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Suspected War Crimes in Israel and Palestine

A map of Gaza
Israel left Gaza in 2005 but still controls the borders. According to international law expert Alberto Rinaldi, this could be seen as a continued occupation, which increases Israel's responsibility towards the civilian population of Gaza. Photo: Unsplash

Interview with CMES researchers Nina Gren and Svante Lundgren about suspected war crimes in Israel and Palestine.

The original article, in Swedish, was published on 7 November 2023 as part of the LU Newsletter Apropå.

In the long-running conflict in Israel and Palestine, it is the innocent civilians who pay the highest price. No matter what the other side has done, international humanitarian law must always be upheld. This is underlined by international law researcher Alberto Rinaldi.

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 was the start of the ongoing and latest war that has claimed thousands of lives. In three weeks, more children have been killed in Gaza than in conflicts worldwide per year since 2019, according to Save the Children.

The Laws of War Protect Civilians

In a vote at the UN General Assembly on October 27, an overwhelming majority of countries called for an immediate ceasefire. The US voted against a ceasefire but President Joe Biden has advocated a so-called humanitarian pause to get the more than 200 people believed to be held hostage in Gaza out and to get humanitarian aid into the area.

What the world is now witnessing are suspected war crimes - on both sides:

– Hamas's massive attack on unarmed civilians is an act that can be considered a war crime. However, this does not justify Israel's attacks on civilians in Gaza. No matter what the other side has done, international humanitarian law must always be upheld, says Alberto Rinaldi, a researcher in humanitarian law and human rights.

Once an armed conflict starts, the laws of war come into play. International humanitarian law applies to all parties in an armed conflict. Not only states, but also groups like Hamas.

But distinguishing military and civilian targets in a densely populated area like Gaza is complicated. Alberto Rinaldi points out that it is a challenge to know whether civilians can also be part of Hamas, an argument previously used by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan during the so-called war on terror:

– However, the category of "terrorist" is missing in international humanitarian law. You are either a combatant or a civilian. A civilian loses his or her immunity if he or she directly participates in hostilities, which makes them targets that can be killed. But how is that assessment made in Gaza?

Everyday Violence in the West Bank

In recent years, the situation in Israel and Palestine has been overshadowed by both other events in the Middle East and domestic political turmoil in Israel. However, social anthropologist Nina Gren, who has spent two decades conducting field work in the area and spent three months in the West Bank as recently as last year, describes the conflict as an ongoing reality for Palestinians:

– In the West Bank, the number of settlements have exploded in the last ten years. The area is characterized by everyday violence against Palestinians that is not as spectacular as the bombs now falling in Gaza, but at the same time very normalized.

Even before the Hamas attacks, settler violence in the West Bank reached its highest levels since the UN began measuring it in the mid-2000s, according to The New York Times. According to UN figures, there used to be one violent incident from settlers per day. Now that number is seven.

Meanwhile, no national Palestinian elections have been held since 2006. 

– Neither the political regime in Gaza (Hamas) nor in the West Bank (Fatah) has legitimacy as they have not been elected for almost twenty years. A significant part of the Palestinian population is young, which means that many have never had the opportunity to vote, says Nina Gren.

A Palestinian opinion poll from September this year showed that 43% of the Palestinian population considered neither Fatah nor Hamas to be worthy leaders.

Hamas, classified as a terrorist organization by both the EU and the US, has at times been more popular in the West Bank - where they do not rule - than in Gaza. This is probably because the West Bank has not experienced the rule and corruption associated with Hamas, says Nina Gren.

Instead, people in the West Bank have been disappointed with the leadership of Fatah.

– It is difficult to say with certainty how much support Hamas has in Gaza right now. Support varies. Some may support Hamas because of the Israeli bombings, while others believe that Hamas is the cause of the bombings. We will not know for sure until new elections are held, says Nina Gren.

Before the terror attack, a Washington Institute poll conducted in July this year showed that the majority of Gazans, 62%, wanted Hamas to maintain a ceasefire with Israel.

Threat to All Jews

The terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023 has been described as the deadliest day in Israeli history, with an unprecedented level of civilian casualties: over 1400 dead.

– Not since the Holocaust have so many Jews been killed in one day. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, many Jewish-Israeli soldiers were killed, but not civilians in this way. Nor did classic pogroms in Tsarist Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries reach these numbers. Israelis and Jews all over the world are in shock, says Svante Lundgren, a historian of religion with a focus on the Middle East.

Israel refers to its right to defend itself against Hamas's attacks. Its justification for attacking civilian targets in Gaza is that terrorists are hiding among the civilian population. Using civilians as human shields also violates humanitarian law.

However, even if Israel issues warnings before striking civilians, this does not relieve the attacking state of its responsibility to protect the civilian population, says Alberto Rinaldi:

– One thing is certain, in the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, civilians have paid and are still paying the highest price. Both parties have deliberately violated the principles of international humanitarian law.

More Perspectives from LU Researchers

Researchers from Lund University regularly contribute to the news siteThe Conversation, which publishes articles on a wide range of topics.

Here are examples of articles on the topic of Israel and Palestine:

Civilians and the Laws of War

When it comes to armed conflict, there are important principles that help protect civilians.

  • The principle of distinction emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between civilian and military targets. This means that only military targets should be attacked, while civilians should remain protected. 
  • The principle of proportionality emphasizes that the risks to civilians should be proportionate to the military necessity of an attack. This ensures that the use of force is not excessive and that undue harm to the civilian population is avoided. 
  • The precautionary principle means that all possible measures should be taken to avoid harm to civilians. The aim of this principle is to ensure that risks to innocent civilians are minimized as much as possible.