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Al-Haq Urges International Community to Intervene: Israel’s Deliberate Refusal to Permit Humanitarian Search and Rescue Operations for Palestinians Trapped in Collapsed Tunnel

Saturday, 04 November 2017 15:01
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Alhaq Logo On 30 October 2017, Israel conducted an unprovoked military aerial incursion into the Gaza Strip, during which it bombed and destroyed an underground tunnel. At approximately 12:00 pm, witnesses reported hearing explosions southeast of Deir Al-Balah.1 Witnesses heard air force planes and saw plumes of smoke rising from Wadi Salqain in the Gaza Strip.2 Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged the attack stating,

“today we located a tunnel and destroyed it, and we will continue to do so.”3 Israel’s military further indicated that the tunnel was “at least two kilometers away from the nearest Israeli community…and did not pose a threat to residents” there, underscoring the unnecessary and disproportionate engagement of military force.4

Palestinian paramedics from the Red Crescent and Palestinian Civil Defense immediately searched for missing persons who were in the tunnel at the time of the attack. Many of the casualties are located in an area inside the buffer zone, approximately 50 meters from the Israeli border. However Israel refused to allow the search and rescue team access from the Israeli side, which is the closest to the casualties. Currently, paramedics are unable to continue the search and rescue efforts in the buffer zone – an area located approximately 300 meters inside the Gaza Strip which is a no-go area that Israel holds under military control. Israel routinely, unlawfully, and indiscriminately targets and kills civilians who approach or enter the buffer zone.5 Instead, rescue operations had to start over 300 meters distance away, outside the buffer zone.

Due to rubble and structural damage in the tunnel, 7 Palestinians from the Palestinian Civil Defense and Saraya Al-Quds rescue team were killed carrying out the rescue operation.6 Doctors from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital confirmed that all the rescue workers had died from asphyxia. The deceased were:

1. Arafat Murshed, 48

2. Hasan Ramadan, 35

3. Ahmad Mahmoud Irmaneh, 30

4. Hussan Al-Sumeiri, 32

5. Omar Al-Faleet, 30

6. Musbah Fayed Shabir, 27

7. Muhammad Al-Alaqha, 21

A further 18 persons in the tunnel were injured. Of these, 5 were from the Palestinian Civil Defense who rushed to provide humanitarian assistance to those trapped in the tunnel.7 The injured were transferred to Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir Al-Balah. Dr Kamal Khatab described the injuries which presented at the hospital; all had nausea and vomiting, they were disorientated and could not focus their eyes, some were hysterical.8

Israel is currently denying the Red Crescent and the Palestinian Civil Defense in Gaza access to the tunnel to continue humanitarian search and rescue operations. On 2 November, the search and rescue team were left with no other option than to wind up the search and rescue effort. At least 5 known persons are still missing in the tunnels since Monday, 30 October 2017 who may still be alive. However the head of Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has made humanitarian access conditional on the exchange of “Israeli POWs and MIAs,”9 a consideration which is clearly beyond the consideration of military necessity.

State Policy of Refusal to Rescue Missing Persons in Attack

Initially newspapers reported that Israel’s Attorney General advised that Israel must allow the search and rescue operation for the missing Palestinian men trapped in the tunnel.10 However, on 3 November 2017, some four days after the attack, a spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Justice refuted the Attorney General’s position stating “there is no basis to the claim that it was the duty of the government to allow the terrorist organizations operating in Gaza to collect the bodies of the terrorists.”11 Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked further denied the military’s responsibility to facilitate search and rescue operations noting that “the Attorney General is working with the IDF and will defend its position if necessary.”12 Further, the Major General Yoav Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories indicated that conditions would be placed on the retrieval of Palestinian bodies, and that bodies would not be released unless “Hamas would share information regarding the bodies of two slain IDF soldiers” which Israel alleges it has been holding since 2014.13

Denial of Humanitarian Assistance Grave Violation of Geneva Conventions

Al-Haq condemns the deliberate refusal to permit humanitarian search and rescue operations to treat the injured and collect the dead. Al-Haq stresses that Israel’s prevention of humanitarian assistance in the buffer zone infringes on the most basic principle on which international humanitarian law is premised, the principle of humanity. As the occupying power, Israel has obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV),to “facilitate the steps taken to search for the killed and wounded.” Commentary to Article 16 of GCIV requires that forces search the terrain without delay for the wounded and for the dead who “must all be brought to a safe place. Even human remains must be collected with the utmost care.” In doing so, there is a responsibility to coordinate with relief operations such as the Red Crescent and Palestinian Civil Defence. The abhorrent refusal to provide humanitarian assistance to the 5 persons who may still be alive is a grave violation of Israel’s obligations to the protected Palestinian population. Al-Haq urgently calls on the international community, and State parties to the Geneva Conventions to intervene to provide all assistance necessary to save the lives of those trapped in the tunnels.

 

1Al-Mezan, ‘Explosions Hit Eastern Gaza Killing and Injuring Dozens’ (31 October 2017) accessed 3 November 2017.

2Al-Haq, Field Report (31 October 2017).

3‘Israel Destroys Tunnel Extending from Central Gaza into Israel’ i24 News, (10 October 2017)

4Ibid.

5Al-Haq, ‘Israel Routinely Attacks Palestinian Civilians in the Buffer Zone’ (24 March 2016) accessed 3 November 2017; Al-Haq, ‘Israel Kills Unarmed Bird Heunter in the Gaza Strip’ (9 December 2014) accessed 3 November 2017.

6Al-Haq, Field Report (31 October 2017).

7Al-Haq, Field Report (31 October 2017).

8Al-Haq, Field Report (31 October 2017).

9Israeli army must immediately allow Palestinian teams into Gaza ‘buffer zone’ to rescue people trapped in tunnel (2 November 2017) https://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/9282 accessed 4 November 2017.

10ArutzSheva, ‘Attorney General: 'Hamas can be prevented from retrieving terrorists' bodies' (3 November 2017) http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/237615 accessed 3 November 2017

11Ibid.

12Ibid.

13Ibid.