The impact of explosive weapons in Gaza
The ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza illustrates again the urgent need for the international community to set stronger standards regarding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The use of heavy explosive weapons in places where civilians are concentrated creates a predictable pattern of harm.
Regardless of the political complexity, the overall legality of the military actions being undertaken, or the legality of specific attacks, this pattern of harm must be recognised as unacceptable as a starting point for effectively protecting civilians.
Humanitarian impacts from the use of explosive weapons
The violence currently unfolding is characterised primarily by the use in populated areas of heavy explosive weapons. Explosive weapons use blast and fragmentation to kill and injure people in the area where they detonate, as well as to damage objects, buildings and infrastructure. When used in populated areas they tend to cause high levels of harm to individuals and communities. Destruction of infrastructure vital to the civilian population, including water and sanitation, housing, schools and hospitals, results in a pattern of wider, long term suffering. Victims and survivors of explosive weapons can face long-term challenges of disability, psychological harm, and social and economic hardship.
The Gaza strip is one of the world’s most densely populated areas. The pattern of harm from the use of heavy explosive weapons in such an environment is predictable. The following is drawn from an UN OCHA sit-rep of 14 July 2014 (itself based on preliminary assessments on the ground) and it broadly illustrates all of the key humanitarian issues indicated in the paragraph above:
Death, injury and psychosocial impacts:
* At least 178 Palestinians have been killed since 7 July. 138 fatalities (78%) have been civilians, of whom 36 were children.
* 1,361 Palestinians injured, of whom 726 are men, 249 women and 386 are children [based on Palestinian Ministry of Health data].
* At least 22,800 traumatized children in Gaza are in need of psychosocial support.
Housing and displacement
* 1,255 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza resulting in 7,500 Palestinians being displaced.
* About 10,000 people whose homes sustained significant damage but are still inhabitable, require emergency shelter repairs, such as nylon and tarpaulin. About 57,000 individuals living in slightly affected houses (broken windows and damaged doors) are in need of basic shelter assistance, such as plastic sheeting.
* An additional 17,000 Palestinians are taking shelter in UNRWA schools.
Healthcare in danger
* Hospitals operated by the Ministry of Health in Gaza must cope with the large number of traumatic injuries with severely depleted medical supplies.
* Two hospitals, four clinics, one treatment centre for the disabled, and four ambulances have sustained damage, while one doctor has been killed and 19 medical staff have been injured since the start of the emergency.
* Shortages of medicines were at high levels even before the latest crisis. Additional supplies are urgently needed for all essential drugs and disposables, especially those needed for trauma treatment, including burns, as well as anesthesia drugs.
Education under attack
* In addition to those schools now housing displaced people, since the start of the escalation, 72 schools have been affected by shelling due to their close proximity to targeted sites.
Power and water
* Electricity in the northern Gaza Strip has been interrupted as a result of power lines being struck in recent days.
* Due to the interruption of power supply, water services stopped functioning. Some 395,000 people have been affected by damage to the water and sanitation infrastructure.
* Unexploded ordinance presents a major hazard to the population, particularly children, especially when they leave their places of shelter to search for their belongings among the rubble of their destroyed houses. So far, approximately 100 unexploded bombs have been reported throughout the Gaza Strip.
In addition to these challenges, there are potential health impacts associated with toxic remnants of war – the toxic constituents of munitions and with exposure to pulverised building materials (dust).
Effectively framing the humanitarian problem
The humanitarian impact documented above results from the use in populated areas of heavy explosive weapons. Civil society, the ICRC and several UN bodies have spoken out highlighting the severity of the situation. The World Health Organisation has appealed for funding in order to prevent the collapse of the healthcare system. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has stated that, “I have been to Gaza and I have been to Sderot myself and have seen how traumatic these air strikes and rocket attacks are on civilians, especially children. They must stop.” The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, has already condemned the killing of at least 20 children and the injuring of many more, and has warned of a “crisis for the protection of children.”
Many actors are calling on all sides to protect civilians and to abide by the rules of international humanitarian law and human rights law. There are numerous legal arguments that can be brought to bear both on the general conflict situation and in relation to specific attacks. Yet whilst direct attacks targeting civilians are straightforwardly illegal many of the strikes causing the greatest levels of civilian harm are subject to complex legal assessments.
Too often political responses become stalled in arguments over the legality of actions being undertaken, and too often this serves to deflect from the more fundamental questions of whether the humanitarian impact and the processes and practices involved are acceptable or not. We know from experience that there is little prospect of arguments about legality being resolved definitively, at least in the short term. Yet the legality or otherwise of the actions should not stand as a barrier to recognising that the humanitarian outcome is unacceptable. This is not to argue that the law should be abandoned – but if the law does not resolve the matter either in theory or practice then alternative routes must be pursued to effectively prevent and reduce harm to civilians.
Over recent years, the UN Secretary-General, OCHA, the ICRC, NGOs and a growing group of states have raised specific concerns regarding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In particular explosive weapons that have wide area effects.
The UN Secretary-General noted in his 2013 report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict that, “there is increased understanding of the disastrous short-term and long-term impact on civilians of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas” and stated that, “parties to conflict should refrain from the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide-area effect and the Security Council, whenever relevant, should call upon parties to conflict to refrain from such use.”
In its 2011 report on International Humanitarian Law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts the ICRC stated that: “due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects and despite the absence of an express legal prohibition for specific types of weapons, the ICRC considers that explosive weapons with a wide impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas.”
Building on such statements, focused policy discussions on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, undertaken by states, UN agencies, international organisations and NGOs have recognised the scope for setting stronger standards for civilian protection. Against the background of human suffering in Gaza, Syria and elsewhere, responsible states should articulate a collective recognition that the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas creates an unacceptable risk to the civilian population. Whilst such policy steps cannot solve intractable conflicts, such a recognition would provide a stronger starting point for responses to such patterns of violence in the future.