Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territory: attacks on civilians and hospitals must cease

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) condemns the strike on al-Ahli hospital in the Gaza Strip on 17 October 2023, which according to the Palestinian Health Ministry killed more than 500 Palestinian civilians, mainly women and children, and injured hundreds more.

“Civilians and hospitals must be protected at all times”, said Said Benarbia, Director of the ICJ’s MENA Programme. “Intentional attacks on hospitals may amount to war crimes under international humanitarian law and must cease immediately”, added Benarbia. 

Palestinian sources have said that the massacre was caused by an Israeli air strike. The Israeli Defence Forces have denied any responsibility, claiming that it was caused by a failed rocket launch by Palestinian armed groups.

Under the Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law, States have an obligation to investigate war crimes with a view to bringing alleged perpetrators to justice.

The ICJ calls on the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to allocate the necessary resources to respond to the escalating situation in Israel and Gaza with a view to investigating and establishing criminal responsibility for alleged war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law committed by both parties.

According to the ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, the ICC has jurisdiction over potential war crimes committed by Palestinian armed groups in Israel and Israelis in the Gaza Strip, even though Israel is not a State party. In 2015, Palestine acceded to the ICC Statute. In 2021, the Court ruled that its jurisdiction “in the Situation in Palestine extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”

On 12 October the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) ordered the entire population of northern Gaza, that is, more than 1 million people, to evacuate to southern Gaza within 24 hours in advance of a likely military ground offensive.

On 14 October, the World Health Organization (WHO) strongly condemned Israel’s repeated orders for the evacuation of 22 hospitals in the Gaza strip, and called on Israeli authorities to protect health facilities, health workers, patients and civilians.

“The Israeli evacuation order was issued in the absence of safe passage or a safe destination. It may amount to a transfer of parts of the population of the occupied territory, a war crime under the ICC Statute and a serious violation of international humanitarian law”, said Benarbia.  

Under international humanitarian law, hospitals and other medical facilities are considered to be protected civilian objects. Unless they are used for military purposes, they shall be protected at all times and may not be the object of attack.

Under international humanitarian law, all parties to an armed conflict have an obligation to distinguish between military and civilian targets and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from attacks and from the effects of military operations. Indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, including those perpetrated using weapons that are indiscriminate by nature, amount to breaches of international humanitarian law. Intentionally directing attacks against civilians amounts to war crimes under the under the Statute of the ICC and customary international law.

Furthermore, the ICJ is deeply concerned by reports of the use of white phosphorus by Israel in other military operations in Gaza and Lebanon.

“Israel must refrain from using white phosphorus, and any other means and methods of warfare that are inherently indiscriminate or that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering”, added Benarbia. 

White phosphorus has the potential to cause civilian harm due to the severe burns it causes and its lingering long-term effects on survivors. While it is not per se a prohibited weapon under international humanitarian law, its use in densely populated areas, such as the Gaza Strip, is prohibited as it violates the international humanitarian law requirement that parties to the conflict take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life.

The ICJ also condemns the continued detention by Palestinian armed groups of approximately 200 hostages.

“Hostage-taking is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and those detained must be released immediately”, said Benarbia. 

The ICJ also reiterates calls by the United Nations Secretary General, WHO and others for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to enable humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.



Said Benarbia, Director of the ICJ’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, email: said.benarbia(at)icj(dot)org

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