Israel must be held to account before the next bloodbath

Israel's killing of 274 civilians in Nuseirat to rescue four hostages on 8 June shows its disdain for international law. A global failure to hold it to account is tantamount to tacit acceptance.

Israel must be held to account before the next bloodbath

The operation to retrieve four Israeli hostages from the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza may have involved war crimes committed by both Israel and armed Palestinian factions, according to the UN. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, called the Israeli special forces operation “a massacre” after at least 274 civilians were killed and 698 wounded, staggering numbers even in the context of this brutal war.

It is not the first time that dozens of innocent civilians have been killed in Israeli hostage rescue missions. Another 74 Palestinians were killed in a similar hostage-freeing operation in February. Israel’s military spokesman put the Nuseirat number at “under 100”, but medics at two hospitals said they received more than 100 dead each. Of those killed, 64 were children, and 57 were women. Many died in a nearby market that was bombed by Israel to provide cover. There has been no suggestion that the market harboured Hamas fighters. Several eyewitnesses said it was “packed with people”.

Disregarding the law

The New York Times quoted an Israeli air force source as saying they “began striking dozens of nearby targets... to give the rescuers enough time and ample cover to get the captives to freedom”. Israeli media reported that special forces soldiers gained access to the camp by dressing as civilians in an aid truck. UN Special Rapporteur of the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese called this “humanitarian camouflage”.

International humanitarian law requires militaries to “take all feasible precautions” to spare civilians and refrain from launching assaults if the anticipated death toll “would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. International law also prohibits indiscriminate attacks, as well as ‘perfidy’ (soldiers dressing as civilians when it leads to death or injury). This is to protect civilians, who it endangers when hostile forces cannot distinguish between them and opposing militaries (hence why soldiers in combat wear uniforms).

Kenneth Roth, a director of Human Rights Watch for almost two decades, said an investigation by the International Criminal Court is needed because Israel has no record of investigating senior Israeli soldiers for war crimes.

The world's tacit acceptance of Israel's unlimited killing in Gaza is disturbing, not least because we know where global silence leads.

Regarding Israel's duty to comply with international humanitarian law in the Nuseirat rescue mission, Roth wrote in The Guardian that "the available evidence suggests that Israel fell short in several deadly respects", adding that there were "questions about its necessity", given that far more hostages would be freed under a prisoner swap.

How atrocities happen

Israel has killed approximately 40,000 Palestinians in Gaza since it began its war after Hamas's 7 October attack on Israel, which resulted in 1,200 Israelis being killed and about 230 captured. The death toll now constitutes almost 2% of Gaza's population, but thousands more remain unaccounted for.

No right-minded person would deny that the tragedy and suffering that the Palestinians are enduring is unbearable. The world's tacit acceptance of Israel's unlimited killing in Gaza is disturbing, not least because we know where global silence leads.

War crimes trials can often have a profound impact beyond their legal outcomes, offering crucial insights into how societies come to perpetrate atrocities. One such example is the trial of senior Nazi and Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann, famously chronicled by the historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt.

This, plus others from the Balkans and Rwanda, reveal how ordinary citizens can become complicit in extraordinary evil, driven by the drumbeat of ideological fervour or ethnic hatred that politicians leverage. 

A lack of censure and continued support of allies has emboldened Israel to continue its disproportionate war on Gaza.

The Rwandan genocide trials, for instance, showed how hundreds of thousands of Hutus came to slaughter their Tutsi neighbours in 1994. Events preceding the genocide led to an ideology in which a Tutsi rebel group was seen as an alien force intent on reinstating a Tutsi monarchy and enslaving all Hutus. When Tutsi rebels shot down the plane carrying the peace-seeking (Hutu) Rwandan president, ferocious violence erupted within hours. In just three months, between 500,000 and a million Rwandans had died. Most were killed in their villages by neighbours using rifles and machetes. Today, 'divisionism' is still a crime in Rwanda.

Lives of unequal value

Understanding the scale and speed of such atrocities would be impossible without these trials. That is why truth through trials and accountability is so important for Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. The bombing of schools and hospitals in Nuseirat, Israeli soldiers disguising themselves as Palestinian workers, their disregard for civilian safety, and the disproportionate Israeli response all raise concerns about Israel's valuation of Palestinian lives.

This is perhaps best evidenced by the country's wild celebrations of the return of four Israeli hostages while completely ignoring that 274 Palestinians were killed by "the most moral army in the world" in the process. If Israel feels that it has an open invitation to kill almost 300 Palestinians for the sake of four Israelis, the same thinking will apply to the occupied West Bank, where there is no Palestinian military to protect civilians.

Almost 40,000 Palestinians (mostly children and women) have now been killed, compared to 1,200 Israelis. This disproportionate toll suggests that Israel feels emboldened to continue by its lack of censure from around the globe and with the continued support of allies.

One can only conclude that Israelis do not see the preservation of human life as equally important regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality and that, for them, an Israeli life is worth more than a Palestinian life. The Nuseirat massacre is a stark reminder of this. Alas, it may not be the last.

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