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Israel Is Using Starvation as a Weapon of War Against the Palestinian People

A full-scale ground offensive on Gaza is imminent, even as Palestinians are already suffering collective punishment.

A Palestinian youth carries bread amid the rubble of the city center of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip following Israeli shelling on October 10, 2023.

Part of the Series

After Hamas launched more than 2,000 missiles from Gaza and sent hundreds of fighters into Israel on October 7, killing hundreds of civilians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war on Hamas. But Israel’s retaliation, including massive bombing from the land, air and sea, and its collective punishment of Gazans — denying them food, water, electricity and gas — reveals that Netanyahu has actually declared war on the Palestinian people, especially those in Gaza.

Israeli warplanes are conducting indiscriminate bombings throughout Gaza, targeting homes, schools, hospitals, mosques and civilian buildings. As of October 10, Israel had reportedly used 1,000 tons of explosives and targeted 500 locations, primarily in civilian residential areas.

“The quantity of injured people arriving to our hospitals is huge and will mean we will not be able to accept more patients in Gaza,” Ashraf Al-Qidra, spokesperson for the Gaza Ministry of Health, told PBS. “I send water to those who have had their houses demolished. All those who have been displaced don’t have anything. All they have is suffering, fear and horror,” Ahmed Youssef Mekhimar, a resident of Gaza, said. Shames Ouda told PBS, “This power station served all Gaza Strip, and now is turned off, Gaza without fuel, without electricity, without Internet, without food. Gaza dying. The people will pay the price of this war.”

A full-scale Israeli ground offensive on Gaza is reportedly imminent, with 360,000 Israeli Occupying Force reserve troops poised to invade. In 2014, Israeli forces bombed and invaded Gaza, killing 2,251 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in “Operation Protective Edge.”

Netanyahu warned Gazans to “leave now” as Israeli forces would “act with all force.” But the people in Gaza cannot leave. Except for one border crossing with Egypt, Israel controls all ingress and egress into the Gaza Strip. As of October 11, Israel has bombed the Egyptian border crossing twice, and Egypt has refused to allow refugees through.

More than 1,200 Israelis and 1,354 Palestinians have been reported killed and thousands wounded on both sides. Israel said that additionally 1,500 bodies of Hamas members have been found inside Israel.

In the face of the tragic deaths of Palestinian and Israeli civilians, President Joe Biden issued a statement saying the United States “unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza,” and pledged “all appropriate means of support” to Netanyahu. He did not decry the loss of Palestinian lives.

Biden called Hamas’s attack “pure, unadulterated evil” in an October 10 news conference. But he refused to urge Israel to exercise restraint in its retaliation against the Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that U.S. Navy vessels, including an aircraft carrier and a guided missile cruiser, had been sent to the Eastern Mediterranean.

“What is happening in Gaza is complete and utter extermination of the non-Jewish population in occupied Palestine,” Refaat Alareer, a Palestinian academic and writer based in Gaza City, told Democracy Now! “We are dealing with a systematic, structural, colonial attempt to annihilate and exterminate the Palestinians, with the aid and support of the West and American tax money.” Alareer noted, “America is sending $8 billion. This is really insane. America is also sending warships and bombs and bullets for Israel to kill more and more Palestinians.”

“You cannot say ‘nothing justifies killing Israelis’ and then provide justifications for killing Palestinians. We are not sub-humans,” Riyad Mansour, Palestine’s ambassador to the UN, stated outside the UN Security Council on October 8. “We will never accept rhetoric that denigrates our humanity and reneges our rights. A rhetoric that ignores the occupation of our land and oppression of our people.”

Palestinians Have a Lawful Right to Resist Israeli Occupation “by All Available Means”

The Palestinians have a lawful right under international law to resist Israel’s occupation of their lands, including through armed struggle. In 1983, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for their independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial domination, apartheid and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.”

Israel claims that it has the right to self-defense against Palestinian attacks. In his October 7 statement, Biden said Israel has a right of self-defense.

But under international law, Israel, an occupying force, does not have the right to use military force in self-defense against people under its occupation.

Targeting civilians and civilian objects constitute war crimes under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, whether committed by Israel or by the Palestinians. The presence of noncivilians within civilian populations does not deprive the population of its civilian character under Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention.

On October 9, Palestinian resistance forces claimed to have captured at least 130 Israeli troops and citizens, and are holding them hostage to exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has threatened to kill a civilian hostage each time Israel bombs Palestinian civilians in their homes without warning. The taking of hostages is considered a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Even if some of the actions taken by the Palestinians in their resistance are illegal under international humanitarian law, there is no legal justification for Israel to claim it is acting in self-defense under the UN Charter.

