Gaza: immediate ceasefire needed
An immediate ceasefire is needed to stop the slaughter of civilians in Gaza and enable full humanitarian access to supply the essentials a besieged population needs and is currently being denied. The current crisis severely escalated with the Hamas attacks of 7 October – but it didn’t start there. Long-term solutions are needed to end decades-long practices of systemic exclusion and the denial of rights, informed by the voices of civil society. Meanwhile people in other countries should be free to protest in solidarity, to demand accountability for atrocities and call for an end to the killing.
It’s a human catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.
On 7 October, Hamas forces launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, going on a ruthless rampage against the civilian population in areas close to the Gaza Strip, killing around 1,400 people and taking over 200 hostage. Israel’s reaction is now causing mass civilian casualties in Gaza, with more than 5,000 people so far reported killed. Over 62 per cent of the fatalities in Gaza are women and children.
These deaths are no collateral damage: they’re what intense aerial bombardment is meant to do when used in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Both Hamas’s initial attack and Israel’s revenge carry the hallmarks of exceptional cruelty and show a blatant disregard for basic humanitarian principles.
Over a million people living in north Gaza have been given an impossible ultimatum: flee or face death. But with borders closed, there’s nowhere safe for them to go. People have been bombed even while trying to comply with the order to head south. Airstrikes in southern Gaza bely any idea that people might be safe if they move there. A ground offensive that appears imminent will only extend the slaughter.
An all-out siege of Gaza has left people without the very basics of life, including water, food, fuel and medicines. The water crisis has become particularly acute. After intensive negotiations, the Israeli authorities have allowed in some small aid convoys across the border from Egypt – but they’re a drop in the ocean compared to what’s needed. Humanitarian aid workers are at risk and unable to operate safely. Several have been killed.
Humanitarian workers must be free to access Gaza and know they can do so without risking their lives. International humanitarian and human rights law must be respected.
The objective of securing the release of hostages seems to be secondary to the Israeli state’s mission to wipe out Hamas. Israeli officials claim civilian casualties are not the objective. But in pursuing their campaign, they’re punishing an entire population for egregious crimes committed by some of its members. This is collective punishment, a war crime prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. The Israeli government’s recent statement that anyone who stays in north Gaza may be considered ‘an accomplice in a terrorist organisation’ assumes people to be guilty on no other basis than geography.
Civilians with no role in or connection to the 7 October attacks are being blamed and punished, including on the ludicrous basis that they should have risen up to overthrow their government, even though they live in conditions of repressed civic space and almost half of them are children.
What’s happening could be characterised as ‘ethnic cleansing’ – an attempt to empty out a territory, the northern part of Gaza, of its population. This is compounded by dehumanising language – including calling Palestinians ‘animals’ – from senior Israeli government figures, something identified as one of the preliminary stages of genocide.
"The scenes of death, destruction & displacement are staggering," says ICRC head of sub-delegation after visiting hospitals in #Gaza.— ICRC in Israel & OT (@ICRC_ilot) October 22, 2023
ICRC is ready to support with medical teams & aid trucks; we need access & security.
Civilians must be protected & receive humanitarian relief. pic.twitter.com/8wI4yecWbp
In #Gaza, we 🇺🇳 will provide assistance where it is needed. We won't confine humanitarian deliveries to one location. We don't want humanitarian aid to be used as a draw to relocate people. That's why we need fuel, to drive throughout Gaza.— Lynn Hastings (@LynnHastings) October 24, 2023
See my @BBCNews interview here:… pic.twitter.com/tDOBF5wDIC
Civic space in the spotlight
Events have commanded global headlines, and they’ve brought global responses. People in many countries have mobilised in protest at killings and other atrocities, and in solidarity with victims.
But protests calling for a peaceful solution to the crisis and expressing solidarity with Palestine and the civilians at risk of losing their lives have in several cases been mischaracterised as antisemitic or in support of terrorism, and have often faced restrictions.
In France the government sought to impose a blanket ban on pro-Palestine demonstrations; a court recently ruled that such protests can only be banned on a case-by-case basis. A banned protest in Paris was broken up with teargas and water cannon. In Germany, some protests have been permitted but others prohibited. When around a thousand people came to a pro-Palestine vigil that was banned in Berlin, police force was used.
In the UK, the home secretary has said that waving the Palestine flag or chanting pro-Palestine slogans may be a criminal offence. In Australia, police in Sydney announced they’d use ‘extraordinary powers’ to search and demand ID from people attending a pro-Palestine demonstration.
It isn’t only protests. In the USA, pro-Palestine groups have reported experiencing harassment and intimidation, critics of the Israeli state have had media appearances pulled and Muslim broadcasters have been taken off air. Academic freedom is at risk, with some wealthy donors threatening to stop their support of universities whose staff and students are perceived to support the Palestinian cause.
Governments have claimed restrictions are justified out of a need to prevent domestic tensions between different communities and protect public order. But social harmony doesn’t result from state diktat – it takes dialogue. And when protests in support of Israel have been allowed to go ahead and pro-Israel voices free to speak out in the media, the double standards are impossible to miss.
The latest restrictions come on top of long-running efforts to make it harder for people to call for boycotts of Israel. The global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement urges the use of these tactics to put pressure on the Israeli state to comply with international human rights laws.
