Opinion

Gaza's refugees are being bombed - can't seek asylum

Shireen Mukadam

Civilians in a time of war have the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries, but those in Gaza are imprisoned, with no exit available.

The majority of people in Gaza have been refugees for more than 60 years – the span of an entire life, writes Shireen Mukadam. (Reuters)

I visited Jerusalem as a child. The year was 1996. It is a blur, but what I remember clearly is soldiers in uniform with big guns, standing guard at the entry points to Masjid al-Aqsa (Al-Aqsa Mosque).

Almost 20 years later, the situation there has not improved – it has worsened.

We remember and mourn the loss of more than 2 000 people killed in Gaza since Israel launched an attack on July 8. We remember Ismail Mohammed Bakr (9), Mohammed Ramez Bakr (11), Zakaria Ahed Bakr (10) and Ahed Atef Bakr (10), killed while playing soccer on a beach in Gaza on July 16.

We remember the more than 10 000 people injured, and the hospitals and schools that have been targeted and destroyed.

I am not a lawyer. I am not an expert on the Middle East. What I am is a human being with a conscience. And my conscience does not allow me to remain silent.

“It happened, therefore it can happen again,” wrote Primo Levi, an Italian-Jewish chemist and writer imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II.

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent coined the term “genocide” as the intentional destruction of a nation or ethnic group.

Genocides have happened without the world blinking its sleepy eyelids: Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and recently, the Central African Republic. The rule appears to be that we wake up and realise a genocide has happened after it has happened.

That’s when it is too late.

Humanitarian laws violated
As a graduate student of international affairs, my international law studies under Professor Andrew Clapham taught me that there are fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict, which are non-negotiable. Many of these have been violated in Gaza since July 8. 

I will highlight three:
1. Principle of proportionality
2. Principle of distinction between civilian and military targets
3. Right to become a refugee

Proportionality says that in self-defence, an army can only use enough force necessary to stop the attack – anything more is excessive.

The principle of distinction necessitates that attacks can only be directed at military objectives. This protects the right of civilians, especially women, children, the disabled and elderly. According to United Nations (UN) reports, more than 86% of fatalities in Gaza are civilians. Of the 11 000 people injured, 3 374 are children, 2 088 are women, and 410 elderly.

By the time the ceasefire was announced last night, 577 children had been killed since July 8 – more than 10 children a day.

Places of safety hit
Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people sought refuge in UN schools, which were used as shelters. Since July 8, six UN schools have been hit by Israeli artillery, killing at least 50 people; the overwhelming majority of whom were women and children.

On August 3, a school in Rafah, South Gaza was attacked, killing at least 10 people. A few days before that, on July 30, a UN school in the Jebaliya refugee camp was hit by Israeli artillery, killing 17 people. In a public statement released on August 7, Amnesty International warned of evidence that medical workers and facilities were being targeted by Israeli forces in Gaza.

At least four hospitals in Gaza have been attacked since July 8.

On July 25, a 32-year-old paramedic working for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society was killed by Israeli gunfire while attempting to rescue the injured in Qarara. The same day, a 28-year-old volunteer medic was killed in Beit Hanoun when the ambulance he was riding in was hit by Israeli shells.

Israel’s actions constitute ‘war crimes’
Civilians in a time of war have the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries (article 14, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Those in Gaza are imprisoned, with nowhere to go while being bombarded. Since the siege eight years ago, the 1.5-million people in Gaza have had no exit. Moreover, 1.2-million of this population are Palestinian refugees.

How can refugees, who are also an occupied people, be targeted in armed combat? The majority of people in Gaza have been refugees for more than 60 years – the span of an entire life.

In her statement to the UN Human Rights Council in July, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay did not shy away from categorising Israel’s actions in Gaza as constituting “war crimes”.

International community must act 
Sahar Vardi is a 24-year-old Israeli conscientious objector. When she was 18, Vardi refused to join the Israeli army. An extract from her declaration of refusal is as relevant now as it was then: “Do we not have the moral, human and even legal obligation to refuse to prevent people of their freedom of movement, of housing, of occupation, and above all these, the right to live?”

READ: Sahar’s full declaration of refusal

Mohamed Eghbaria* is a 24-year-old Palestinian studying in Cape Town. He believes that it is time for the international community to stand for what is right, and, as a first step, break the siege on the people of Gaza.

“If you want to have justice in Palestine, the weak [Palestinians today] have to be given power by the international community. Only then will the Israelis be serious about peace.

“But right now, as Israel is the power of the country, and no one’s there to stop them, they [Israel] will do whatever they want to.”

Hope remains
“Hope is a powerful weapon no one power on earth can deprive you of,” wrote Nelson Mandela while imprisoned.

My hope is that in my lifetime, I will be able to visit Jerusalem with my children. But this time, there will be no guards with guns at the gates of the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Palestine will be free.

Shireen Mukadam is a researcher and writer based in Cape Town. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

*not his real name

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