Collective Punishment and Using Starvation as a Weapon Are War Crimes

Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Often called the largest open-air prison on Earth, the Gaza Strip is home to more than 2 million Palestinians in this 365-square-kilometer area. Israel controls Gaza’s land, air and maritime borders.

Israel’s Minister for the Advancement of the Status of Women May Golan said at a meeting of the Israeli government, “All of Gaza’s infrastructures must be destroyed to its foundation and their electricity cut off immediately. The war is not against Hamas but against the state of Gaza.”

Israel has imposed a “complete siege” on the Gaza Strip. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared, “No electricity, no food, no water, no gas — it’s all closed,” adding that “we are fighting animals and are acting accordingly.”

Using starvation as a weapon of war constitutes a war crime under Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention. Gallant’s order is a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute. It is also a call for genocide, prohibited by the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute, since many Gazans will die as a result of the siege.

The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the punishment of people in an occupied territory for offenses they didn’t personally commit. Israel’s reprisals against civilians for actions they did not take constitutes collective punishment, which amounts to a war crime.

Earlier this year, the International People’s Tribunal on U.S. Imperialism, for which I served as a juror, examined 15 countries in the Global South to assess the impact of economic coercive measures on the lives of their people. In May, we heard testimony from witnesses in Gaza as Israeli bombs were dropping on their neighborhoods. The tribunal concluded that Israel’s siege in the Gaza Strip is a form of warfare used as “an integral tool of imperialist aggression designed to facilitate the theft of global south wealth and uphold racial hierarchy.” The siege on Gaza is “just as deadly” as other forms of warfare, the tribunal found.

Root Cause of Hamas Attack Was “Cruelty of a Half-Century of Abusive Occupation”

“Although the Hamas attack included war crimes against innocent civilians, its root cause was the cruelty of a half-century of abusive occupation by Israel that violated the most basic human rights of the Palestinian people, and relied on apartheid practices of governance, according to reports by the leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and Israel,” Richard Falk, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967, told Truthout.

Falk attributes the timing of Hamas’s attack to “the extremism of the Netanyahu coalition government” that “provoked resistance by its complicity with settler violence and violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, and by erasing Palestine from its official maps of the Middle East and negotiating a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.” Falk called the Hamas attack “a shrill reminder to Israel and the world that ‘we Palestinians are still here and will not be erased and forgotten.’”

In an October 8 statement, Palestinian human rights organizations cited “compelling evidence” that the Israeli authorities had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against Gaza’s civilian population, including illegal indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. They urged the international community, including the UN Security Council, to take immediate action to stop Israel’s revenge and reprisal against Gazan civilians, including the imposition of sanctions and an arms embargo on Israel. They also called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to expedite its pending investigation into the situation in Palestine as promised in December 2022. The ICC launched an investigation in 2021 of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both Israel and the Palestinians, but the probe has stalled due to pressure from the U.S. government.

The Security Council, which has an obligation under the UN Charter to restore international peace and security, has done nothing to stop the carnage because its permanent members cannot agree on a course of action. While the U.S. demanded a blanket condemnation of Hamas’s actions, Russia and China refused to agree to the unilateral denunciation of Hamas; they favored calling for an immediate ceasefire and the beginning of a peace process that has been frozen for years.

“The bloodshed of today and the past 75 years traces back directly to U.S. complicity in the oppression and horror caused by Israel’s military occupation,” Jewish Voice for Peace said in an October 7 statement titled “The Root of Violence is Oppression.” Jewish Voice for Peace blamed the U.S. government which “consistently enables Israeli violence and bears blame for this moment. The unchecked military funding, diplomatic cover, and billions of dollars of private money flowing from the U.S. enables and empowers Israel’s apartheid regime.” Moreover, Jewish Voice for Peace noted, “Those who continue calling for ‘ironclad’ U.S. support for the Israeli military are only paving the path to more violence.”

Jewish Voice for Peace demanded “that the U.S. government immediately take steps to withdraw military funding to Israel and to hold the Israeli government accountable for its gross violations of human rights and war crimes against Palestinians.”

U.S. congressmembers Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Cori Bush (D-Missouri) have called for an end to the U.S. government’s unconditional financial support of Israel’s military occupation and apartheid government. The United States has been providing Israel with $3.8 billion a year in military assistance.

While Western countries and their media decry the loss of Israeli lives, they don’t express similar outrage at the deaths of Palestinians. This hypocrisy is racist and ignores the context of decades of settler colonialism and Israeli apartheid.

We must pressure the U.S. government to call for an immediate ceasefire and stop sending weapons to Israel. “There is no military solution here,” Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told my cohost Heidi Boghosian and me on Law and Disorder radio.

The consequences of allowing Israel to continue and escalate its aggression against the Palestinian people are unimaginable.