For the last three weeks, unfathomable horrors have unfolded in Israel and Gaza. Likely war crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated by both Hamas and Israel, and civilians have suffered the gravest consequences as hostilities and besiegement continue without respite.
When Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups launched a coordinated assault in Israel on 7 October, they attacked towns, kibbutzim, other civilian areas and roads across multiple border points, perpetrating flagrant violations of international law, including mass summary killings of civilians, abductions and hostage-taking, physical abuse and firing thousands of indiscriminate rockets. As a result of the attack, at least 1,400 Israelis were killed and over 5,431 injured while Israeli officials report that at least 224 people have been captured and forcibly taken into Gaza as hostages.
Since these attacks, Israel has carried out nonstop and escalating bombardments across the Gaza Strip that have targeted and destroyed civilian objects, including multi-storied residential buildings, medical facilities, mosques, water and sanitation facilities and refugee and displacement camps. Sources in the Ministry of Health in Gaza have reported over 7,028 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and more than 18,482 injured, with an additional 1,600 missing and trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings. Israel’s complete siege of Gaza, which may amount to collective punishment of the Palestinian population, has created a humanitarian catastrophe. For seventeen consecutive days, Gaza has had no electricity or flow of fuel, forcing health facilities and water and sanitation services to collapse. Communication services, including internet and cellular services, have now been completely disrupted. Acute shortages of water, food and medicine are threatening the survival of millions of Palestinians who are trapped with nowhere to flee for safety.
The latest hostilities are unprecedented in terms of the number of civilian casualties in recent decades and the scale of destruction of protected civilian objects in both Israel and Occupied Palestine. The recorded violations and abuses indicate an increasing disregard for human life and raise serious concerns about the risk of further atrocities and diminished prospects for peace in the region.
Previous cycles of hostilities and patterns of atrocity crimes, as well as ongoing persecution of and violations against Palestinians are critical to understanding the gravity of this latest devastation and the continued risk of further atrocities.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres rightly said that the most recent violence “grows out of a long-standing conflict, with a 56-year-long occupation and no political end in sight.” Various UN officials and investigative mechanisms have reaffirmed for years that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory – the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza – has been ongoing since 1967 and has no legal validity. Throughout Israel and the occupied territory, the Israeli government has imposed a two-tiered legal and political system of systematic discrimination and oppression to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians. Experts and human rights groups have recognized that this system satisfies the prevailing evidentiary standard for apartheid, a crime against humanity.
Israeli authorities and security forces consistently employ violence and inhumane acts targeting Palestinians, including arbitrary and extrajudicial killings, torture, the denial of fundamental rights and collective punishment. In Gaza, Israel has imposed a total blockade by air, land and sea since 2007, inflicting an ongoing humanitarian crisis on 2.3 million Palestinians living in what many have characterized as the world’s largest “open-air prison.” In the Occupied West Bank, illegal settlement expansion has escalated. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 789 Palestinian-owned structures have already been demolished or seized by Israeli government authorities so far in 2023. In recent years, plans for thousands of housing units have been advanced to expedite settlement expansion, effectively guaranteeing that the occupied territory will remain under Israeli control in perpetuity. Under the Geneva Conventions, settlement expansion is a war crime.
Tensions and deadly violence between Palestinians and Israelis have been rising in recent years. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had already reported a record high number of Palestinian deaths in 2022, a number exceeded in the first nine months of 2023, making this the deadliest year since the UN began monitoring casualties in 2005. Between January and September of this year, over 200 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured, while nearly 30 Israelis were killed. The majority of casualties were in the Occupied West Bank, where Israeli security forces have increasingly deployed lethal force against Palestinians, regardless of the level of threat, including through frequent violent raids on refugee and displacement camps, while Israeli settlers and Palestinians also engage in violence.
For three years in a row, Israeli forces have carried out raids on the Haram Al-Sharif compound and Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, using excessive and unjustified force against Palestinian worshippers. No credible accountability process has been launched regarding these raids, following similar patterns of impunity for violations and abuses perpetrated against non-violent assemblies of Palestinians, such as the deadly force used by Israeli security officers against peaceful demonstrators in Gaza during the “Great March of Return” in 2018.
Though Hamas’ attack on Israeli citizens on 7 October was unprecedented in scale, the group has a history of perpetrating grave human rights abuses and violations of international law. Since its formation in 1987, Hamas has consistently refused to recognize the State of Israel and has at times proliferated inflammatory and hateful rhetoric against Israelis and Jews. Hamas’ hostility toward Israel, commitment to violence and armed resistance – including the use of suicide bombings, rocket attacks and sniper fire against Israeli targets during the violent Second Intifada – and takeover of Gaza in 2007 has been a significant contributor to ongoing instability and suffering in the region. Sporadic rocket attacks and the threat of potential suicide attacks have spread terror among civilian populations in Israel, and Hamas and other extremist groups in the region have been recognized by many western states as a terrorist organization. Moreover, Hamas has a history of perpetrating grave abuses against Palestinians in Gaza, including torture and arbitrary detention. The latest hostilities risk emboldening Hamas and other extremist nonstate armed groups in the region, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, to further threaten Israeli populations.
