As armed hostilities between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups enter their second month, the death toll in Gaza is reported to have already surpassed 10,000, with women and children feared to make up two-thirds of total fatalities. Civilians in Gaza remain subjected to a ‘complete siege’ imposed by Israel which has resulted in an acute lack of electricity and fuel while food and drinking water are severely scarce.
Widespread reports of civilians being hit by airstrikes while seeking shelter in protected facilities such as hospitals, while being transported in ambulance convoys, or while staying at UN schools-turned-refuges for displaced individuals and families, are sources of great concern and alarm. Based on news reports, information shared by UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations, as well as civilian testimonies, CIVIC has concluded that there is virtually no safe place for civilians in Gaza.
Telecommunication shutdowns have also prevented civilians from sharing and/or having access to immediate information related to their safety, to remain in contact with Red Crescent emergency services and other humanitarian providers, and to stay in touch with relatives or other community members. Access to reliable and timely information and means of communication are critical for civilians’ decision-making and their ability to seek safety. CIVIC urges all parties to abstain from attacking or disconnecting telecommunications in Gaza, as it disproportionately affects civilians and could mean the difference between life and death in some situations.
Even though civilians undertake deliberate, planned, life-saving practices to protect themselves and their community, armed actors remain the primary duty bearers under international humanitarian law. They are always required to distinguish between civilians and combatants and ensure proportionality in all attacks.
CIVIC further urges Israel to ensure that its evacuation warnings can be realistically acted upon by giving enough time to civilians to leave, creating safe passageways, and ensuring that civilians have safe places to go to. In many cases, these conditions appear to have not been met. Civilians who decide to stay or simply are unable to move, such as many elderly, sick, or wounded, cannot be forced to evacuate, and remain protected under international humanitarian law.
Similar precautions should be taken by Israel’s military in places where Palestinian fighters may blend in with civilian groups or facilities. While Hamas and Palestinian armed groups should never take civilians as human shields, a practice that could amount to war crimes, Israel is nonetheless obligated to take the presence of civilians into account, apply the principle of distinction, take all feasible precautions to spare civilians, and not launch attacks that are likely to cause disproportionate harm to civilians.
The situation has become untenable for more than two million people in Gaza. A humanitarian ceasefire is needed now. We urge countries who have abstained from calling for a humanitarian ceasefire to do so immediately and to maximize their efforts to ensure the protection of civilians, including those unlawfully held by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups.
Statements of good intentions are clearly not enough to save civilian lives; women, men, and children in Gaza need immediate and meaningful actions to protect them.
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Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that envisions a world in which no civilian is harmed in conflict. Founded in 2003 by Marla Ruzicka, CIVIC now works in dozens of countries. Learn more at www.civiliansinconflict.org and follow CIVIC on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.