3 questions for Human Rights Watch on war crimes in Israel-Hamas conflict

Smoke and flame rise after Israeli air forces struck a shopping center in Gaza
Israeli air forces strike a shopping center in Gaza on Oct. 7. (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Photo: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Americans watched in horror on Saturday as videos of Israelis being kidnapped by Hamas militants and fleeing gunfire began to circulate online. They’ve read stories about some of the 150 Israelis now in captivity, including children, and the 1,200 more who were slaughtered.

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They’ve also seen apartment buildings, mosques and businesses in Gaza being bombed in Israeli reprisals. Although Israel has warned civilians to evacuate in advance of their attacks, many say they have nowhere to go. And Israel has laid siege to Gaza, blocking the flow of basic necessities in and out, while Hamas has continued indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel.

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According to Human Rights Watch, an international organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, attacks on civilian targets violate international humanitarian treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. Yahoo News spoke to Ahmed Benchemsi, advocacy and communications director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, about whether the actions of both sides are violating the law of war.

Some pro-Palestinian activists have argued that the recent attacks are justified under United Nations resolution 37/43, which affirms the right of people under “foreign domination and foreign occupation” to pursue freedom “by all available means, including armed struggle.” But by targeting civilians, did the attacks violate international human rights law?

Itzik and Miriam Shafir, center, at the funeral of their son, Dor Shafir.
Itzik and Miriam Shafir, center, at the funeral of their son, Dor Shafir, in Modiin Maccabim, Israel, Oct. 11. Dor Shafir, 30, was killed at the music festival in Israel that was attacked by Hamas terrorists. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Yes, there’s an easy way to say it: They committed a war crime. “Armed struggle” does not mean that you can do whatever you want. Wars have laws that you should abide by. The number one, cornerstone law of war is that, as a warring body, you should do anything in your capability to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel has responded with attacks on what appear to be civilian targets, such as apartment buildings, and the Israeli defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he “ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel.” Are those also war crimes?

Palestinians inspect the damage to the Al-Sussi Mosque and their homes following Israeli air strikes
Palestinians inspect the damage to the Al-Sussi Mosque and their homes following Israeli air strikes in the Al-Shati Palestinian refugee camp on Oct. 9, in Gaza City, Gaza. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

They are, when you do not discern between the inhabitants of that building. You cannot just flatten a whole building because one apartment out of hundreds of apartments might harbor a threat or a Hamas operative. There are also civilians in that building — children, women.

Not only is [cutting off water and food] a war crime, but it is under two different aspects: First aspect is that it’s collective punishment. You do not punish a population of 2 million persons for the crimes committed by a small minority of combatants. Then the second way to see it, is that it is a siege that consists of starving an entire population as a means of warfare. That is also a war crime. So it’s two war crimes in one. And it’s a very clear one.

The fact that the Israeli defense minister went on TV and brazenly said that he was about to do that constitutes proof of intent. That’s why we tweeted immediately after that, “hey, International Criminal Court, take good notes, this guy is saying he’s going to commit a war crime.”

Will there be any penalty for human rights violations in this conflict?

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, visits Israeli military units in the south of the country
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, visits Israeli military units in the south of the country. (Israel Ministry of Defense/Ariel Hermoni/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The international system is set in a way that there is no authority superior to nations. There is a path for international justice, it’s just long and complex. The ICC can open a prosecution, but let’s say they target one specific Israeli official; how would they get that person? They would have to be delivered to [the ICC]. Just to open an investigation on this week’s events, that would be huge. Will they do that? You’d have to ask them.

It’s also up to nations to hold each other accountable. For example, the U.S. has a relationship with Israel, a pretty close relationship. In an ideal world, the U.S. not only should not support Israel blindly for what it’s doing, but it should condemn its violations and it should avoid transferring weapons that the U.S. knows will be used to commit abuses like flattening a building with civilians in it.