When can hospitals be military targets?

The Israeli army’s raid on Gaza’s biggest hospital, Al-Shifa, targeting the militant group Hamas, has sparked a torrent of international condemnation, with Qatar branding it a “war crime”.

Israel has denied the accusation, saying its operation falls within the boundaries of international law.

AFP looks at whether hospitals can be considered a legitimate military target, and under which conditions.

The Geneva Conventions, adopted in the aftermath of World War II, form the core of international humanitarian law and “are particularly protective of civilian hospitals”, according to Mathilde Philip-Gay, an expert in international humanitarian law at Lyon-3 university in southeast France.

“It is forbidden to turn recognised civilian hospitals into a conflict zone. It is also forbidden to use civilian populations, the sick or the injured as human shields, it is a war crime, as is fighting from inside a hospital,” Ms Philip-Gay said.

Article 8 of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, defines a long list of war crimes including “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”.

But it makes an exception if the targets are “military objectives”.

Ms Philip-Gay said that “if a civilian hospital is used for acts harmful to the enemy, that is the legal term used”, the hospital can lose its protected status under international law and be considered a legitimate target.

But “the other party must take all precautions to avoid intentionally targeting civilians”, she said.

Even if the hospital is used for “acts harmful to the enemy”, Ms Philip-Gay said, the other party “does not have the right to bombard it for two days and completely destroy it”, citing the need under international law for the response to be “proportionate”.

In March 2022, five people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in a Russian airstrike on a maternity ward and paediatric hospital in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol

She added that the other party must give advance warning of its response and that evacuation procedures must be put in place for patients and health workers.

Alternatively, they can be asked “to isolate themselves in a part of the hospital”, she said.

But during any military operation against the site, “there have to be doctors to take care of the patients”, she said.

Hospitals have been repeatedly targeted in recent conflicts, from Syria and Yemen to Afghanistan and Ukraine.

In March 2022, five people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in a Russian airstrike on a maternity ward and paediatric hospital in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Ukraine accused Russia of a war crime over the attack, while Russia said the building was shielding members of Ukraine’s Azov battalion.

The ICC, which was set up in 2002 as a war crimes court of last resort, is investigating a range of crimes carried out during the war in Ukraine and has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Israel is not a member of the court, but the ICC says it has jurisdiction in Gaza and the West Bank because Palestine is a state party to the court, a claim disputed by Israel.

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