On Tuesday evening, an Israeli airstrike targeted the main compound of Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, resulting in the deaths of 500 Palestinian civilians, including women and children, as reported by the Palestinian Health Ministry in the besieged enclave.
The hospital, operated by a Christian charity, not only provided medical care to hundreds of individuals who had sustained serious injuries during the week-long Israeli bombing campaign but also sheltered dozens of civilians who had been displaced by relentless airstrikes.
Following this tragic event, Israel has put forward different explanations for what transpired. Initially, the Israeli military claimed that Palestinian fighters used the hospital as cover to launch rockets, and that their missile inadvertently struck the hospital. However, the narrative has since shifted, with blame now being placed on the Palestinian armed group Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Israel accused PIJ of misfiring a rocket from a cemetery near the hospital, resulting in the hospital’s destruction.
Nevertheless, experts and human rights organizations have investigated similar Israeli claims in the past and found them to be unsubstantiated. These claims often revolve around the accusation that groups like Hamas and PIJ use civilians as human shields. Tel Aviv has employed disproportionate firepower against Palestinian fighters who primarily rely on small firearms and homemade rockets to target Israelis.
“In a situation like this, even if we were to trust the Israeli side and accept that there were combatants in the hospital firing rockets, you still have the principle of proportionality, which means you cannot kill 500 innocent people,” stated Neve Gordon, a professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London.
Israel has repeatedly used the argument of civilians as human shields to justify its use of US-backed airpower in Gaza. The Israeli blockade, in place for 17 years, has affected over 2 million people and even basic necessities must be smuggled in.
During the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the international community often relies on the version provided by Israel due to strict control over access for independent investigators and humanitarian workers to the region, which the Palestinians aspire to include in a future state of their own.
In May 2021, Israel’s war in Gaza saw a similar pattern of blame-shifting, with Israel attempting to attribute high civilian casualties to groups like Hamas. However, access for independent investigations and verification is often limited.
Israel’s use of the human shield argument has led to the destruction of infrastructure such as Gaza’s only power plant, resulting in collective punishment of Palestinians. Neve Gordon contends that what Israel did constitutes a “war crime.”