The pervasive lack of accountability for violations and abuses equally extends to successive cycles of deadly hostilities between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups over the past two decades. Both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups have perpetrated serious violations and abuses of international law. Israel has carried out indiscriminate airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians and targeted civilian objects, while Palestinian armed groups have launched thousands of indiscriminate rockets into populated areas, all of which likely amount to war crimes. The lack of accountability for these violations has helped to enable the horrific violence today.
Imminent risks of further atrocities in Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel
In the wake of the initial attack on Israel, many states issued statements of strident and unwavering support for Israel’s right to self-defense without any caveats that operations against Hamas must abide by international law obligations and respect the safety, rights and dignity of all populations, including Palestinians in Gaza. This effectively gave Israel carte blanche to conduct its retaliation in Gaza and aligns with the legacy of impunity enjoyed by Israel for likely war crimes and crimes against humanity. Though statements, including from the United States and European Union, have been re-issued to remind Israel of its obligations “in line with humanitarian and international law” and “reiterate the importance of ensuring protection of all civilians,” it is simply too little too late.
Until a ceasefire is reached, populations in Gaza remain at risk of continued war crimes and crimes against humanity. Israeli officials have signaled their intent to destroy Gaza with wanton disregard for civilian life through numerous public statements, including by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declared that the Israeli response will “reverberate…for generations.” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Daniel Hagari admitted that regarding the bombardment of Gaza, “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.” Over 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza have already been internally displaced since 7 October, and 45 percent of all housing units in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged from airstrikes, according to OCHA. Evacuation orders from the IDF are insufficient to protect civilians, particularly when hostilities are being conducted without respect for the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality. Such orders are given with extremely impractical deadlines and regularly direct hundreds of thousands of civilians to areas actively being hit with air raids or without any sheltering capacity. Orders to evacuate may also constitute forcible transfer and displacement, which are violations under international law. Israel has also conducted short overnight ground incursions in Gaza to test for a potential expansion of its operations through a ground invasion. Any such ground invasion will further increase the risks for civilians of potential atrocity crimes.
Israel has openly exacted a policy of revenge, retaliation and collective punishment for the crimes of Hamas against all Palestinians in Gaza, as demonstrated by the besiegement of the Gaza Strip. The unrelenting besiegement and forced displacement across the territory will continue to have exponential humanitarian consequences. The UN estimates that approximately 100 trucks of humanitarian aid per day are needed to meet soaring humanitarian needs; however, since 21 October a mere 74 trucks in total have been permitted to enter south Gaza via the Rafah Crossing. This ongoing siege amounts to intentional starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, which is both a war crime and crime against humanity.
The current hostilities in Gaza have further exacerbated tensions between Israeli and Palestinian populations elsewhere in the region, creating a permissive and enabling environment for atrocities to occur. Violent raids by Israeli forces and retaliatory violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank have both increased since 7 October, resulting in the killing of over 103 Palestinians and injuring of more than 1,956.
Although the Israeli government claims that this policy of increased securitization will ensure the safety and security of Israel and its Jewish citizens, the violent enforcement of the status quo only further jeopardizes and ultimately fails to protect Israeli civilians – as Hamas’ attack itself has shown. The wanton destruction and killing of civilians – with no regard for the international legal principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality – never brings safety, justice or peace. The continued violence in Gaza raises the potential for Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups to increase targeting of Israeli civilians in the future. Hamas continues to fire thousands of rockets toward Israel. At the same time, exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel across the Lebanon-Israel border, as well as a rocket attack that struck the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, have raised the specter of another potential front in the ongoing war.
Consequences of dehumanizing rhetoric and hate speech
Dehumanizing and inflammatory rhetoric advocating for further violence in Gaza has been allowed to proliferate unabated, including by elected officials in Israel and globally, since the launch of Hamas’ attack on 7 October. Israeli President Isaac Herzog declared there were no innocent Palestinians and that “it’s an entire nation out there that is responsible.” While authorizing a complete siege on Gaza and the suspension of food, water and electricity, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said, “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.”
Amidst ongoing abuses, we are now witnessing a sharp increase in both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate speech, and Arab, Muslim and Jewish people across the world have been subjected to escalating racist attacks, resulting in damage to property, serious injuries and even targeted killings. There has also been an alarming crackdown on global protests in support of Palestinian rights, while Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland temporarily suspended bilateral development aid programs to Palestinians – including funding for UN programs and civil society groups – following Hamas’ attack.
