Gaza has become a humanitarian catastrophe and Israel will have to answer tough questions

Gaza has become a humanitarian catastrophe and Israel will have to answer tough questions
  • PublishedJune 11, 2024

“Frozen children — it’s an unusual description of an appalling reality.

They’re the words Sydney clinical psychologist Scarlett Wong used after a recent trip to Gaza with Doctors Without Borders.

“When you see a starving child, they are apathetic, they have no response,” she told SBS News. “This is the kind of thing we were seeing from a medical view … children have become frozen, with no emotion, and apathetic.”

The situation, Dr Wong said, was “the worst humanitarian disaster I have ever seen”.

Gaza has become one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our time. The UN’s World Food Programme has said parts of Gaza are now gripped by “a full-blown famine”

One of the few countries denying this is Israel. Not only is there not a famine, said Ron Dermer, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, but there is an abundance of food.

He told a startled Yalda Hakim on Sky UK recently that there were in fact “bustling markets” with fruit and vegetables.

Dermer’s claim defies all available evidence. Given the Israeli army has drones flying constantly across the tiny enclave, Dermer could have provided photographs of the “bustling markets”. Where are the photos?

According to Foreign Policy magazine, 30 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals have been bombed — many repeatedly — even while medical staff, patients and civilians seeking shelter remained inside. Satellite imagery shows vast sections of Gaza in rubble.

The Wall Street Journal reported that from October 7 to December 15, Israel dropped 29,000 bombs, munitions and shells on Gaza. This means that, on average, Israel hit every square kilometre of Gaza with 79 bombs, munitions or shells.

After just nine weeks of the war, the newspaper said the destruction of homes, schools and other buildings resembled “some of the most devastating campaigns in modern history”.

When the war does finish, the rebuilding of Gaza could take a generation. The Washington Post reported that the head of the UN’s Mine Action Program, Mungo Birch, said the number of unexploded missiles and bombs lying under the rubble was “unprecedented” since World War II and that Gaza was now the site of about 37 million tons of rubble — more than what had been generated across all of Ukraine during Russia’s war — and 800,000 tons of asbestos and other contaminants.

Has the response been proportional?

Over the weekend, Israel rescued four hostages captured on October 7 from a heavily populated refugee camp. Gazan authorities said at least 210 Palestinians were killed and 400 wounded during the rescue, which involved heavy bombardment.

Hamas has had its day of reckoning; the videos from October 7 would be, for any reasonable observer, proof of atrocities and war crimes. The videos and photos not released to the public are even more appalling. Hamas has kept hostages for more than eight months.

But Israel’s day of reckoning for its eight-month-long response is still to come. The question is, has its response been proportional?

Every country that engages in war has a day, or years, of reckoning. America had such a day after the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Australia has had — and continues to have — days of reckoning after its involvement in Afghanistan, with continuing investigations into possible war crimes.

Israel will argue that for self-defence it needed to ensure that Hamas was never again in a position to commit an attack. They will argue that throughout the war, Hamas has used civilians as human shields and that, therefore, a large number of civilians were killed.

But there will be very specific allegations that Israel will be under pressure to answer. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported this week that the Israeli military has been using white phosphorous in Gaza and south Lebanon. HRW noted that white phosphorous causes severe burns, often down to the bone, and burns to only 10 per cent of the body are often fatal. It said it can cause respiratory damage and organ failure.

“Using airburst white phosphorous is unlawfully indiscriminate in populated areas and otherwise does not meet this legal requirement to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm,” the group said. 

The HRW report also referenced the Israel-Lebanon border. It said Israel had engaged in “widespread” use of white phosphorous since October, including at least five municipalities where white phosphorous munitions were unlawfully airburst over populated residential areas. It said Lebanon should turn to the International Criminal Court and enable the prosecution of grave international crimes.

The ABC put these allegations to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), who said that like many western militaries, the IDF possesses “smoke-screen shells that include white phosphorous that are legal under international law”. 

“These shells are used by the IDF for creating smoke screens and not for targeting or causing fires and are not defined under law as incendiary weapons.”

Tough questions are being asked

As the war drags on, some media outlets are increasingly asking difficult questions of Israel.

CNN has conducted a major investigation of one of Israel’s “black site” prison facilities, where they claimed systemic torture of hundreds of Palestinians taken from Gaza is occurring. 

The US media outlet spoke to three Israeli whistleblowers from the facility who revealed atrocities ranging from doctors amputating prisoners’ limbs due to injuries sustained from constant handcuffing and medical procedures sometimes performed by underqualified medics, which earned the facility a reputation for being “a paradise for interns” and a place “where the air is filled with the smell of neglected wounds left to rot”.

One medic from the facility said beatings of Palestinians were not done to gather intelligence but out of revenge for the October 7 attack. 

He said he was ordered to perform medical procedures on Palestinians for which he was not qualified: “I was asked to learn how to do things on the patients, performing minor medical procedures that are totally outside my expertise.”

The IDF told CNN that Israel ensures proper conduct towards detainees and that any allegation of misconduct by IDF soldiers is dealt with accordingly.

This war has placed new attention on the machinery that Israel has long used to enforce its military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Back in 2003, The Guardian exposed what occurred at the secretive prison known as Facility 1391. Interestingly, Ami Ayalon, then head of Israel’s security service Shin Bet, refused to have anything to do with it. “I didn’t think then, and I don’t think today, that such an institution should exist in a democracy,” he said.

The Guardian revealed that one former inmate filed a lawsuit alleging he was raped at the facility twice during questioning — once by a man and once with a stick. The reporting continued: 

“But most of those who emerge say the real torture is the psychological impact of solitary confinement in filthy, blackened cells so poorly lit that inmates can barely see their own hands, and with no idea where they are or, in many cases, why they are there. Manal Hazzan, a human rights lawyer who helped to expose the facility, said his main conclusion was that it existed to make torture possible.”

In recent weeks, Israeli website The Times of Israel reported that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has filed a petition to the High Court of Justice seeking the closure of the Sde Teiman prison facility due to what it alleged were multiple, severe human rights abuses.

“Surgeries without anaesthesia, handcuffing leading to amputation, defecating while blindfolded and restrained — these are just some of the horrific testimonies from inside the Sde Teiman detention centre,” the website reported ACRI’s petition as alleging. “This facility has become a lawless black hole where detainees’ basic human rights are stripped away.”

The New York Times reported that of the 4,000 detainees housed at Sde Teiman since October 7, 35 have died at the site or after being brought to nearby civilian hospitals and at least 10 prisoners have died in military custody in the West Bank.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported earlier this year that two Palestinian prisoners at an Israeli prison facility had their legs amputated due to handcuff injuries.

Tension between the US and Israel

Meanwhile, the war is playing havoc with the US-Israeli relationship. As the civilian death toll rises, Israel is defying its major benefactor.

It’s clear now that the US wants the war to stop. President Joe Biden is facing a backlash in states such as Michigan where the Arab-American community is large enough to threaten the Democrat’s hold.

In an election today, long-time US analyst Bruce Wolpe said Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s support across the key swing states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia — would enable a victory. “Biden needs to get those back and to keep his hold for now on Pennsylvania. Those states and how they vote will decide the election,” he said.

And now the influential civil rights group the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People is calling on the White House to suspend weapons transfers to Israel and to any countries that may in turn supply weapons to Hamas.

As the US faces one of its most consequential elections in decades, in Gaza much is at stake for the civilians who continue to suffer — and particularly the increasing number of “frozen” children. 


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