Yesterday, Israel and Hamas agreed to a temporary ceasefire for five hours to provide a humanitarian relief, but even this ‘truce’ was disrupted when three mortars were fired into Israel two hours into the break. Israel had earlier agreed to a ceasefire proposal that would have ended the current conflict, but it was rejected by Hamas. There was hope that this ‘temporary’ truce could become long term, but as soon as the truce ended at 3pm, rockets were fired into Israel. Now Israel has launched a ground incursion in the Gaza Strip, in order to “damage the underground tunnel terrors constructed in Gaza leading into Israeli territory.”
Israel warned Palestinian civilians to move out of harm’s way, with text messages and telephone warnings that include, “For your safety you have to evacuate your house as soon as possible.” But Hamas has long hidden behind civilians – as Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu correctly noted earlier this week “We are using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”
While some commentators have been claiming that Hamas’ placing of military assets in civilian areas can be explained by the small dense nature of the Gaza Strip, there is in fact overwhelming evidence that these claims are wrong. It is not simply a situation of Hamas fighters shooting rockets from in or near residential buildings but of Hamas using civilian infrastructure including hospitals, mosques and, even UN administered schools to hide or store its weaponry.
Just this Wesdnesday, rockets were found in a school in Gaza operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). According to UNRWA, the weapons were found in “the course of the regular inspection of its premises.” UNRWA released a statement that said:
“UNRWA strongly condemns the group or groups responsible for placing the weapons in one of its installations. This is a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said in response:
“Yet again, Gaza terrorists abuse UN facilities to carry out their violent activities. Hamas and other terror groups are determined to put civilians in harm’s way and will respect nothing in their violent frenzy.” He added, “We expect the UN and the international community to condemn and to act strongly against this brazen violation of international humanitarian law, which endangers children and UN humanitarian activities.”
Meanwhile, Hamas is reportedly using Gaza City’s main hospital as its headquarters – which under laws of war would arguably render it a legitimate military target. The Washington Post reported on July 15 that Shifa Hospital in Gaza City has become “a de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders, who can be seen in the hallways and offices.”
Israel also has evidence of Hamas using mosques for military purposes. According to Israeli military sources, on July 12 the Al-Farouq Mosque in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza was found to be used for storing rockets and weapons and as a compound for Hamas operations. Photos uploaded to the Facebook page of the congregation of the Al-Farouq Mosque also indicate that the mosque was used by Hamas and was frequented by operatives of the Hamas military wing (see here).
All of these are clear war crimes. As International Humanitarian Law specialist Laurie Blank of Emory University recently explained:
“Hamas’s use of civilians and civilian buildings in Gaza as a shield is well known. Media reports tell of rockets being launched from residential buildings and schoolyards, munitions stored in houses, mosques and hospitals, Hamas leaders using civilian homes as command posts, and civilians being encouraged to go up on their roofs as human shields. These reports unfortunately rarely, if ever, mention that such conduct violates the law and, even more important, puts civilians at ever greater risk of death and injury.
Using human shields is not a romanticized effort at neighborhood defense – it is a war crime. Using hospitals as munitions depots or sites for rocket launchers endangers every civilian who needs medical treatment, because once the hospital is used for military purposes, it loses its protection from attack. Using houses for all manner of military activity amounts to using the civilian population as a shield and risks the life of every civilian in the neighborhood. This conduct demonstrates that Hamas not only views every civilian and every city in Israel as a target – which is wholly illegal – but that it also views every civilian and every neighborhood in Gaza as an expendable pawn in a propaganda war, a tragic and equally illegal approach.”
Hamas’ willingness to put Gazans in harm’s way to protect its military assests may also explain Hamas’ diminishing popularity with the people it claims to represent. In an earlier blog post I referred to a Pew poll which found that 63% of Gazans surveyed held negative views of Hamas.
Similarly, the Washington Institute noted that a credible poll has found that Gazans are solidly against Hamas policies, with a large majority, opposing Hamas rule altogether. The poll taken on June 15-17, found that when rocket fire increased, 70 percent of the poll respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Hamas should maintain a ceasefire with Israel in both Gaza and the West Bank.” This attitude is supported by the 73 percent of Gazans who said Palestinians should adopt “proposals for (nonviolent) popular resistance against the occupation.” Similarly, when asked if Hamas should accept Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’ position that the new unity government renounce violence against Israel, a clear majority (57 percent) answered in the affirmative. The poll also found that Gazans are unhappy with Hamas governance – on multiple levels, including crime, official corruption and the “presence of Palestinian militias that are not organized under the formal security structure”. In light of this dissatisfaction with Hamas, most respondents favoured the prospect of the Palestinian Authority (PA) taking over Gaza, as 88 percent agreed with the statement “The PA should send officials and security officers to Gaza to take over administration there”.