Gaza - ICRC invokes
the humanitarian imperative: Stop the killing!
By JACQUES DE MAIO,
ICRC's head of delegation in Israel and the occupied territories, back
July 29, 2014
North Gaza, middle of the
afternoon, on a street in front of a seven-storey building.
A little boy is playing
alone with a football. A man kneels down in front of him and smiles.
Taking the boy's hand in his own and holding it as a caring uncle
would, he says: "May God protect you."
Abdel (not his real name),
the boy’s father, notices the man talking to his son and does not like
it: the stranger is a ‘wanted’ member of a militia. In military jargon
the man is a ‘high-value target’; everybody knows this.
He calls his son over and
sends him to his mother, on the fourth floor. A few minutes later, the
building has been sliced in half by an airstrike. There no longer is a
When the father awakens in
the hospital - the very hospital that was shelled a few days before,
killing patients and injuring scores of civilians, including medical
staff - his first words are: "Where is my family?"
The doctors will tell him
soon enough that his family is dead. His little boy, his wife and his
mother, among others. That his left leg is gone too in an
above-the-knee traumatic amputation. Beside him, a three-year-old
girl, Fatima grimaces in pain. She has shrapnel in her spine, and her
teenage cousin by her side is visibly shell-shocked.
Is this little boy the 226th
Palestinian child to die here since the resumption of this
high-intensity conflict? The 228th? Has this man’s young son been
reduced to yet another statistic?
Meanwhile, fear permeates
the eyes of Israeli children too. For a nation’s civilian population
at large, daily life is disrupted by the threat of indiscriminate
shelling and constant running to shelters. I look back at Fatima*, who
had no shelter to run to, and who may never run or walk again.
The ICRC engages in
discussion with ‘both parties’ about the ‘rules of war’. We talk about
principles such as ‘precautions in attack’, ‘legitimate targets’,
‘concrete military advantage’ and ‘proportionality’. We remind
everybody that if an attack is expected to cause ‘excessive incidental
civilian casualties’ in relation to the concrete and direct military
advantage anticipated, it must be cancelled or suspended. We say
loudly and clearly that in this war, as in any other, it is not
acceptable that soldiers minimize their risks at the expense of
civilians on the other side. We also say it is not acceptable to use
civilians as human shields, in any conflict. We attend diplomatic
conferences, we organize workshops, we ‘raise awareness’ among
belligerents to ‘minimize casualties’. How effective is all this?
In Gaza, we evacuate
war-wounded patients and old people trapped in the rubble of what had
been their homes only a few hours earlier. We visit prisoners captured
in the combat zones. We repair electrical and water lines. Meanwhile
hundreds of thousands of people are ordered to evacuate their homes in
the middle of the night. What happens to those left behind who cannot
flee? Where should they go? To overcrowded centres that may be bombed?
To hospitals or medical emergency services that are not spared by
either of the warring parties? To destroyed neighbourhoods where even
Palestine Red Crescent ambulances are shot at? How many more Shujaiyas
– a sea of rubble, previously home to almost 100,000 thousand people -
does it take before everybody opens their eyes to the gravity of the
By the side of a maimed
father without a family anymore, of a little girl deprived of the
future she is entitled to, I am overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy.
The human cost is simply too
high. Too many women and children are wounded, dying or damaged in
their minds and bodies. This is not about who is to blame for not
respecting this or that specific rule of war, or even about whether
the expected military advantage outweighs the collateral damage.
Academics, lawyers, NGOs, journalists and keyboard warriors will
attend to those questions.
For us, at the ICRC, this is
about stopping the inhumanity of this war. It’s about doing the right
As an ICRC delegate, I
simply raise my hand and say: "I am not just invoking the law now, I
invoke the humanitarian imperative – stop the killing, stop the