Despite the 21 May ceasefire, populations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories remain at risk of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Armed conflict intensified from 10-21 May in Israel, Gaza and other parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as civilians endured a surge of deadly Israeli airstrikes and indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas. A ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, was eventually reached between Israel and Hamas on 20 May and went into effect the morning of 21 May.
During the renewed violence, more than 230 Palestinians, including 65 children, were killed and 1,900 injured by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. At least 450 buildings – including 17 hospitals and the only laboratory for COVID-19 testing – were seriously damaged or destroyed, forcibly displacing over 58,000 people. Meanwhile, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups indiscriminately fired thousands of rockets towards civilian areas of Israel, killing at least 12 people and damaging civilian property. Approximately 90 percent of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense system.
The latest escalation of armed conflict came after weeks of tensions and protests against the possible forced eviction of several Palestinian families residing 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 hundreds of rockets into Israel, prompting retaliatory airstrikes by Israel.
The escalation also led to increased identity-based incitement inside Israel and the Occupied West Bank. Inter-communal violence in the Israeli town of Lod resulted in Arab Israelis setting fire to synagogues and Jews attacking and stoning cars driven by Arab residents. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 27 people were killed, including 3 children, and over 6,370 injured in the Occupied West Bank between 10-21 May. Israeli security forces were also complicit in some violent attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian citizens of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told Israeli police they would be shielded from potential inquiries or investigations into their conduct.
The Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem have been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. Illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand in the West Bank and according to OCHA, at least 322 Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished or seized by Israeli government authorities since January. However, the Israeli government’s plans to formally annex parts of the West Bank, originally announced in April 2020, have been indefinitely postponed.
During July 2020 the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the OPT, Michael Lynk, highlighted that the Israeli government inflicts collective punishment on the Palestinian population by obstructing critical civilian supplies, demolishing Palestinian structures and causing mass displacement. Israel’s ongoing air, sea and land blockade of Gaza has been in place for 13 years and has inflicted collective punishment on 2 million Palestinians. Hamas’ security forces have also committed grave abuses against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including arbitrary arrests, summary executions and torture.
The 21 May ceasefire ended the most recent armed confrontation between Hamas and Israel, but the risk of recurrence remains high until both sides commit to a permanent cessation of hostilities and a negotiated solution to the conflict.
Israeli airstrikes 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.
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.
Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem have recently characterized Israel as an “apartheid regime” that is implementing laws, practices and policies to entrench the supremacy of its Jewish population over Palestinians. Under the Rome Statute, the crime of apartheid is a crime against humanity.
Systematic impunity for Israel’s past violations of international law has fueled cycles of violence. 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 forces in response to protests along the Gaza border during 2018-2019.
Annexation of occupied territory violates the Geneva Convention, and amounts to a crime of aggression under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its civilian population into occupied territory.
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 UNSC resolution adopted on Israel and the OPT since 2009.
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 Office of the Prosecutor officially opened its investigation.
Between 10-21 May the UNSC made three attempts to adopt a statement condemning the latest war and calling for a ceasefire, but the United States blocked each effort. 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 recurrent tensions.
The ICC should urgently investigate any potential war crimes or crimes against humanity committed during the most recent armed 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 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.