Fuel is “needed to power hospital generators, ambulances, and water pumps,” wrote Sari Bashi for the NYR Online on October 30. “Israel…cannot block a life-saving supply, which is what fuel is to Gaza right now.” She implored the US government to “insist that Israel immediately allow monitored fuel and other supplies into Gaza via Egypt and its own territory, restore water and electricity to all parts of Gaza, and abide by its obligations to protect civilians in Gaza.” Yesterday, in response to pressure from the US State Department, Israel’s war cabinet authorized trucks to bring 70,000 liters of fuel into the Gaza Strip daily, the first deliveries of fuel in more than five weeks. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the minimum amount needed to sustain just the organization’s humanitarian operations is 120,000 liters every day, without regard for other humanitarian needs. Prior to the war, nearly a million liters of fuel entered Gaza each day.
Bashi, who lives in the West Bank, is the program director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), where she leads the organization’s research. An expert in international humanitarian law, before she joined HRW she cofounded Gisha, an Israeli non-profit dedicated to protecting Palestinians’ freedom of movement. As she wrote on October 13, international humanitarian laws “enshrine basic principles of humanity that are nonnegotiable.”
Yesterday, I called Bashi to ask about conditions in the West Bank, what international law says about the protection of hospitals during wartime, and the United States’ responsibilities to Palestinian and Israeli civilians.
Daniel Drake: What has life in the West Bank been like the last few weeks?
Sari Bashi: People are worried. The Palestinian Authority just declared that, beginning tomorrow, schools would move to online learning and other kinds of government meetings will be canceled. People are worried that the escalation in Gaza is going to spread here, too. There have been nightly incursions by the Israeli military into West Bank towns; they are arresting hundreds of people and in some cases closing businesses and demolishing homes. Since October 7, 204 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Another concern is that there has been a stepped-up use of airstrikes. It’s not that the Israeli government never used missiles in the West Bank, but it is quite unusual, and in the last six weeks the IDF has launched a number of missiles at mosques and other buildings in the northern West Bank. They claim to be targeting Hamas fighters, and under ordinary circumstances, that would have been an operation for ground troops. Airstrikes, as we’ve seen in Gaza, are more likely to cause civilian casualties.
And then yesterday there was an attack on Israeli security forces at a checkpoint near Jerusalem, which is not unprecedented, but it’s not often that members of armed groups carry out attacks against Israeli security forces in the West Bank. It’s more often been individuals. But in this case Hamas took responsibility. So I think people here are worried that the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, which is raging in Gaza, is spreading here as well.
What kind of work is HRW focusing on right now in Israel and Palestine?
We’ve published some preliminary research on the October 7 atrocities, and we’re working on a more detailed report, looking at questions of intent, command and control, and the particular nature of the abuses—what legal definitions would apply. Two HRW conflict and crisis researchers have spent quite a lot of time interviewing people and visiting sites in southern Israel to get more information.
On the Gaza side, we’re also doing a lot of short-term research pieces. We don’t have physical access to Gaza; our Gaza researcher was not there when the hostilities broke out, so we don’t have somebody on the ground right now. Instead we’re using digital techniques—examining satellite imagery and video and audio verification—alongside telephone interviews and other investigative methods. Perhaps most importantly, we’re conducting a legal analysis of some of the attacks. We documented, for example, a number of the airstrikes on medical facilities in Gaza, which we found to be apparently unlawful. That research is particularly important, because the issue of hospitals during wartime has become so contested. We’re trying to clarify the international humanitarian law protections that hospitals are supposed to have, and to point out where we believe the Israeli military is not abiding by those protections.
What are the protections that hospitals are supposed to have? If a hospital is alleged to be harboring some number of militants, or serving as an outpost or command center for military operations, what are the international laws by which the IDF is supposed to abide?
