By Dr. Marie-Pierre Allié ∙ Médicins Sans Frontières ∙ January 16, 2009
The three-week Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip is estimated to have caused the deaths of nearly 1,000 Palestinians and the injuries of several thousand more people. Of all the deaths that have occurred since the operation’s land phase began on Saturday, 3rd January, one third are believed to be children and adolescents of less than 16 years-of-age. Israeli authorities have not questioned these figures, which were provided by Palestinian emergency services. On the Israeli side, four civilians and ten soldiers have been killed, according to the army. Beyond any speculation as to what would constitute a “proportional response,” the one to 100 ratio of losses on the two sides signals the excessive nature of the attack.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been present during armed conflicts for nearly four decades. It is difficult to recall a comparable slaughter of civilians in so little time. Whether Mogadishu, Somalia or Kivu, in the eastern Congo, Sri Lanka or even Darfur -- none of these wars has involved operations that produced so many deaths by direct violence in such a short period of time. We must go back to the Russian army’s December 1999 bombing of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, to find equivalent death rates in such a short period. At least 260 people died in Grozny during the five-day period between 2nd and 7th December 1999. When MSF received the Nobel Prize in Oslo, on 10th December, 1999, we called on Boris Yeltsin to authorize us to obtain access to the wounded and, in particular, to stop the indiscriminate bombing. Our call was in vain. Calls by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have been similarly unsuccessful in Gaza. Our purpose is not to create some kind of prize for the worst war horrors, but to state that the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip is being conducted as cynically, and with as little respect for civilians, as the wars that MSF teams have faced in recent years.
Worse, this violence is striking a captive population that cannot flee to protect itself. An MSF team is working alongside exhausted Palestinian teams in overflowing hospitals. However, many wounded patients are not receiving treatment because they cannot reach hospitals or because medical workers cannot reach them as the bombs and gunfire do not spare ambulances, hospitals, the wounded or medical workers who try to move about.
The daily three-hour lull in fighting, which was put in place on Wednesday, 7th January, and applies only to Gaza City, is insufficient to organise the evacuation of and first aid treatment for the wounded. Incessant bombing continues on the periphery and there is no chance to aid the wounded. Despite yesterday’s scheduled pause, fighting inside Gaza City remained intense, with one of the hospitals being shelled.
In this context, Israel must immediately terminate its offensive or radically change its methods of fighting in order to enable aid workers to reach the wounded, evacuate them and treat them in conditions safe from bombing and shelling. And the population should be allowed to seek refuge and protection.
As of this date, these minimal conditions, as provided for by the Geneva Conventions, are not being met.
Contrary to Israeli government statements, the offensive in Gaza does not observe the fundamentals of international humanitarian law applicable to armed conflict. To claim otherwise only multiplies the violence by adding lies.Dr. Marie-Pierre Allié is President of the French office of Médecins Sans Frontières.