UN human rights chief: Israel’s total siege of Gaza ‘prohibited’ by international law

High Commissioner Volker Turk says people’s dignity and lives must be respected, stresses Israeli obligation ‘to spare the civilian population and civilian objects’ during attacks

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk delivers a speech at the opening of the 54th UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, on September 11, 2023. (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk delivers a speech at the opening of the 54th UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, on September 11, 2023. (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Israel’s total siege of the Gaza Strip, depriving civilians of goods essential for survival, is banned under international law, the United Nations human rights chief said on Tuesday.

Volker Turk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said people’s dignity and lives had to be respected as he called for all sides to defuse the “explosive powder-keg situation.”

In a surprise weekend assault, some 1,500 gunmen led by Palestinian terror group Hamas invaded Israel after breaching the Gaza Strip border fence and then rampaged murderously for hours through southern areas, massacring hundreds of civilians.

The death toll in Israel from the attack and subsequent battles rose above 900 by Tuesday. Over 500 people remained hospitalized, many with life-threatening injuries; over 2,700 have been injured since Saturday. The terrorists kidnapped about 150 men, women and children and dragged them into Gaza. Hamas also launched over 5,000 rockets at Israel and has continued to bombard southern and central areas.

Hamas has threatened to execute the hostages if Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, launched in response to the deadly raid, continue without warning.

A senior Israeli government source on Monday said that the “roof knocking” policy, whereby the IDF has previously used text messages, phone calls, or an initial strike on the roof to warn residents of a building that is about to be struck, is not currently being used except in certain circumstances. Instead, Israel has been urging the Gazan populace to evacuate from central areas where it is targeting terrorist infrastructure.

The Hamas threat came after Israel on Monday imposed a total siege on the Gaza Strip, cutting off food, water and electricity supplies, and sparking fears of an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.

A Palestinian child inspects a damaged car the city center of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip following overnight Israeli shelling, on October 10, 2023. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“International humanitarian law is clear: The obligation to take constant care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects remains applicable throughout the attacks,” Turk said in a statement.

The siege risks seriously compounding the already dire human rights and humanitarian situation in Gaza, including the capacity of medical facilities to operate, especially in light of increasing numbers of injured, his statement said.

“The imposition of sieges that endanger the lives of civilians by depriving them of goods essential for their survival is prohibited under international humanitarian law,” Turk said.

Any restrictions on the movement of people and goods to implement a siege must be justified by military necessity or may otherwise amount to collective punishment, the statement added.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, over 700 Palestinians have been killed in the airstrikes.

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