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Israel’s Collective Punishment of Gaza is a Crime

Indiscriminate bombing and starving Palestinians of food, water and electricity is collective punishment. But instead of condemning these war crimes, Western politicians are cheering them on.

Flames and smoke rise from a residential building following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Gaza. (Photo by Mohammed Dahman/Getty Images)

‘Everywhere you go in Gaza, you see death’, said Khamis Elessi, a consultant in the Gaza Strip.

A fourteen-year-old child in Gaza has experienced five successive bombing campaigns and lived their entire life under siege. Former Prime Minister David Cameron once described the densely populated area as a prison camp. He’s right. It is blockaded by land, sea and air. And its jailer has cut water, electricity and fuel. Their crime? Being Palestinian.

As Israel responds to Hamas’ surprise attack on Saturday in its usual indiscriminate and merciless fashion, it is being described as a newer, worse version of the same challenge Gazans have faced for decades: basic survival. And the already slim chances are shrinking further, which residents of Gaza are coming to terms with.

Entire generations are being wiped out; one airstrike killed 19 members of the same family. ‘Our kids deserve better’ is a common sentiment amongst those who survive the onslaught. Scenes of parents bidding farewell to their children have become agonisingly frequent, as charities warn that children are paying the heaviest price

More than 800 Palestinians have already been murdered, with thousands more injured. The stubbornly high death toll is likely to increase considerably. More than 120,000 Palestinians have already been displaced — a feature that has become so painfully and intrinsically wedded to generations of Palestinian identities.

Several health facilities have been targeted and medical staff are overwhelmed. A Palestinian nurse was tending to the wounded when she found out her husband, also a doctor, had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. She then had to break the tragic news to her daughter. Marketplaces and mosques have been reduced to rubble, killing dozens. Meanwhile, thousands of residents in Gaza have been forced to take refuge in United Nations Refugee Agency schools. Still, they are not guaranteed safety, with numerous reports of schools being hit by Israeli airstrikes.

Collective Punishment

In the words of Hussam Zomlot, the head of the Palestine mission to the UK, who lost six family members in Israel’s attacks: ‘My cousin is not Hamas. These kids are not Hamas’. 

And yet the chilling words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are instructive: ‘We are just getting started. What Hamas will experience will be difficult and terrible.’ 

The word Hamas is being treated as synonymous with the ordinary Palestinian population in Gaza. Indeed, there should be no illusions about what the Israeli government’s response is: remorseless collective punishment.

The Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, wasted no time in announcing a ‘complete siege’ on Gaza, including a ban on food, electricity and fuel. An Israeli member of the Knesset for the Likud Party took to Twitter to call for the use of a nuclear bomb on the Strip. If such sentiments sound ominously similar to the words of Israeli far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call in March to ‘wipe out’ a Palestinian village, it’s because ethnic cleansing of Palestinians has long been the Israeli strategic objective. 

An Egyptian human rights group said it had to halt the aid of supplies into Gaza because of Israeli warnings they would be bombed, seemingly corroborating Israel’s Channel 12 report of the Israeli military’s intention to target trucks carrying humanitarian aid. The Rafah Crossing connecting Gaza to Egypt — the only one not controlled by Israel and the only remaining gateway to the rest of the world — was struck and subsequently closed, as detailed by Reuters. 

British-Palestinian surgeon Professor Ghassan Abu-Sittah’s experience of a trauma hospital in Gaza, washing a burns patient with regular soap due to a shortage of supplies as a consequence of the 17-year-siege, is a metaphor for the humanitarian catastrophe visited upon Gazans.

Amid so much inflicted death, destruction and misery, it is clear nothing and nobody is off limits for Israel’s forces. The collective punishment of a civilian population amounts to a war crime under international law, as well as potentially a crime against humanity and the crime of genocide, some international law experts have pointed out

That Benjamin Netanyahu warned residents of Gaza to ‘leave now,’ yet proceeded to pound the only route to do so, captures the immorality of the Israeli position. 

Importantly, the catastrophic events that are unfolding — and will exacerbate — are not occurring in a vacuum. This is not the site of a symmetrical conflict that is only four days old. Israel has for years operated with impunity yet faced no accountability, giving it carte blanche to systematically oppress Palestinians. Since 2007, Israel has placed Gaza, home to approximately 2 million people, under an uncompromising land, air and sea blockade. The enclave has virtually no industry and suffers from a chronic lack of water, fuel and electricity.

According to the United Nations, around half the population is unemployed and more than two-thirds are reliant on development aid. Approximately 800,000 children in Gaza have never known life without a blockade. Four in five are also living with depression and grief. To compound matters, the residents are regularly subjected to violence from Israeli forces, never wholly recovering from previous bombardment but always being met with newer, more vicious rounds.

Escalating War Crimes

Now, as Israel readies for a ground invasion, the same cycle is repeating itself and could prove the most fatal yet. ‘The scope of this is going to be bigger than before and more severe. It’s not going to be clean’, Israel’s spokesperson forewarned. In 2008, Israel unlawfully and extensively used white phosphorous in its twenty-two-day assault. In 2014, over a span of fifty days, Israel murdered more than 2,000 Palestinians and displaced half a million. It does not bear thinking about what apocalyptic scenes will be broadcast on our screen if Israel is committing to outdoing its own depravity.

There should be no attempt to rationalise the carnage that looms as amounting to Israel’s hand being forced into such an uncharacteristically devastating act of retaliation, because collective punishment is a long-held Israeli practice, and not just inside Gaza. Over the years in the West Bank, Israel has demolished hundreds of homes, leaving homeless thousands of people who had done no wrong and were not suspected of any wrongdoing. 

It faced no retribution or accountability then and will not now. Presidents from the United States to the European Commission have wasted no time offering the familiar robotic renditions about Israel’s right to defend itself. In Britain, the death and dehumanisation of Palestinians is so internalised that it’s not only getting completely overlooked but encouraged too. Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer declared that Israel has a ‘right’ to cut off water and power to Gaza — a war crime that breaches Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. David Lammy, the probable next foreign secretary, stated that a ground invasion would be ‘acceptable’. Presenters at major broadcasters have firmly defended the notion that Israel should not ‘hold back’. 

Israel’s latest chapter in its decades-long oppression of the Palestinians is clearly geared towards obliterating and erasing Palestinians who have already been on the receiving end of systematic ethnic cleansing and land dispossession. More innocent Palestinian blood will be spilt, more intergenerational trauma will build, and again, the Palestinians will have to pick themselves up. 

The UN Secretary-General once referred to Gaza as ‘hell on earth’. It should therefore be inconceivable that matters decay further. Israel is lamentably keen on testing that theory. It is ergo a moral imperative for Israel’s punitive strategy of collective punishment to be unambiguously condemned, not encouraged.