Article 51 of Protocol I to the Geneva Convention, (protocol to which Israel is not a signatory) puts the following constraints on attacks in civilian areas:

Article 51 — Protection of the civilian population

5 b) an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

  1. The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.

Israel, to neutralize Hamas and defend itself, is carrying out military operations in Gaza, which is a very densely populated mixed-urban area, against a not necessarily well-identifiable enemy which will likely do its best to blend and embed itself within the larger civilian population (thus contravening the second part of the quote) If, like seems likely, ground combat takes place, Israel will do its best to minimize losses in its soldiers.

For a number of reasons, not least recent extreme Hamas atrocities being likely to loosen Israeli restraint, this is pretty much a worst case scenario for risks to civilians.

What measures, if any, has, and can, the international community take to best ensure and encourage that Israel remains as sparing with Gaza civilians as it can be, yet keep its ability to exercise its right to self-defense?

Has, for example, the UN deployed any staff, in a watchdog role, if not on location? Is it planning to? Will anyone be carrying out the same types of assessments as Ukraine and Russia are being subjected to in their war (for what that is worth)?

What ways are there around the US's UN veto, if it comes to that? (that is very much part of this question, considering how UN vetos work).

This question is concerned with combat operations, airstrikes and ground combat in Gaza. The siege declared by Israel is out of scope.

(The population density of London is 5,598/km2; Gaza is 6,507/km2, according to Wikipedia.)

  • 3
    On the rewording: I would replace the 'is having to carry out military operations' with the simpler 'carries out military operations'. Nobody questions that they do it, whether they have to could be controversial. On the urban thing: Gaza has a higher population density that London, Rome or Berlin and it is also smaller than each of these. There are fields but the next apartment block is never far away.
    – quarague
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 9:15
  • 2
    @quarague Look at my wording : to neutralize Hamas and defend itself, is having to carry out. The first part really can't be divorced from the second. Israel can choose not to neutralize Hamas in this instance. But if they want to take out Hamas, they will have to operate in Gaza, there is no other option at this time. Now, you can explain to me how, in a democracy, the electorate would allow their government to just turn the other cheek in this case. Otherwise, I will keep my wording: their govt and military don't have a choice. But they can choose to respect the laws of war. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 15:42
  • 2
    In the Vietnam War, the hospitals were off limits for bombing runs, so the Vietnamese put flak cannons on the hospital roofs. Consider for yourselves, what is the expected result?
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 14:00
  • How can you even know whether the restriction of the Convention are followed or not? Suppose country A attacks a building with citizens, claiming that this building was used as a base for military operations. How can you check this claim in real time? Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 16:22

1 Answer 1


Well, Blinken is reported to have said on Oct 11:

As he boarded the plane, the US Secretary of State said it is “our respect for international law and the laws of war” that “separates Israel, the US and other democracies” from Hamas and terrorist groups that engage in “heinous” activities.

He added: “We know that Israel will take all of the precautions that it can” to avoid civilian casualties, “just as we would”.

So, the US at least will probably not support any [specific] international policing/oversight of Israeli actions, for now at the very least.

Has, for example, the UN deployed any staff, in a watchdog role, if not on location?

It depends what you mean by this. The UN already has aid staff in Gaza. The OHCHR commissioner has complained of some collateral damage to such locations.

Information gathered by the UN Human Rights Office indicates that Israeli air operations have also hit large residential towers in Gaza City and other residential buildings across Gaza, schools and premises of the UN relief and works agency, UNRWA, resulting in civilian casualties.

More specifically, on Oct 11:

"Eleven UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) staff and personnel have been killed since Saturday," spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters during a news conference.

But the role of that UNRWA staff is not specifically to do what you ask, as far as I know.

  • 11
    The problem is, the USA has had its own problems with avoiding civilian casualties and respecting international law, so the "just as we would" may not be as reassuring as Blinken would hope. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we...."
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 13:53
  • There's a longer piece about UNRWA losses [to date] here newarab.com/news/… Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 14:07
  • 2
    I got a very much more nuanced impression of Blinken's statements. Which BBC originally headlined as Blinken: US will always defend Israel but calls for protection of civilians - EFE Noticias Unfortunately this was one of these stupid live feed gizmos which carries you to dozens of scrolled postings, without anything specific to its sourced link. So I've put into another article using exact same title. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 15:27
  • 1
    “We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard, even when it’s difficult, and holding ourselves to account when we fall short,” Blinken said. He urged Israel “to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians. And that’s why we mourn the loss of every innocent life, civilians of every faith, every nationality who have been killed.” Now, that is what's out for public consumption. What really matters is what the US is telling Israel on its back channels. But still, it's a start. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 15:28
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - Well, I'm never one to criticize messages condemning killing innocent people regardless of their origin. However, I think that providing what the USA government has recently declared to be unconditional (!) military support to Israel, while the latter maintains an enhanced blockade that probably violates international law and engages in attacks that will very likely multiply the civilian casualties substantially, is more important in that regard.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 15:59

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