Recent warnings of the risk of ethnic cleansing and genocide
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 warned on 14 October that “Palestinians are in grave danger of mass ethnic cleansing” and that “what we are witnessing may be a repeat of the 1948 Nakba.”
The Nakba, or “Catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to events surrounding the establishment of Israel in 1948 during which over 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee or were expelled from their homes and more than 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed. Many Gazans are inflicted with generational trauma from the Nakba, and as such have been reluctant to flee the current hostilities due to fears that this will result in their permanent removal from their homes and the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. Some Israeli officials have reinforced these fears in public statements. For example, on 7 October Knesset member Ariel Kallner asserted, “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 1948!” Israel’s evacuation orders for northern Gaza, coupled with such rhetoric, could amount to forcible transfer and displacement, as well as an increased risk of ethnic cleansing.
Seven UN Special Rapporteurs also jointly warned on 19 October that in light of recent statements made by Israeli officials, there is “a risk of genocide against the Palestinian people.”
According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, acts amount to genocide when “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The codified acts that can constitute genocide include killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
As the catastrophic humanitarian conditions inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza due to Israel’s siege – whereby Palestinians are being intentionally deprived of resources for their survival and denied the ability to flee elsewhere – worsen, they risk meeting the threshold of “deliberate infliction on the group conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Amidst the dire resource constraints created by the siege, Palestinians are at risk of a catastrophic public health emergency, where many will likely die of starvation, dehydration, lack of access to medical care and relentless airstrikes. However, legal determination of the crime of genocide requires the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, to be unequivocal. Given the unfolding violations and abuses in Gaza and dehumanizing statements by Israeli officials, the degree of potential intent requires urgent further scrutiny.
It is also important to note that there is no hierarchy among the atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Brutalities perpetrated through the commission of all atrocity crimes result in unconscionable suffering among protected populations. Regardless of any legal determination of international crimes, what is abundantly clear is that Palestinians and Israelis alike face unique and exponentially mounting risks that demand the urgent attention of the international community.
The international community has struggled to speak out resolutely in defense of international law and the protection of civilians, amplifying the risk of further atrocities to populations in both Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory. To date, four draft resolutions have been tabled by members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and all of them have failed to pass, either due to insufficient votes or vetoes cast by Permanent Members, including the United States and Russia. The UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 27 October managed to pass a resolution that calls for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” as well as compliance with obligations under international law including protection of civilians, with 120 states voting in favor. However, resolutions passed by the UNGA are not binding under international law, unlike those passed by the UNSC.
We therefore underline the importance of the following immediate steps that must be taken by parties to the conflict and the international community:
All likely war crimes and crimes against humanity, including indiscriminate attacks and the deliberate targeting of civilians, must cease immediately. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups must safely and unconditionally release all individuals taken hostage. Palestinians in Gaza must be able to flee ongoing violence and bombardments, without fear of never being able to return. Israel must immediately end its collective punishment against the people of the Gaza Strip, including through lifting the siege of Gaza to genuinely allow critical supplies in without delay and establish a permanent humanitarian corridor to ensure safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies.
With the help of international interlocutors, a ceasefire must be urgently reached and monitored by an independent, international body. Third party states and the international community should cease any enabling of the perpetration of atrocities by parties to the conflict. Political, religious and community leaders within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as well as around the world, must unequivocally cease provoking and condemn the use of hate speech and dehumanizing rhetoric, including anti-Semitic and Islamophobic language.
In addition, the international community must address the root causes of deadly cycles of violence and atrocities, including ending Israel’s 16-year blockade on Gaza, illegal perpetual occupation and settlement-related activity and likely apartheid policies. The pursuit of accountability is equally critical to confronting the root causes of atrocities and preventing recurrence. So long as impunity reigns, violence against civilians and needless suffering will continue. The International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over potential war crimes carried out by Hamas militants in Israel and by Israelis across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including the Gaza Strip and West Bank, should urgently accelerate its investigation into likely war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by all parties, both before and during the latest hostilities.
Any notion that acts of self-defense can include violations of International Humanitarian Law, or that a previous atrocity can justify further atrocities, must be completely and forever abandoned by all members of the international community. To prevent the continuation of a calamitous cycle of mass atrocities and suffering in the region and globally, all international leaders – who bear an equal duty to preserve the rules-based international order – must not only call for the unequivocal defense of international law and human rights in Israel and Gaza, but also reaffirm their unwavering commitment to these principles in all contexts. They must work together to reject a double-standard approach toward the application of international legal and human rights standards, while revitalizing all available paths to prevent atrocity crimes. Failure to do so will force civilians to pay the ultimate price and undermine peace efforts globally.