Despite a 21 May ceasefire, populations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory remain at risk of recurring war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Palestinian territory – encompassing the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem – has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. According to a July 2021 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Israel’s 54-year occupation has been characterized by widespread human rights violations and settler violence, a two-tier legal system that subjugates Palestinians, and settlement expansion aimed at permanently altering the ethnic demographics of East Jerusalem. The report further determined that expanding Israeli settlements amounts to a war crime.
There are now close to 300 illegal settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank with more than 680,000 Israeli settlers. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 714 Palestinian- owned structures have been demolished or seized by Israeli government authorities since January 2021. Hundreds of Palestinians, including entire Bedouin communities, have been forcibly displaced after their land was confiscated.
Meanwhile, Israel’s ongoing air, sea and land blockade of Gaza has been in place for 14 years and has inflicted collective punishment on 2 million Palestinians, facilitating a humanitarian crisis. Hamas’ security forces have also committed grave abuses against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including arbitrary arrests, summary executions and torture.
Most recently, armed conflict intensified from 10-21 May after weeks of tensions and protests against the possible forced eviction of several Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Occupied East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities used excessive force while arresting protesters and carried out violent raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound between 7-10 May, injuring over 1,000 Palestinians. Hamas responded by indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel, prompting retaliatory airstrikes. More than 270 Palestinians, including 66 children, were killed and 1,900 injured by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. At least 12 people were killed and civilian property damaged by indiscriminate rockets fired towards civilian areas in Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups. Approximately 90 percent of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system. A ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, was eventually reached between Israel and Hamas on 20 May.
Since the ceasefire, demonstrations against illegal Israeli settlement expansion have been ongoing throughout the OPT, including in East Jerusalem. Israeli forces have responded with live ammunition, stun grenades and arbitrary arrests. Many detainees have allegedly been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. On 19 October the Israeli Defense Ministry issued a military order designating six Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist organizations.”
Though the fragile 21 May ceasefire was a welcome step to reduce civilian suffering from the armed confrontation, violations of international law directed against Palestinians persist. The systematic nature of human rights violations in the OPT may amount to crimes against humanity, while the collective punishment of Palestinians as a coercive measure of population control may amount to a war crime. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its civilian population into occupied territory, also known as “settler implantation.”
A growing number of human rights organizations have concluded that the Israeli government is implementing laws, practices and policies to entrench the supremacy of its Jewish population over Palestinians, amounting to the crime of apartheid. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), apartheid is a crime against humanity.
Impunity for cycles of violence has entrenched a system of structural oppression against Palestinians in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank. There has been no accountability for potential war crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza war between Hamas and Israel, nor for the disproportionate and deadly use of force by Israeli soldiers in response to protests along the Gaza border during 2018-2019. Israeli airstrikes during the 10-21 May escalation appear to have deliberately ignored the principles of proportionality and distinction and may amount to war crimes under international law. Indiscriminate rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups also violated International Humanitarian Law.
Israel, the Hamas de-facto administration and the Palestinian Authority are all obligated to uphold their responsibility to protect.
On 23 December 2016 the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted a resolution reaffirming that Israeli settlements in the OPT violate international law. This was the first and only UNSC resolution adopted on Israel and the OPT since 2009. Between 10-21 May the UNSC made three attempts to condemn the latest war and call for a ceasefire, but the US blocked each effort.
Following a May 2018 referral by the Palestinian Authority, on 5 February 2021 the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC confirmed that the Court’s jurisdiction extends to Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. On 4 March the ICC officially opened its investigation.
On 27 May the UN Human Rights Council voted to establish a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate violations of international law in the OPT and Israel and identify the root causes of recurring conflict.
The ICC should investigate all potential war crimes or crimes against humanity committed during the May conflict.
Israel must lift the blockade on Gaza, cease illegal settlement-related activity and apartheid policies and end the collective punishment of Palestinians. All parties should condemn anti-Semitic and anti-Arab hate speech and cooperate fully with the investigations of the ICC and CoI.
All parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must work towards a sustainable political solution consistent with international law and various UNSC resolutions. States with strong political and economic ties to Israel, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, should push for a lasting political solution to the conflict, accountability for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the protection of human rights for all civilians in Israel and the OPT, regardless of ethnicity or religion.