Health facilities and ambulances have protected status under international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch confirms.

Israel’s repeated attacks on medical facilities, health workers and ambulances in Gaza should be “investigated as war crimes,” international NGO Human Rights Watch said.

The Israeli military’s “apparently unlawful attacks” further devastate Gaza’s health system at a time when doctors are dealing with unprecedented numbers of seriously injured patients and hospitals are running out of medicines and basic supplies, the group said on Tuesday.

“Despite the Israeli military’s claims on November 5, 2023 that Hamas has cynically used hospitals, there is no evidence presented that would justify stripping hospitals and ambulances of their protected status under international humanitarian law,” HRW added.

A war crime is a serious violation of international humanitarian law committed with criminal intent. HRW called on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Israel’s actions.

Health system “devastated”

According to the United Nations, as of November 10, two-thirds of primary health facilities and half of all hospitals in Gaza were not functioning. And as of November 12, at least 521 people, including 16 medical workers, had been killed in 137 “attacks on health services” in Gaza, the World Health Organization said.

“Israel’s repeated attacks on hospitals and health workers, already hit hard by an illegal blockade, have destroyed Gaza’s health infrastructure,” said A Kayum Ahmed, special adviser on the right to health at HRW. “The hospital strikes have killed hundreds of people and put many patients in grave danger because they cannot receive adequate medical care.”

Between October 7 and November 7, HRW said it investigated attacks on or near five health facilities in Gaza.

It emerged that Israeli forces had attacked the Indonesian hospital several times between October 7 and October 28, killing at least two civilians; the International Eye Hospital was repeatedly attacked and completely destroyed on October 10 or 11; the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital was forced to close on November 1, days after airstrikes took place on or near the facility; a man and a child were injured after repeated attacks on Al-Quds Hospital; and Israeli forces attacked well-marked ambulances on multiple occasions – in an incident outside Al-Shifa Hospital on November 3, at least a dozen people were killed or injured.

“These ongoing attacks are not an isolated incident. “Israeli forces have also carried out numerous attacks that damaged several other hospitals across the Gaza Strip,” HRW said.


“Special protective measures”

HRW noted that “deliberate attacks on…medical units and transportation” are prohibited as war crimes under the Rome Statute of the ICC.

“Hospitals and other medical facilities are civilian objects that enjoy special protection under international humanitarian law or the laws of war. “Hospitals only lose their protection from attack when they are used to commit ‘hostile acts’ and after the necessary warning,” it said.

Israel claims Hamas militants have set up command centers beneath hospitals such as Al-Shifa and the Indonesian Hospital – claims Hamas and hospital staff deny.

“These claims are controversial,” HRW said. “Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm them and has not seen any information that would justify attacks on hospitals in Gaza.”

HRW also criticized the “blanket nature” of Israel’s evacuation orders, which did not take into account specific requirements for hospitals and patients. The group said there was no way to ensure safe compliance because “there is no reliably safe escape route or safe location in Gaza,” raising concerns that “the purpose was not to protect civilians, but to protect civilians.” “To scare them into leaving the Gaza Strip.”

“The Israeli government should immediately end the unlawful attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other civilian objects, as well as the complete blockade of the Gaza Strip, which amounts to the war crime of collective punishment,” HRW said.

It added that Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups should also take practical precautions to protect civilian populations under their control.

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