Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Rome Statute underpinning the International Criminal Court, which went into effect in 2002, lists among “War Crimes” “ix) Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives.”
Although the Israelis maintained that the al-Shifa hospital complex was a Hamas command and control center and that hostages were being held there, they have presented no evidence at all that this was the case. They have displayed a few small arms they found on the premises, which is not surprising in the midst of a guerrilla war. They, and President Joe Biden, have alleged that there are weapons depots in tunnels beneath the hospital. We do not know if this is true or not. But if the military target is below the hospital and not in the hospital itself, attacking the hospital is a war crime.
There is the added complication that it isn’t just a matter of bombarding the hospitals or their environs, which is bad enough. But cutting them off from potable water, fuel and electricity, as the Israeli government did to northern Gaza, is an attack on hospital patients who need electricity to survive. I’m not sure how depriving Hamas of electricity could possibly harm them as a guerrilla force, even if substantial numbers of them were in the hospital, which they were not. So this step was taken against civilians and was a war crime.
It is interesting to consider how hospitals became sacrosanct in international law. The bad behavior of the Axis powers from the 1930s into the 1940s helps explain a lot of it.
Even before WW II, the Axis powers were committing war crimes at hospitals. Italy’s Mussolini ordered an invasion of Ethiopia on October 3, 1935. The International Committee of the Red Cross immediately mobilized to provide aid to the battle-stricken. Its international branches set up over twenty field hospitals for treatment of the Ethiopian wounded. The Italian Air Force bombed most of them.
Aline Zuber at Crossfire explains that “While less well-known and documented than the large-scale use of mustard gas, air strikes on hospitals, field hospitals and medical aircraft displaying the red cross or red crescent were nonetheless among the most important IHL violations of this war, not only on account of their number (between 17 and 23, depending on the historical study or Ethiopian government source one consults but also in terms of the deaths, trauma and damage they caused. Furthermore, the fact that these attacks were carried out repeatedly and that the majority of Red Cross and Red Crescent field hospitals operating on the Ethiopian side were directly or indirectly damaged by Italian Air Force bombing means that then as now one is forced to ask whether the attacks were deliberate or not.”
Zuber says that Mussolini was accosted by the Swiss ambassador over the strikes on Red Cross field hospitals, and Il Duce described the humanitarian field hospitals as “nuisances”, and went on: “We shall give them [the Ethiopians] hospitals … along with roads, schools, doctors and all the advantages of civilization ”
The Italians did not believe that Ethiopians were civilized enough to abide by international humanitarian law, and charged that they were misusing Red Cross symbols and using them to mask military operations and facilities. We still hear echoes of this colonial, racist language today. Zuber presents evidence of systematic bombardment of Red Cross field hospitals by the Italian military. Aside from an a report drawn up after the war, Italian officers suffered no repercussions from these particular war crimes.
Then there was imperial Japan. British Southeast Asia — Burma and Malaya, fell to the advancing Japanese in WW II, who went on to make exploratory raids toward British India. Mainland Malaya fell to the Japanese army in late 1941. Japanese soldiers commanded by General General Tomoyuki Yamashita then invaded Singapore in February 1942. They advanced inland. One of their targets was the British Military Hospital, now called the Alexandra Hospital. The number of its patients had swollen to more than 900, though it was constructed for a maximum of 500 beds. The Japanese trained artillery fire on the hospital on February 14 and by the afternoon of that day their troops were approaching the hospital. A British officer’s attempt to show them his Red Cross armband as a bona fide that he was medical personnel was ignored by the Japanese, who fired at him but missed. The Japanese invaded the hospital. They indiscriminately fired at the people they found there, but arrested and ultimately executed others. Some of the prisoners were killed when Japan abruptly began shelling the compound again. It was a massacre. After the war, prosecutors wanted to bring Japanese commanders up on charges at Nuremberg for the hospital massacre. They could not, however, identify the individuals responsible. There is no doubt that if those Japanese officers had been fingered, they would have been executed.
Later on the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949, article 18, would specify that: “Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”
Only if the hospital is used as a base to launch an attack on the enemy is it a legitimate target. That would require that mortars be fired from its roof or an artillery piece be put in its yard. Presence of some fighters with small arms don’t count for this exception. Article 19 says, “Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded. The fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy.”
You will note that so far the Israel forces that invaded al-Shifa Medical Complex have only been able to display some small arms they found in a room. They have not presented evidence that al-Shifa was being used as a base to attack the Israelis with armor or artillery or even guerrilla strikes.
The Israelis, like the Japanese at the British Military Hospital, have taken dozens of prisoners from the hospital, though any massacres the Israelis committed have been through aerial bombardment or through cutting off electricity and fuel to the complex. The Israeli promise to bring incubators for premature babies is just propaganda. It has so far not happened, and preemies have died as a result of lack of electricity and fuel for generators.