InternationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 15

When words fail, we must turn to the law

A crisis. A horror. A tragedy. All words we’ve heard many times over to describe the situation in Gaza. All woefully insufficient.

As a Palestinian, I can assure you if there’s one thing Palestinians aren’t short of, it’s words. You may even recall that in the first weeks of this war, children in Gaza held their own press conference imploring the world “to protect them” so they could “live as other children live”.

But the scale of the violence in Gaza since the attacks on Israel on October 7, which killed about 1,139 people, is unlike anything we’ve experienced before.  Israeli forces have killed an average of 250 Palestinians a day, exceeding the daily death toll of all other conflicts in recent decades. Over one million people have been displaced to Rafah, the only remaining place in Gaza where there is any semblance of a meaningful humanitarian response, waiting for the next military operation that could lead to a bloodbath.

And so, words have begun to fail us. Many now say there simply are no words that justly capture the torment we’re facing. I disagree. There are still some words we can and must fall back on, words that anchor us to our collective humanity. The language of human rights, international law and accountability. Words like obligations, violations, atrocity crimes. The laws of occupation. And the laws of war.

I emphasise these words because they are the right words to use, but also because they counter other words that have come to the fore, such as the language of dehumanisation, which paves the way for atrocity crimes to be committed.

Back in June 2023, I attended my brother’s wedding in the occupied West Bank village where we grew up. If only for a brief moment, we were able to forget about the occupation we live under and the daily abuse that brings. That moment of joy was swiftly crushed when a few days later hundreds of armed settlers marched into our village, firebombing homes and cars and attacking my family, friends and neighbours, in the 10th attack on the village in just six months.

A 27-year-old father of two young children was murdered. Many others were shot and injured. As far as we’re aware, not a single settler has been held to account.

The attacks on my village fitted a trend of increasing insecurity for Palestinians with more frequent and more violent attacks by settlers and Israeli forces occurring across the occupied West Bank. In September, a Save the Children report found that 2023 had become the deadliest year for Palestinian children in the occupied West Bank on record. The number of children killed in the first nine months of the year was triple the number killed in 2022- itself previously the deadliest year on record since 2005. And then came October 7, leading to unprecedented levels of dehumanisation and violence.

Horrifyingly, at least four of the six grave violations against children have been perpetrated since the war began, including children killed in Gaza and Israel, the abduction of children from Israel to Gaza, attacks on hospitals and schools across Gaza, and the denial of humanitarian access for children in Gaza.

At least 29,000 people have been reported killed and 69,000 wounded in Gaza while an estimated 8,000 people are missing, presumed buried under the rubble of bombed-out buildings, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Some of the most inhumane actions carried out by Israeli forces include directing Palestinian civilians to so-called “safe zones” and then bombing these areas, and preventing food, water and medicine from reaching civilians, even as aid agencies warn that nearly every single child in Gaza is at imminent risk of famine.

These extreme levels of violence are no doubt in part a consequence of the increasing dehumanisation of Palestinians. Senior Israeli government officials have labelled Palestinians “human animals”, there have been calls by some journalists for Gaza to be turned “into a slaughterhouse”, and some Israeli soldiers were shown wearing T-shirts depicting pregnant Palestinian women and babies as military targets.

Indiscriminate attacks on civilians, forced displacement, the use of collective punishment and starvation as a weapon of war are all violations of international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes.

Videos have been broadcast to the world showing Israeli bulldozers digging up Palestinian cemeteries, the lifeless bodies of Palestinians run over by military vehicles, and young Palestinian boys blindfolded and stripped naked in the street.

It terrifies me that many world leaders who claim to be champions of human rights and the rules-based order would have seen these same videos and failed to condemn them. In contrast, there was global condemnation when videos surfaced of some of the over 130 hostages still held captive in Gaza after being seized in Israel on October 7.

Just as in so many other places before our failure to prevent the atrocities in Gaza is making a mockery of “never again”.

With everything that we now know, I wonder whether world leaders will finally use their positions of power and influence to bring this bloodshed to an end or whether they will simply continue issuing “statements of concern” and turning a blind eye.

This war should never have begun but it has certainly gone on for far too long. Every day it continues, more and more children will be killed, maimed, orphaned, and left deeply traumatised.

But even if politics continues to undermine humanity, the rule of law can still be upheld. In the weeks, months and years ahead, judgements handed down have the potential to redefine society’s course, leading to a fairer and safer world.

We owe it to all children, including those across the occupied Palestinian territory in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and across Israel, to demand an end to the violence, adherence to international law and to hold to account those who violate it.

They have a right to no less.