Gaza: Israel Flouts World Court Orders

Aid Still Being Obstructed Despite Famine

(Jerusalem) – Israel is contravening the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) legally binding orders by obstructing the entry of lifesaving aid and services into Gaza, Human Rights Watch said today. Since January 2024, the court has twice ordered provisional measures requiring Israel to enable the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance as part of South Africa’s case alleging that Israel is violating the Genocide Convention of 1948.

On May 5, Israeli authorities closed the Kerem Shalom crossing after a Hamas rocket attack, and on May 7, they seized the Rafah crossing as part of its incursion in the area, thus blocking aid from entering and people from leaving Gaza via the primary crossings used in recent months. While Israeli authorities had allowed more aid trucks to enter in the preceding weeks and opened an additional crossing and a port for aid entry, the increase has been modest and nowhere near enough to meet the overwhelming need, according to United Nations and nongovernmental aid agencies. The groups said Israel continued to block critical aid items, and only a small proportion of the limited aid has been reaching northern Gaza, where it’s vitally needed.

“Despite children dying from starvation and famine in Gaza, the Israeli authorities are still blocking aid critical for the survival of Gaza’s population in defiance of the World Court,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “With each day that Israeli authorities block lifesaving aid, more Palestinians are at risk of dying.” 

On January 26, the ICJ ordered Israel to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid.” In light of the “spread of famine and starvation,” the court imposed additional measures on March 28, ordering Israel to ensure the unhindered provision of humanitarian assistance, in full cooperation with the UN, including by opening new land crossing points.

The court’s March order required Israel to report to the ICJ on the implementation of the court’s measures within one month. However, as of May 2, Israeli authorities continued to obstruct basic services and entry of fuel and lifesaving aid, acts that amount to war crimes and include the use of starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. 

According to the UN, the average number of aid trucks into Gaza through Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings increased by only 24 trucks a day in the month following the order – from an average of 162 trucks a day between February 29 and March 28 to 186 trucks a day from March 29 to April 28. This is only about 37 percent of the number that entered Gaza each day before October 7, 2023, when 80 percent of Gaza’s population relied on aid amid Israel’s more than 16-year-long unlawful closure

Israeli authorities have blamed the UN for distribution delays, but, as the occupying power, Israel is obliged to provide for the welfare of the occupied population and ensure that the humanitarian needs of Gaza’s population are met.

In response to United States government pressure, Israeli authorities opened the Erez crossing – a checkpoint between Israel and northern Gaza – for aid deliveries on May 1, allowing 30 trucks to enter. It’s unclear whether further trucks have entered via Erez since then. In April, they also began allowing some aid to come from Ashdod port, a seaport south of Tel Aviv. In an April 30 response to a High Court petition challenging the restrictions on aid, the Israeli government said that it was also planning on opening an additional northern aid crossing.

Despite these increases, on May 1, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders or MSF) stated that essential items like oxygen tanks, generators, refrigerators, and critical medical equipment continued to be blocked, that very little of the aid is reaching northern Gaza, and that there is “no clarity or consistency to what is allowed into Gaza.”

In early April, Human Rights Watch researchers went to Egypt’s North Sinai region, which borders Gaza, and spoke to workers for 11 UN agencies and aid organizations sending aid into Gaza. All said that Israeli authorities continue to obstruct the entry of aid via Egypt. They said that the amount of aid, despite recent increases, and the arbitrary rejection of critical items, meant that the colossal need for aid is not being met. 

Aid workers said the Israeli authorities have provided no list of barred items and inspections staff are rejecting entire truckloads in an ad hoc manner with no explanation or possibility of appeal. “They refuse to give a list [of items that are barred from entry], saying it is an individual determination,” one said. Adding to the opacity of the process, they said that Israeli authorities generally don’t allow aid agency representatives to be at the checkpoints where aid trucks are being inspected.