First of all, using hospitals for military purposes—by locating personnel or weapons inside them—would be a grave violation of international humanitarian law because it puts civilians at risk. We’re not in a position to verify the general claims that the Israeli military has made about military use of hospitals in Gaza.
What I can say is that, because of the critical work that hospitals do, treating the sick and injured during wartime, even if armed groups are unlawfully using hospitals for military purposes, there is a high threshold of protection that still applies. It’s not enough that a hospital is being used for military purposes, it has to actually be used to commit acts harmful to the enemy. And even if that threshold is reached, the IDF is supposed to give clear warnings if it intends to attack. And even then, the principles of proportionate response and the ban on indiscriminate attacks are supposed to apply. In plain English, part of our concern is that the Israeli military is warning hospitals to evacuate under circumstances in which there’s no safe way to leave and no safe place to get to. I’m talking about patients in the intensive care unit. Premature babies on incubators, people on life support machines. Those people can’t leave. That’s why evacuation should always be a last resort.
The other concern I have is that even before the Israeli military attacked some of these hospitals, all but one in northern Gaza had stopped functioning, because the Israeli military had systematically drained the Gaza Strip of life-saving humanitarian supplies, especially the fuel that hospitals need to function. Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s main hospital, doesn’t have enough fuel to power its equipment, or even to turn on the lights during surgery. There are multiple reports of patients dying after dialysis machines stopped or babies dying after incubators stopped. Willfully impeding the delivery of relief supplies, in particular life-saving fuel, is a war crime.
When war crimes are being committed, what kind of leverage is there for international bodies to press the legal case to enforce international law? After the fact, what mechanisms exist to hold individuals, organizations, or governments accountable for crimes they have committed?
The most urgent mechanism to enforce the laws of war is political. The international community needs to insist on compliance. The United States government—which under ordinary circumstances gives the Israeli military $3.8 billion worth of military assistance every year, and now there’s another $14 billion on the table—should urgently and immediately tell the IDF to reopen the Israeli border crossings into Gaza and to allow humanitarian aid and life-saving fuel into the Strip, as the Israeli government has done during previous conflicts. It could have been done six weeks ago, and it can be done today if the United States government decides that compliance with basic principles of humanity is part of its foreign policy. Beyond that, Human Rights Watch has called for a suspension of military assistance and arms transfers to the Israeli military, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, because of the real risk that such weapons will be used to commit grave abuses against civilians. So, the United States, the UK, Canada, and Germany should suspend all military assistance to the Israeli military, and Iran should stop arming Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
To be clear, by massacring and kidnapping civilians, Hamas and Islamic Jihad committed horrific war crimes on October 7, and they continue to unlawfully hold civilian hostages and indiscriminately fire rockets at Israeli communities. For its part, the Israeli military is unlawfully withholding life-saving aid and conducting unlawful airstrikes and other attacks on civilian institutions in Gaza. In 2021 the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into potential serious international crimes committed in Palestine since 2014. The prosecutor recently made clear that his investigation now includes the crimes committed in Israel and Palestine since October 7. That investigation has been ongoing without any visible results, and the prosecutor should hurry up. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it took just months for arrest warrants to be issued. There shouldn’t be a different standard of accountability for the parties in this conflict.
We didn’t have to get to this point. We didn’t have to see telecommunications get shut down so that ambulance drivers can’t communicate with hospitals and people trapped under rubble can’t call rescue workers. Powerless water pumps and desalination plants can’t give people clean drinking water. Sewage is flowing in the streets of Gaza because there’s no way to pump it out. For the 1.5 million people who are displaced and don’t have access to proper sanitation equipment or enough food and clean water, there’s been a sharp rise in the spread of infectious diseases, in particular among small children. There has been an eightfold increase in cases of diarrhea in children under the age of five. This didn’t have to happen, and it could get much better today if the United States government insists that the Israeli military stops blocking fuel from entering Gaza, opens the border crossings into the Strip, and lets in the life-saving relief supplies to which civilians in Gaza have a right.