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Reading this from BBC:

On Monday, Israel declared a "complete siege" on the territory, saying electricity, food, fuel and water would be cut off.

Is this a war crime or illegal in any way under international laws?

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    A neutral comment for adding context. International law is kinda like the pirate code. They are more like guidelines than actual rules. A further complication to what is or isn't a war crime or running afoul of international law is who are signatories on which treaties. Given the Gaza Strip is internationally recognized as territory of Israel, it would largely depend on which treaties Israel has signed. There is also a difference between Israel ceasing to provide the Gaza Strip with its own supplies versus blocking international humanitarian aid. This is quite a complex question.
    – David S
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 17:40
  • 23
    @DavidS "Given the Gaza Strip is internationally recognized as territory of Israel ..." Who recognizes the Gaza Strip as territory of Israel? I don't even think Israel has any official claims on Gaza.
    – jkej
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 18:55
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    @DavidS The international community consider Gaza a territory occupied by Israel, not a territory of Israel.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 12:59
  • 4
    A more geographical question: given the strip shares a border with Egypt, how can Israel institute a "complete" siege?
    – rivu
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 19:45
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    @MikeB There's an unfortunate amount of people out there that seem to believe if something is illegal than nobody will do it. They fail to realize the only thing that makes laws effective is the ability to enforce. Consequences for breaking the law is what makes the laws effective. Therefore, the only thing that makes "War Crimes" actual crimes are another nation's ability to enforce them. There is no reality where Israel (or Russia for the matter) turns over their leaders willingly. Therefore, any conversation regarding War Crimes is moot unless someone is willing to invade and kill.
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 22:48

6 Answers 6

61

Yes, completely cutting off food and water is a war crime. For example, we have the following quote by John Kerry, then US foreign secretary:

People are dying; children are suffering not as a result of an accident of war, but as the consequence of an intentional tactic – surrender or starve. And that tactic is directly contrary to the law of war.

Or by Ban Ki-Moon, then Secretary General of the UN:

Let me be clear: The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime.

[Both were said regarding a siege taking place as part of the Syrian civil war.]

If rather than completely cutting off food the IDF would insitute a comprehensive inspection regime which makes smuggling in military supplies almost impossible, but inadvertently also limit throughput so much that no enough food reaches Gaza, the situation would be more complicated to judge.

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    What are these quotes based on? Exact wording, paragraph etc.
    – d-b
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 5:57
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    I think this answer is insufficient, because it refers to no laws, but some random people "saying so".
    – Semo
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 8:04
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    @Semo Article 54 — Protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population 1. Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited. 2. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 16:15
  • 2
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica 3) "The prohibitions in paragraph 2 shall not apply to such of the objects covered by it as are used by an adverse Party" If Hamas are using those supplies as well, it is no longer a war crime.
    – Questor
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 16:25
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    @Questor Did you intentionally leave out the conditions from your quote? Full quote (shortened for clarity, see link for full text): "The prohibitions in paragraph 2 shall not apply to [actions against critical civilian infrastructure] used by an adverse Party: a) as sustenance solely for the members of its armed forces; or b) [...] in direct support of military action, provided [that the action is not] expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation or force its movement.". Leaving out conditions a) and b) seems extremely dishonest.
    – JHR
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 9:48
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I am surprised that none of the answers so far cite actual international law (treaties). From the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions, article 54:

  1. Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.

  2. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

  3. The prohibitions in paragraph 2 shall not apply to such of the objects covered by it as are used by an adverse Party:

(a) as sustenance solely for the members of its armed forces; or

(b) if not as sustenance, then in direct support of military action, provided, however, that in no event shall actions against these objects be taken which may be expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation or force its movement.

  1. These objects shall not be made the object of reprisals.

  2. In recognition of the vital requirements of any Party to the conflict in the defence of its national territory against invasion, derogation from the prohibitions contained in paragraph 2 may be made by a Party to the conflict within such territory under its own control where required by imperative military necessity.

