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Do rifles at a hospital prove a war crime took place?
Attacking hospitals is still illegal, even if wounded enemy soldiers bring their guns into the building.
Israeli forces raided Al-Shifa Hospital, the central medical facility in Gaza, on Wednesday. Al-Shifa was the latest in a line of Palestinian hospitals attacked by the Israeli army during the current war. Israeli and U.S. officials claim that the Islamist guerrilla force Hamas has used these hospitals for military purposes — which would be a war crime — including hosting a “command and control node” under Al-Shifa.
It is possible that this alleged Hamas base underneath Al-Shifa exists. (After all, there has been a large bunker at the hospital, first built by Israel, since the 1980s.) But the Israeli military did not share evidence for that base. Instead, military spokesman Jonathan Conricus showed off rifles and body armor found in the radiology department.
The mere presence of rifles and body armor doesn’t prove that a hospital is a military target. International law is actually very clear on this point. The Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly says that if wounded troops come to a hospital looking for treatment, and they bring their “small arms” with them, the hospital is still a protected civilian facility. A medical building has to be used for “acts harmful to the enemy,” such as stockpiling or firing artillery, to become a military target.
Of course, rifles displayed in the Shifa radiology department could have gotten there a variety of different ways. The scenario laid out in the Geneva Conventions — wounded Hamas fighters bringing their guns while getting treatment — is possible. The rifles also could have been been left behind by guards for an actual Hamas base, or planted by the Israeli soldiers as false evidence. Knowing for sure would require an investigation that certainly will not happen under wartime conditions.
The Israeli army did come to the hospital expecting to arrest people. The right-wing Israeli station Channel Rainbow 12 stated that officers from Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police, were “scanning the hospital grounds with the Army and interrogating the Gazans…those relevant are brought to Israel for arrest and for further investigation at a Shin Bet facility.”
The BBC and AFP reported that Israeli forces had ordered all men between the ages of 16 and 40, except for those in the surgery and emergency wings, to surrender. Although many of the people at the hospital were displaced persons rather than patients, some of the people interrogated were doctors and patients, according to an AFP correspondent.
Pulling patients out of hospitals is one of the foundational war crimes that the Geneva Conventions were written to prevent, as Juan Cole points out in a recent blog post. The Red Cross states that, even if a hospital is being used by an enemy force, militaries must issue a warning before attacking, with enough time “for the hospital patients to be removed to a place of safety.”
Israel could have argued that, since some of the patients may be hostages, an evacuation could not be allowed to take place. That is not the argument that Israeli officials made, according to Channel Rainbow 12.
“The entrance into Shifa is first of all a symbol that there is no place we will not reach,” an Israeli official told the station. “We did not think we would find hostages, but we will definitely locate and dismantle Hamas capabilities.”
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