Israel, Gaza and the Law on Starvation in War

On March 19, Volker Türk, the United Nations’ human rights chief, said in an official statement that Israel’s policies regarding aid in Gaza might amount to a war crime.

“The extent of Israel’s continued restrictions on the entry of aid into Gaza, together with the manner in which it continues to conduct hostilities, may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war, which is a war crime,” he wrote.

His comments made waves. Using starvation of civilians as a weapon is a serious violation of international humanitarian law, and a war crime under the Rome Statute, the treaty of the International Criminal Court, or I.C.C.

Israeli and foreign officials told The New York Times last week that they were worried that the I.C.C. was preparing to issue arrest warrants against senior Israeli officials — including potentially over accusations that they prevented the delivery of aid to civilians in Gaza. (They also said they believed that the court was considering arrest warrants for Hamas leaders, which could be issued concurrently.)

Let me be clear: There is a high evidentiary bar for war-crime prosecutions, and we have no way of knowing at this stage what a full investigation would reveal, particularly because independent observers have had limited access to Gaza.

We do know that a humanitarian crisis is underway in the enclave and that the specter of famine has loomed increasingly close in recent weeks. Months of Israeli restrictions have prevented the delivery of sufficient aid into Gaza, and it has proved even harder to bring it into the northern part of the strip, which is under Israeli military control and is where the hunger crisis is most severe.

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