Most USA states have adopted anti-BDS laws, often based on a model law promoted by pro-Israel lobbying groups, and efforts continue to introduce a federal-level law. In France, an anti-discrimination law has been used to limit BDS efforts, and in the UK, the government has introduced an Anti-Boycott Bill that would prevent any public body making any investment decision on the basis of disagreement with a foreign country.
These laws often come with accusations of antisemitism against people and groups demanding compliance with international human rights laws and equal treatment for the people of Israel and Palestine. They’re aimed at depriving civil society and other bodies, such as academic institutions, businesses and local governments, of a legitimate lever that’s proven effective in other areas, such as encouraging climate action, and in past struggles, including the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
It’s impossible to see a way out of the current horrific situation without an immediate ceasefire and full humanitarian access. The first mission must be to stop the ever-mounting death toll and ensure people in Gaza can access the fundamentals of life – including water, food, energy and medicines – that they are being denied.
The siege must end. All hostages must be released. An arms embargo must be imposed to prevent the indiscriminate killings of civilians. Humanitarian workers must be free to access Gaza and know they can do so without risking their lives. International humanitarian and human rights law must be respected.
The alternative is ongoing slaughter and violence, and terror that will leave a stain that will never go away, with tragedy being used to justify further violence, in the region and around the world. An escalating conflict could bring in Hamas allies including Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Both antisemitism and Islamophobia have already flared in many countries and will do so further if the killing doesn’t stop.
The crisis escalated on 7 October, but it didn’t begin there. The siege of Gaza has proved so devastating so quickly because Gaza had already been subjected to a 16-year blockade that has left most people living in poverty. The long struggle has been profoundly unequal: before the current upsurge of conflict, United Nations (UN) figures show that, since 2008, there have been 6,407 Palestinian fatalities, compared to 308 Israelis.
There’s been no serious attempt in a long time to develop a long-term two-state solution that respects the rights of Israelis and Palestinians equally. For too long international human rights law has been flouted, and the Israeli government has been allowed to get away with treating Palestinians, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, as second-class citizens.
Illegal settlements on occupied land, designed to force out and encircle Palestinians and make a Palestinian state physically impossible, need to end. The humiliation has to stop, because hopelessness will only continue to fuel extremism.
But in recent years the prospect of any solution has only receded. Far-right influence has grown in Israel, cultivated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who put together the country’s most extreme government ever. Israel’s international allies have chosen to turn a blind eye to the state’s abuses, including the increasing illegal settling of occupied territories and the long-running blockade of Gaza. States in the region that have recently normalised relations with Israel – Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates – were prepared to downplay the repression of Palestine for strategic reasons.
Now governments that have condemned the targeting of civilians and attacks on critical infrastructure in Ukraine must do the same when it comes to Gaza, or they will be revealed to be hypocrites – and add weight to Russia’s long-running claims that criticisms of its human rights atrocities are partial and political.
International justice is needed. The US government used its veto to prevent a UN Security Council resolution calling for a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian access, as it has consistently done to block resolutions relating to Israel over the years, offering yet another example of the dismal dysfunction of that body. But other avenues should be explored.
The President of the UN General Assembly has called an Emergency Special Session on 26 October. But it will yield little unless states abandon the practice of double standards in calling out perpetrators of violence.
A special session of the UN Human Rights Council should also be held to give the go ahead to increase the resources and capacity of the existing Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalen and Israel, so it can adequately investigate and collect evidence on the current conflict.
The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction in Palestine, since Palestine, unlike Israel, has ratified the Rome Statute. In 2021 the court opened an investigation. It should now accelerate it, ensure it covers the most recent crimes and issue a public statement on its progress. Solutions such as the creation of a special international tribunal to hold those responsible for atrocities to account should also urgently be explored.
Civil society should be free and safe not only to help deliver vital humanitarian aid, but also to collect evidence of human rights violations to feed into any international processes that are put in place. The safety of journalists reporting on the situation should be guaranteed. Several have already been killed while doing their essential work.
States should also commit to respect civic space at home. There can be no room for antisemitism or Islamophobia, but people should be free to speak out and protest to show solidarity, demand an end to the slaughter, urge accountability and call for long-term solutions. Tech and social media companies, which have horrendously failed in their duty to prevent the spread of disinformation and hate speech, need to be held to account.
Time to listen to civil society’s voices
People overwhelmingly want to live in peace, feel secure and be able to access the fundamentals of life. People want to be free – in Gaza, in Israel and in the rest of world. Our shared humanity mustn’t be forgotten in the outrage sparked by the Hamas attacks and the campaign of revenge they’ve aroused.
The spiral of killing must halt. Victims aren’t owed vengeance, which can only fuel more vengeance, but a lasting solution that enables survivors to live their lives in freedom and peace.
As part of this, women – who bear the brunt of conflict – must be enabled to play a key role in resolving it. Several women leaders are uniting under the #WomenForPeace initiative. There is an urgent need to ensure the presence of women’s representatives in decision-making spaces to help resolve the current crisis.
There are enough civil society organisations and empathetic people on all sides urging an end to cycle of violence to allow for healing and reconciliation. Their voices must be heard.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Israel must immediately call a ceasefire and allow unimpeded humanitarian access to Gaza. Hamas must release hostages immediately and return them safely to their families.
The international community must address the root causes of the current conflict, which include attacks on civilians, repeated denials of international human rights law, illegal occupation and institutionalised exclusion, violence and humiliation.
International processes of justice, potentially including a special international tribunal, should be instituted to hold those responsible for atrocities to account.
Cover photo by Hesham Elsherif/Getty Images