At least one source notes that starvation of citizens is actually only prohibited “as a method of warfare”:

Less clear is whether the prohibition only relates to situations where the belligerent resorting to this method of warfare has the purpose of starving the civilian population; or whether it also covers situations where, although not the purpose of a particular course of action, the starvation of the civilian population is its foreseeable consequence.

I'm not a lawyer, but the implication of paragraph 3(b) seems to be that cutting off food and water would be prohibited, though cutting off electricity would apparently be acceptable.

User @CDJB notes that Israel is not a party to Protocol I, which this article comes from. (source) So Israel is not bound by treaty to honor this article.

Not that this is going to stop the comments, but: the purpose of this answer is to respond to the OP, not to take a position on the conflict.

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    And Hamas has signed no such treaties whatsoever, I'd wager. But that doesn't stop complaints against them either. Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 13:41
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    Out of curiosity, the PA has signed some human rights conventions (incl. the Geneva Conventions as it turns out--in 2014), but since Hamas doesn't recognize PA's authority... Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 13:55
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    Would anything prohibit a country from cutting off supplies of food from any entity other than themselves, but then supplying food via means that could be internationally supervised to be suitable for human consumption (and not poisoned, etc.)? The cost of inspecting all food shipments to ensure they don't contain any other smuggled material might be higher than the cost of supplying food which is known to be free of such material.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 14:57
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    @adam.baker: It may be "weird", but it would seem like it might be logistically more practical to air-drop basic some ration supplies than to try to have checkpoints pass through an adequate quantity to avoid starvation while still keeping out weapons.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 20:45
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    @Questor That is at least one possible interpretation. Remember that these treaties are designed for more traditional conflicts, where the distinction between combatants and noncombatants is easier to make (though not easy I'm sure; think of Stalingrad).
    – adam.baker
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 6:58
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As hinted in comments, the Israeli declaration (& actions) has/have already elicited protest from a UN commissioner, as France24 streamed:

10:40am

Total siege of Gaza 'prohibited' under international law, says UN rights chief

Israel's total siege of the Gaza Strip is banned under international law, said the United Nations human rights chief.

"The imposition of sieges that endanger the lives of civilians by depriving them of goods essential for their survival is prohibited under international humanitarian law," Volker Turk said in a statement.

Citing information gathered by his office, Turk said Israeli air operations have struck residential buildings, including large tower blocks, as well as schools and UN buildings across Gaza, resulting in civilian casualties.

"International humanitarian law is clear: the obligation to take constant care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects remains applicable throughout the attacks," said Turk.

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    FWTW, it seems it was part of larger statement that also condemned hostage-taking by Hamas, although France24 only focused on that siege bit. Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 20:19
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    Managed to find the full stmt here ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/10/… Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 8:52
  • BTW, Israel appears to condition the lifting of the blockade on the return of the hostages. "“Not a single electricity switch will be flipped on, not a single faucet will be turned on and not a single fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages are returned home,” Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said on social media." Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 10:13
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Tom Dannenbaum, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, has written an article about "siege starvation" in this particular context.1 He establishes the situation as follows:

On Monday [Oct. 9, 2023 -Peter], Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant announced, “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.”[...]

Reports indicate that Israeli Air Force strikes at the Rafah crossing and Israeli government warnings to Egypt not to allow aid in are preventing the delivery of essentials through the only land border not controlled by Israel.

His legal assessment of this announcement is:

This order commands the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, which is a violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime (ICC Statute, article 8(2)(b)(xxv)). It may also satisfy the legal threshold for the crime against humanity of inhumane acts (7(1)(K)) and, depending on what happens from here, other crimes against humanity, such as those relating to killing (murder and extermination) (7(1)(a-b)).

The question whether the ICC has jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip was answered by the court itself in 2021:

FOR THESE REASONS, THE CHAMBER HEREBY

FINDS that Palestine is a State Party to the Statute;
[...]
FINDS, by majority, Judge Kovács dissenting, that the Court’s territorial jurisdiction in the Situation in Palestine extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

A Q&A document regarding that decision is available on the court's site.


