Urmila Rao describes the indiscriminate manner in which Israeli forces are shelling schools which has been designated as a war crime both under IHL and International Criminal Law.
A three-day ceasefire extension announced by Israel in Gaza on Tuesday may collapse as Hamas is likely to reject the extension. If this happens, the Israel- Palestine conflict will continue and perhaps inflict more damage on Gaza schools and civilian students.
On 3rd August, Israeli forces attacked a UN-run school in the southern Gaza Strip which was sheltering 3,000 displaced persons .Ten civilian lives were lost and several were injured. Just days ago, Jabaliya Elementary Girls’ School, another UN-run school in Gaza, was shelled claiming 16 lives. As of date, seven UN schools have been attacked, killing and displacing civilians and students since the conflict between Hamas/ other Palestinian armed groups and Israel began on 8th July.
The strike on UN schools has been condemned widely by the international community. On the latest offensive of shelling the school in the town of Rafah, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the attack was ‘yet another gross violation of international humanitarian law’ and called the attack a ‘moral outrage and a criminal act.’
Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), parties to a conflict must distinguish between civilians and combatants, applying the principle of distinction. The laws of war impose that warring parties must take necessary precautions to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects, as a matter of duty. Civilian objects also include school buildings, school grounds and university buildings. These are prohibited from attack, unless they are being used for military purposes.
The indiscriminate manner in which Israeli forces are shelling schools is unlawful and has been designated as war crime both under IHL and International Criminal Law. According to the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute, ‘any intentional direct attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, … provided they are not military objectives constitutes a war crime in both international and non-international armed conflicts.’ Israel has attempted lame justifications for its offensive. On the attack at Rafah UN-school, it said that the target were three Palestinian Islamic Jihad members riding a motorcycle in the vicinity of the school, which eye-witnesses said was a false claim.
The rule of distinction states that during any military action, those who plan or authorize an attack must do ‘everything feasible’ to verify that the targets are not civilians or civilian objects – students and teachers, and schools and other education facilities.
When the attack on Jabaliya refugee camp took place, Israeli forces knew that civilians were sheltered in the school. ‘Israel was told 17 times that the camp was housing the displaced,’ said the UN spokesman Chris Gunness, from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
The UNRWA has been running schools for Palestine refugee children since the last 60 years in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, providing services to some five million registered Palestinian refugees. By violating the neutrality of schools, Israel has breached the rules of war. Education is also human right and an indispensable means of realising other human rights.
However, there are few mechanisms under IHL to hold perpetrators accountable to victims of education-related violations. None of the present mechanisms has a provision to establish permanent process or judicial response to hold violators accountable for education-related violations.
In any armed conflict, attacks on education institutions are unleashed because they are seen as symbols of ‘state’ power. By deliberate attacks on schools, Israeli defence forces seem keen on demolishing Palestine’s legitimate institutions and demoralising the youth and the intelligentsia. Several teachers and students have been displaced due to the attacks. Education-related violence, besides causing physical harm also leads to psychological distress to students and staff. Rebuilding schools, resuming education and restoring normalcy in education activities is a time-consuming process.
Attacks on Palestinian schools are not new occurrences. In the Gaza war, during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, 265 students and teachers were killed and 875 were injured. It was estimated that at least 280 out of 641 schools were damaged and another 18 destroyed when Israeli attack took place. The institutions of higher education have not been spared either. In the ongoing airstrikes, Israeli defence forces destroyed a large part of the Islamic University in Gaza City, a few days ago. The Israeli army said it targeted a ‘weapon development’ centre in the university and maintains that the university is affiliated with Hamas. In the 2008-2009 operation, three colleges and six university buildings were destroyed causing an estimated damage of USD 21.1 million. Two years ago, Israeli airstrikes damaged seven universities in Gaza.
There is an urgent need for strengthening of customary law in the rules of armed conflict to provide legal protection to education. Parties to the conflict must avoid education-related violations. Loss of education, lack of employment and chances of constructive engagement with the society are ammunitions for further conflict.
The author Urmila Rao is a Postgraduate in Diplomacy, Law and Business from Jindal School of International affairs.