible with international humanitarian law.”
The Israeli army says it follows international law and strikes only legitimate military targets as it seeks to root out militants who embed themselves among the civilian population.
Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using munitions containing white phosphorus. The incendiary substance is not banned, but its use in densely populated areas has been widely condemned. The Israeli Defence Force has denied using white phosphorus as a weapon in Gaza.
The rules of armed conflict
The Geneva Conventions were drawn up after World War II and agreed on by almost every nation. They apply to wars between nations and also conflicts, like that between Israel and Hamas, in which one of the parties is not a state.
The founding Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court defines as war crimes acts including intentional attacks on civilians, civilian settlements or humanitarian workers, destroying property if it’s not militarily necessary, sexual violence and unlawful deportation.
Other agreements ban certain types of weapons, such as chemical or biological munitions. Most but not all countries have signed up to these.
A United Nations Commission of Inquiry says it is “collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes committed by all sides” in the current conflict. That evidence could be added to an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court into the situation in the Palestinian territories.
The Netherlands-based ICC has the power to prosecute nations’ officials for violations and order compensation for victims. But some countries – including the United States, Russia and Israel – do not recognise the court’s jurisdiction, and the ICC does not have a police force to execute arrest warrants.
Other international courts, including the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, can hear cases related to alleged violations, as can domestic courts in Israel.
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