Thousands of Palestinians are fleeing to already overwhelmed areas in the south of Gaza through unsafe conditions that could especially pose a risk to children, at least 447 of whom have already been killed in Israeli air strikes since Saturday.
“Moving from Gaza to Khan Younis is a long way, it’s something that’s very risky especially when you have kids with you and need to move very quickly, the roads are not very stable and there’s a lot of bombardment on the way,” Al Jazeera’s Youmna ElSayed reported on Friday.
As some families in the northern part of the Gaza Strip make their way south with hopes of finding a safer place and basic necessities, here is a look at international laws that are meant to protect children.
What laws of war protect civilians and children?
The main pillars of protection for children during armed conflict are the Geneva Conventions.
The Geneva Conventions form the core of international humanitarian law. Their four conventions were adopted over a series of treaties between 1864 and 1949.
The fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II, is centred on affording protection to civilians, including in occupied territories.
On July 6, 1951, the still newly formed state of Israel ratified the Geneva Conventions – one of 196 countries to have done so.
How do the Geneva Conventions apply to Palestinian children?
Several articles and additional protocols, particularly in the fourth convention, afford protection to children during armed conflict.
- Establishing hospitals and safety zones for children under the age of 15
- Ensuring access to “essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics” for children in areas that are under siege
- Special care for children who are orphaned or separated from their families
- Evacuating children to safe areas and reuniting them with their families
- When children are evacuated, ensuring that “ministers of all religions, medical personnel, and medical equipment” are available where children are moved.
Articles and additional protocols generally concerning humanitarian relief and medical support also apply to the protection of children, according to Ka Lok Yip, assistant professor at the College of Law, Hamad Bin Khalifa University.
“The main source of protection for children in armed conflicts derives from the children’s status as ‘civilians’ assuming that they are not taking a direct part in hostilities,” said Lok Yip.
So how is Israel faring on these different requirements of international law?
How are children affected by Israel’s attacks on Gaza?
In addition to the hundreds of children who have been killed by Israeli air strikes, children in Gaza are also being deprived of food and medicine – in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention.
That is because Israel announced a “total blockade” of Gaza after the Hamas attack in southern Israel last Saturday, making clear that it would not allow food, medicines, fuel and other essential commodities into the coastal enclave.
“We barely have enough food to feed our children,” Zainab Matar, a mother of four, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday. “We can’t keep our children warm at night because we lack proper clothing.”
International organisations have been calling for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, claiming that Gaza’s medical facilities are at “breaking point“. So far, Israel has refused to budge, and has bombed the Rafah crossing that connects the enclave to Egypt.
Power and generators that have stopped working are also putting newborns in incubators at risk, according to a statement from Fabrizio Carboni, the International Committee of the Red Cross regional director for the Near and Middle East.
Experts have said that the widespread chaos children have experienced is already going to have a grave and long-lasting effect on their psychological and emotional wellbeing.
What about education?
The fourth Geneva Convention says that children have a right to the protection of their cultural environment and their education.
Yet, already, Israel has bombed dozens of schools in the Gaza Strip, including several run by the United Nations, which were also serving as shelters where people moved after their houses and neighbourhoods were attacked in missile strikes.
In all, at least 90 educational institutions have been damaged in Israeli bombing so far.
International law also requires occupying forces to ensure the education of those living under their control.
If Israeli forces launch a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip, as they have declared they will, it will be hard for them to live up to this requirement under law, since many schools and universities are now little more than bombed-out shells.
Who can prosecute violations of international law?
Courts such as the International Criminal Court at The Hague can launch an investigation to determine whether casualties in Palestine and Israel are in violation of international law. Activists have called on the ICC to break its silence on Israeli aggression in Gaza.
The ICC has, in the past, begun investigations into potential war crimes committed by Israeli forces in Palestinian territories, but has not held anyone accountable to date.
Some countries also have domestic proposals from lawmakers that relate to making assistance to Israel contingent on its adherence to international laws.
Bill number HR 2407 or “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act” was reintroduced to the US Congress in May.
It calls on banning Israel’s government from using US tax dollars in the occupied West Bank for violations including “the military detention, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention”.
Betty McCollum, a congresswomen behind the bill, said that the United States was providing billions to Israel’s government each year – money that should not go towards actions that violate international law and cause harm but instead to “Israel’s security”.
What has happened to past violators of war laws?
Although the Geneva Conventions require violations to be punished, prosecutions have rarely occurred in the past for a variety of reasons, including that “the State officials themselves have been implicated, the accused persons are not within the jurisdiction of the States,” or because of “other political sensitivity,” said Lok Yip via email.
In the event of potential violations, investigations and prosecutions are handled by the ICC. In some cases, special courts may also be set up.
However, Israel, the United States, and Russia are among countries that do not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC.
In March, the ICC indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes in Ukraine, including the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia – a move that the Kremlin claimed was for the children’s safety.
Since the court relies on member states for this, it has not been able to arrest Putin.