War crimes, human rights concerns spike as war rages between Israel and Hamas

Palestinians searching for survivors among rubble.
Palestinians search for survivors following an Israeli bombing in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip as fighting between Israeli troops and Islamist Hamas terrorists continues. Photo by: Abed Rahim Khatib/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

War has reignited the Middle East after a multipronged surprise attack on southern Israel by Hamas. The attack and retaliation have killed thousands on both sides and left hundreds of thousands wounded and homeless.

As evidence of Hamas’ atrocities mounts and concerns about conditions in Gaza grow, now is an especially important time for international law governing warfare and human rights law to be observed, Northeastern University professor of law and international affairs Zinaida Miller says.

“This feels like the moment when nobody feels like they want to pay attention to those rules, but these are when those rules are most in play,” says Miller, an expert in human rights and international law who joined Northeastern in 2022. 

Miller references an opinion piece by Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard about the laws of war being crucial in moments of high emotion and vengeful cycles. 

“It is more than understandable that the Israeli Jewish public would be calling for military response and obvious that battles would be fought throughout southern Israel with Hamas fighters,” Miller says, referencing the article. “But the point of calling on international law is to say that regardless of any personal or political will, civilians on all sides must be protected. 

“International humanitarian law is a system of rules that exists to manage and mitigate the harms of war, particularly the suffering of non-combatants. That applies to everybody in the conflict. Whether your opponent observes the rules isn’t relevant; you are still under the obligation.”

Headshot of Zinaida Miller.
Northeastern professor of law and international affairs Zinaida Miller.

Amnesty International is investigating evidence of war crimes including mass killings, indiscriminate rocket attacks and hostage-taking in the Hamas attack. The organization also notes that Israel’s “intensifying blockade” of Gaza, which eliminates water, electricity, food and fuel supplies, “amounts to collective punishment which is also a war crime.” 

But despite such attention on the region by both traditional media and first-hand social media sources, and warnings from U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for Israel to abide by international law as it exercises its right to defend itself, Miller worries the atrocities will continue.

“I am glad they are saying those things,” Miller says of US officials’ statements. “But I am concerned that the strength with which the U.S. and other states are pushing for the protection of Gaza civilians is not nearly as robust as their condemnation of the Hamas attacks.”

Miller cites several reasons why she is concerned about the humanitarian and human rights implications of the unfolding situation.

There is a history and context to all the dire events of the past week, including the central role of international law. Miller says that while international law governing warfare and human rights law can be — like any area of the law — complex, sometimes imprecise, and subject to interpretation — it continues to provide one of the major ways to understand the governing regimes of Israel and Palestine.  

“In the case of occupation, there is a notion of temporary territorial control starting from when one power has effective control over another’s territory and there are certain rules for the occupier, among which are that they have to maintain the welfare of the occupied population, they cannot transfer their own population into the occupied territory, and the occupation has to be temporary,” Miller says. 

“Israeli actions have violated every aspect of these rules — what was understood as occupation has now lasted 56 years, involved the settlement of massive amounts of territory by hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers, with no evidence of Israeli state interest in ending it — and explicit statements by the current Israeli government that they have every intention of making Israeli control over Palestinian territory permanent.”

Israel and Hamas also have not had the best records on following international warfare and human rights law, according to media accounts and the group Human Rights Watch. 

“There are certain red lines: hostage-taking; targeting and deliberately killing civilians; collective punishment and starvation of a civilian population; bombing civilian infrastructure — all those things are clear red lines in international law, there’s just no debate about it,” Miller says. “The only question is how you get the actors involved to listen.”

And that is perhaps most challenging, particularly in the early stages of the most recent fighting. 

“It’s very hard to square the emotions of rage, and pain and grief that emerge in wartime with what can feel like sort of unrealistic expectations of civilian protection,” Miller says. “But that is the role of human rights advocates: to keep reminding everyone of the rights of all involved, particularly in a situation of radical power inequity.”

So, what can be done? Clarity would help, Miller says.

“What would help is clear statements to the world by the U.S., EU countries and other powerful states that the condemnation of massacres of Israelis does not mean condoning widespread attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Gaza or the horrific denial of basic humanitarian needs to a population that has already suffered years and decades of debilitating precarity,” Miller says. 

“There has already been excruciating suffering among Israelis and Palestinians since Saturday. The question now is how much more is to come and what we can do to avert further catastrophe.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.moulton@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @MoultonCyrus.