Last not least, an official statement was issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk:

The imposition of sieges that endanger the lives of civilians by depriving them of goods essential for their survival is prohibited under international humanitarian law.


1 A more technical article by Dannenbaum from 2019 can be found here. Siege starvation was not part of the original Geneva Conventions and was added as an amendment to the Rome Statute of the ICC.

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  • Israel sealed Gaza on 3 sides: North, East, and Mediterranean. The Southern border of Gaza is with Egypt. A muslim Arab place that is not at war with Gaza, but sealed their border nevertheless. Are you accusing Egypt of a war crime?
    – Michael
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 22:50
  • @Michael Obviously, if Egypt was responsible. But Dannenbaum quotes reports that Israel is preventing Egypt to deliver aid through that border. Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 4:19
-2

There is a concept of the Doctricne of necessary defence in the international law. It is allowed by the UN's International Law Commission (ILC) to be used by a state facing "grave and imminent peril".

Isreael may potentially claim that they are enough under "grave and imminent peril" after Hamas have killed thousands of civilians in they initial attack.

There are, however, some statements within this concept that the opposing side may use, like " the State has contributed to the situation of necessity" (Gaza side argues Israel contributed a lot) and "Actions taken were the only way to safeguard an essential interest from grave and impending danger" (how much is now needed to prevent the further Hamas attacks, it is also not very obvious).

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  • I don't think necessity applies here. 1.: It can only be invoked where an action does not seriously impede an essential interest of a state or the international community as a whole. In the full document, the ILC lays out that this means that the interest relied on must outweigh all other considerations, not merely from the point of view of the acting State but on a reasonable assessment of the competing interests, whether these are individual or collective."
    – xyldke
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 15:51
  • 2. It can additionally only be invoked where the obligation in question does not exclude that possibility. Again from the full document: "certain humanitarian conventions applicable to armed conflict expressly exclude reliance on military necessity. Others while not explicitly excluding necessity are intended to apply in abnormal situations of peril for the responsible State and plainly engage its essential interests. In such a case the non-availability of the plea of necessity emerges clearly from the object and the purpose of the rule".
    – xyldke
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 15:53
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    Since an war plainly engages a State's essential interests, this second part forbids the invocation of necessity regarding the laws of war.
    – xyldke
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 15:55
  • When this is between two persons, definitely it is not so that the attacker can be treated in "unlawful way" only if not harmed at all, and this when already under grave danger for the victim. Even if exactly this interpretation is official, some other views may be more widespread.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 19:18
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One important factor omitted from this discussion:

"Gaza has its own agricultural industry". They even export quite a lot of their produce. See link: https://gaza-palestine.com/agriculture-in-gaza-strip/#:~:text=Gaza%20is%20famous%20for%20growing,%2C%20watermelons%2C%20melons%2C%20tomatoes.

Quoted from the link: "Gaza is famous for growing and exporting flowers, growing crops such as barley, wheat, and cotton and exporting them to the world. There are also many citrus fruits that are grown, such as oranges, lemons, potatoes, grapes, cucumbers, figs, strawberries, watermelons, melons, tomatoes."

So cutting off food supply from the outside would not definitely result in the death by starvation of all Gazans.

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    Gaza has a population of over two million on 365km^2 of land. What is produced within Gaza's borders is definitely not enough to sustain the population. Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 12:57
  • @BjörnLindqvist, If they export all major types of fruits, vegetables and grains, they most probably don't need to import it.
    – Jacob3
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 13:07
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    Just because Gaza does export foods, it doesn't mean they can cover the food supply of the whole population domestically. In fact the source linked in this answer claims the opposite: "The Gaza Strip imports most of its food basket". Further, this answer does not address any of the other resources mentioned in the question, making it an incomplete answer.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 13:45
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    Also, please refrain from adding personal opinions to the answer. If you insist on using your answer as a vehicle to promote or discredit a political cause, it will be deleted. This website is for factual answers to objective questions. Not for political activism.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 16:07

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