We should defend the rights of Gaza’s children

Overseas Development Institute, August 3, 2014

Kevin Watkins

“What does this have to do with us?,” asked a blood-splattered girl called Amina pulled from the rubble of Jabaliya primary school last week. It’s a poignant question. The carnage in Gaza has taken a terrifying toll on Palestinian children. It has also called into question the commitment of western governments to a raft of international human rights provisions aimed at protecting children like Amina trapped in conflict.

Yesterday’s deadly attack on another school, this time in Rafah, was the third in just over a week. In the each case, the UN has notified the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) that the schools have been designated as shelters, providing precise coordinates. In both cases, the schools have then been destroyed by heavy artillery.

The attacks on UN schools-turned-shelters are part of a wider pattern. Distinctions between civilian populations, including children, and combatants have been not so much blurred as erased. Schools, health clinics, children’s playgrounds and beaches have been targeted. The Palestinian civilian body count has now risen to over 1,800. That figure includes almost 300 children – two-thirds aged less than 12. Thousands more have been wounded or maimed. The number traumatised by loss, fear and the psychological effects of exposure to violence is beyond estimation.

Every tragic episode restarts the reel of a now familiar narrative. An Israeli spokesman vehemently denies the IDF is targeting civilians. He points out that Palestinians living in areas that will be targeted are given advance information that they need to leave. Hamas fighters are blamed for operating ‘in the vicinity’ of shelters and, in the words of Israel’s President Netanhayu, “turning schools into legitimate military targets.” Western governments issue half-hearted laments, carefully balancing criticisms of the IDF with condemnation of Hamas.

Meanwhile, the fundamental human rights of Palestinian children – rights that Israel and western governments are legally and morally obliged to uphold – are being violated systematically, and with impunity.

These rights are enshrined in laws, treaties and conventions borne out of past conflicts. Deliberately targeting or failing to protect civilians can constitute a war crime under the 1907 Hague Regulations, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), along with customary international humanitarian law.

Measured against the letter and spirit of international law, the Israeli government’s narrative is a weak defence. Informing civilians that they are in a military target zone when they have nowhere to go, and when designated shelters are hit, does not constitute a credible protection effort. This is true even if, as the Israeli government claims, Hamas is preventing civilians from moving. Similarly, contrary to President Netanyahu’s claim, school buildings and shelters containing civilians cannot be a ‘legitimate target’, irrespective of whether Hamas fighters are in the areas,

Hard-won international provisions aimed at protecting children are being eroded on the streets of Gaza. Take the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is signatory. The Convention establishes the principle that children themselves have rights, including a right to protection from “all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse”.

The UN’s Special Envoy on Education, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has called on the international community to protect schools – and school children – from attack in Gaza. That appeal should have elicited action from the Security Council. The Council is required every year to review six grave violations against the human rights of children, including the killing and maiming through indiscriminate attacks. In 2011 the review procedure was strengthened by the adoption of a resolution – Resolution 1998 – specifically demanding more stringent action against attacks on schools. Yet the Security Council has failed to act despite the rubble of classrooms in Gaza.

When it comes to Israel and the rights of Palestinian children, too many western governments appear to operate a two-tier standard of human rights. Hamas has been justifiably condemned for its indiscriminate, if largely ineffectual, rocket attacks on Israel. Yet the actions of the IDF are subject to mild rebuke, often followed by pledges of increased military assistance.

The double standards are weakening the human rights of children everywhere. In a world gripped by an epidemic of violent assaults on schools and children – by President Assad’s forces and assorted Jihadis in Syria, by Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, and by Boko Haram in Nigeria – international human rights provide a thin line of defence. That line is weakened with every inconsistent application and every blind eye turned.

It is time for the international community to draw a line. Palestinian children have a right to expect something better from the international community, including accountability and justice. Beyond demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, western governments should signal that Israel’s actions against children are disproportionate, illegitimate and unacceptable – and that they will be subject to the full rigor of international law, including possible sanctions.

Written with Maysa Jalbout, Senior Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).