Several people said that Israeli authorities, in some cases, bar items they consider “dual use,” which could be used for military purposes, but there is no clear list of what items are included. In response to a freedom of information request for lists of so called “dual use” items, Israeli authorities said that they were still using a list of dual use items that they had published in 2008. Tania Hary, executive director of the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, told Human Rights Watch, “We see them interpreting the list very broadly, which is nothing new, except it’s taking place on the backdrop of a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Since Hamas-led fighters attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, high-ranking Israeli officials have made public statements expressing their aim to deprive civilians in Gaza of food, water and fuel – reflecting the policy being carried out by Israeli forces. Other Israeli officials have publicly stated that humanitarian aid to Gaza would be conditioned either on the release of hostages unlawfully held by Hamas or Hamas’ destruction.

Israel’s Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the military body responsible for coordinating humanitarian aid into Gaza, has complete control over what can be taken into Gaza. After being inspected in Egypt, humanitarian aid trucks must go through two Israeli-controlled inspection sites: Nitzana and Kerem Shalom. People interviewed said trucks often have to wait for days, and sometimes weeks, for inspections due to limited working hours and scanning machines, as well as additional inspection procedures added since the October 7 attacks in Israel.

One UN employee told Human Rights Watch that a truck full of medical supplies had been sitting at the border for a month awaiting inspection.

Aid workers said that Israeli authorities have rejected most items with solar panels, motors, some metal parts, and even items stored in wooden crates, irrespective of their content. They said items like generators, water filtration systems, and oxygen, are consistently rejected. If any single item on a truck is rejected, the entire truck is denied entry, several aid workers said. 

Human Rights Watch wrote to COGAT on April 2 seeking comment regarding Israel’s obstruction of aid but has not received a response.

Several people said that some trucks had been rejected several times for unknown reasons. They said aid workers tried to guess what might have caused the rejection and modified the shipments accordingly, but they were sometimes rejected again. “It’s a mystery with rejections,” a World Food Program worker said. “It’s not consistent. Some of the same items that have been approved to go in before are then rejected later.” 

Aid workers said that more than six months into the hostilities, agencies are now automatically filtering out key lifesaving items from the trucks, only sending in what they anticipate will be allowed entry. That means they leave out critical items, including generators to provide electricity for equipment critical to health, water, and sanitation; repair items for water and sanitation infrastructure; and medical equipment like x-ray machines, because they anticipate rejection.

Since November, aid agencies sometimes have submitted lists of aid items to COGAT for preapproval. However, even when preapproval was given, on many occasions the items were still rejected at the checkpoints. The World Food Program staff member said that in one instance, the United Nations Population Fund, an agency focused on reproductive and maternal health, had received preapproval to send a maternity clinic to Gaza, but Israeli authorities twice rejected it at the border without explanation. 

Several countries have responded to the Israeli government’s unlawful restrictions by airdropping aid. The US also pledged to build a temporary seaport in Gaza. However, aid groups and UNofficials have said such efforts are inadequate to prevent a famine

In its March provisional measures order, the ICJ stated, “there is an urgent need to increase the capacity and number of open land crossing points into Gaza and to maintain them open so as to increase the flow of aid delivery,” as “there is no substitute for land routes and entry points from Israel into Gaza to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of food, water, medical and humanitarian assistance.” 

Israeli authorities should urgently open additional land crossings and lift bans on critical aid items. They should provide aid agencies with a list of banned items and provide specifications for items that are allowed under certain requirements. Inspectors should provide written explanations for any rejections and allow agencies to appeal rejection decisions, Human Rights Watch said. 

On May 4, Cindy McCain, an American who is director of the World Food Program, said, “There is famine — full-blown famine — in the north, and it’s moving its way south.” On April 22, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that “1.1 million people face catastrophic levels of hunger.” 

“Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians face famine and many risk dying of starvation following Israel’s continued disregard for the law,” Shakir said. “The countries that continue to send arms risk being complicit in Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians.”