New York, Friday, October 13, 2023 — Since October 7, horrific violence that violates fundamental norms of humanity has claimed the lives of over 1,200 in Israel and 1,400 Palestinians, including 447 children. These figures will rise as the violence continues. With nowhere to flee, more than 338,000 Palestinians are now displaced with two-thirds seeking refuge in 92 UNRWA schools – the largest displacement in Gaza since 2014.
Violence, compounded by constraints on humanitarian access and aid delivery, is triggering an unimaginable humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Gaza has been under a strict blockade for 16 years. Eighty percent of the 2.2 million people living there (50 percent of whom are children) already rely on humanitarian aid for survival. This population is now under siege with no electricity, fuel, food, or water allowed in, or movement of people either in or out. Hospitals in Gaza are already struggling to cope with the level of injuries and shortages of supplies. When fuel reserves expire, doctors and nurses will be powerless to treat the sick and injured. Parents will run out of food and water for their children.
International humanitarian law demands civilians have access to humanitarian support. Occupying powers have a responsibility to ensure adequate provision of the survival of the civilian population. The siege must be lifted. Hostages must be released. Human lives are not bargaining chips.
On the evening of October 12 the UN reported that it had received an order from Israel calling for the evacuation of over a million Palestinians from northern Gaza in less than 24 hours. An order it has described as impossible. If enforced, this order will only exacerbate humanitarian suffering. Civilians' decisions to move must be voluntary. Those who are unable, or unwilling, to leave their homes must remain protected.
The way war is conducted matters. The laws of armed conflict establish unequivocal protections for civilians, aid workers and civilian infrastructure in all conflict zones. It protects access to humanitarian aid for civilians. These rules are not optional; there is no justification for stepping back from these obligations. The international community must not normalize attacks against civilians and civilian objects. We call for an urgent diplomatic process to ensure adherence by all parties to these fundamental obligations – for the protection of the civilian populations in Gaza and Israel and to halt the unraveling of norms and rules that protect civilians everywhere.
Stepping back from these obligations and turning a blind eye to attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure will normalize the abnormal and the abhorrent.
David Miliband, president and CEO of the IRC, said:
“The horrors of the last week tear at the most fundamental tenets of humanitarian work as well as of humanity itself. The Laws of War were developed in order to protect civilians in conflict and it is vital that they are respected in all circumstances. International Humanitarian Law is the way that previous generations have learnt to mitigate the worst of war and I plead for it to be adhered to.”
The IRC is calling on the international community to ensure the following:
- Parties to the conflict respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and take every possible step to:
- Protect civilians from further harm: All parties to the conflict must uphold their obligations under international law and the protections provided for civilians under International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law. Given the densely populated demography of Gaza, parties to conflict should look to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas (EWIPA) to prevent further civilian suffering.
- Ensure that civilian objects are protected: International Humanitarian Law requires armed actors to take all feasible precautions prior to attack, to avoid or minimize incidental harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure. Attacks that cause disproportionate damage to civilians and civilian objects are likewise prohibited. Hospitals and clinics treating the wounded, and schools and other buildings used as shelters for internally displaced persons, are protected civilian objects and should be treated as such.
- Ensure safe and timely humanitarian access to those in need via all avenues: Humanitarian agencies operating in Gaza are reporting an unfolding humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale. Crossings to Gaza, including through Egypt’s Rafah, must be opened for humanitarian goods and staff to safely reach affected communities. Likewise affected populations should be afforded safe passage if they choose to flee.
- Protect aid workers: In line with International Humanitarian Law, relief workers providing humanitarian assistance within Gaza must be protected and facilitated.
- Lift any actions that deprive civilians of goods essential for their survival, including the immediate restoration of water and electricity supply to Gaza. Sieges that deprive civilians of goods essential for their survival are prohibited under International Humanitarian Law. War cannot be waged through the deprivation of civilians, and civilians cannot be made responsible for what is done by the armed forces where they live.
- Support the call of Unicef for a pause in hostilities to allow aid agencies to reach civilians.
- Scale up humanitarian funding. Donors should channel resources promptly to priority humanitarian activities and partners on the ground. We urge donors not to freeze or suspend aid when the needs are only increasing.