Explosive weapons are destroying Gaza. It’s time to stop using them on civilians

George Graham Chief Executive, Humanity & Inclusion UK 22nd April 2024

Risk education sessions have been held in Rafah. teaching children how to protect themselves in the event of bombing or armed violence. © S. Hejji - HQ / HI

IBT member Humanity & Inclusion has worked in Gaza and the West Bank for almost 30 years, providing rehabilitation care, psychosocial support and access to education for disabled and vulnerable people. Their Chief Executive, George Graham, has been campaigning for more than a decade against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. He outlines the devastating effects of bombing towns and cities and the horrific impact this is having right now on civilians in Gaza.

The bombardment of Aleppo, Syria, in the summer of 2016 felt like a defining moment. Over three long months, a government air force relentlessly pounded a city of 2 million people, overwhelmingly civilians, who had nowhere to go. Yet the international community felt unable to stop it. Was this the world we now lived in, one where civilian lives could be destroyed on a shocking scale and nothing could be done to protect them? 

Those of us who had campaigned for years for states to stigmatise, curb and eventually end the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas felt defeated. Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, was clearly not listening to our advocacy, and he was never going to.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, a concerted bombing campaign against its key cities began. Mariupol was one of its unlucky targets, and the attack on that city became a cause celebre. This time, as other Ukrainian cities suffered similar treatment, the international response was different. Not only was the Ukrainian army supported and reinforced, but public and political outrage suddenly made our fight against urban bombing both relevant and urgent. 

The campaign to stop the use of explosive weapons in populated area finally yielded results

In November 2022, 83 governments – including the US, UK and most of NATO – met in Dublin and signed a new  Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.

It felt like the game had suddenly changed. At the ceremony to launch the Declaration, government after government publicly recognised that the bombing of urban areas always and predictably causes massive civilian harm – lost lives, injured bodies, traumatised minds, broken infrastructure, blocked aid and contaminated land. 

They emphasised that they were not introducing new law, but the Declaration exists because the use of inherently indiscriminate weapon systems where civilians are concentrated pretty much always contravenes not just moral sense but also the Geneva Conventions and the international humanitarian legal framework that they underpin.

The destruction of Gaza means we must continue campaigning

But despite the Declaration and all those governments’ stated opposition to a form of warfare that should have died off decades ago, the familiar grim tape is being played again in Gaza. 

At least half the buildings in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. Over six long months, 32,000 civilians have been killed, more than 13,000 of them children. Some 75,000 people are reported to have been injured, with the number that will be left with permanent disabilities massively increased by the destruction of hospitals and systematic impediments to safe humanitarian access.

An unprecedented level of amputations and spinal cord injuries

Due to the type of explosive weapons used, we are seeing unprecedented prevalence of amputations and spinal cord injuries. 70 to 80% of admissions to the few hospitals that are still just-about functioning are patients who have lost limbs or suffered nerve damage that will cause their muscles, senses or internal organs to dysfunction. 

Many of the 10,000 people we have assessed have had to undergo amputations, including hundreds of children. Thousands of prosthetics and assistive devices are urgently needed yet are being denied by the delays and blockages at Gaza’s militarily controlled borders. 

The long-term danger of unexploded ordnance 

The use of so much explosive ordnance is also storing up trouble for years to come. HI’s experts have been able to enter the territory to assess the situation. We approximate the failure rate of modern weapons at around 10% – that means 10% of weapons fired do not function as they were designed to. If around 50,000 items of ordnance have been dropped, we would assume 5,000 left on or under the ground. 

Some of these – probably several hundred – are huge air-dropped weapons, which, if they explode, can destroy whole neighbourhoods. 90% of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians. Until we can bring in equipment to defuse these lethal threats, the best we can do is just mark them off with tape and warn people living in the area not to go near them.

The people of Rafah await Israel’s much-anticipated assault 

Right now, the majority of the population of Gaza is concentrated in Rafah, the one area that so far hasn’t been attacked. The population there has multiplied by six. They are living in harrowing conditions, without enough food, clean water, sanitation, medicine or shelter. 

This includes HI’s own team members, who have fled their homes further north – they are living in fear and many haven’t had a proper meal this year. It also includes tens of thousands of people with disabilities, suffering multiplying challenges and indignities in such awful conditions. Everyone is awaiting the expected assault.

A ceasefire should have been called months ago. Now the lives of hundreds of thousands of people depend on the negotiations to avert an attack on the south. So much damage has already been done, but now every possible step must be taken to prevent weapons that were designed for open battlefields being used against the exceptionally densely populated and already-ravaged people of Rafah. If the dropping of bombs and the devastation of trapped civilians in Aleppo and Mariupol were abominations, then they are in Gaza too. 

George Graham, Chief Executive, Humanity & Inclusion UK

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