Protecting Civilians

A cornerstone of Middle East peace

Civilians are paying a high price for the escalating violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. Hundreds of innocent lives are being lost and hundreds of thousands deprived of their basic rights as the security situation deteriorates. A solution to the conflict can only lie in a political process. In the meantime, civilians caught up in armed conflict are guaranteed the right to protection under international humanitarian law. They cannot afford to wait for a negotiated settlement. Moreover, their protection will strengthen the path to peace and help to reduce poverty.


The international community, through member governments of the Quartet (the EU, USA, UN, and Russia) and governments in the region, must act now and fulfil the obligations under international law to ensure the right of civilians to protection. Oxfam is calling on the Quartet to convene an emergency meeting with the Israeli Government and Palestinian National Authority to ensure that ordinary people on both sides are protected.


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Oxfam International and its affiliates have been working with poor and marginalised communities in the occupied Palestinian Territories since 1949, and in Israel since the 1980s. We are deeply concerned at the impact of the conflict on Israeli and Palestinian civilians, on our programmes and those of our Israeli and Palestinian partner organisations, and the effect of the conflict on the wider region. Oxfam believes that the protection of civilians will ultimately only come through a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied since 1967. Oxfam believes that civilians caught up in the conflict cannot afford to wait for a political solution, however; they need protection now. Oxfam reaffirms the right of Israel and a viable, sovereign Palestinian state to exist within secure borders. This briefing paper is one of a series in which our primary concern is for the Government of Israel (GoI), the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and the international community to act urgently to mitigate the impact of conflict on poor people and to provide effective protection to civilians living under conflict.

In ‘Foundations for Peace: Urgent Steps to Address the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict’ (March 2002), Oxfam International called on all parties to take steps ‘to reverse the long-term damage that will affect the livelihoods of the poorest and most marginalised people in Palestine and Israel for decades to come’ and to protect the rights of civilians under international law. [1]

In ‘Forgotten Villages: Struggling to Survive Under Closure in the West Bank’ (September 2002), we documented the impact of the Israeli policy of closure on vulnerable rural communities living in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

‘Protecting Civilians’ (May 2004) urges the international community with the GoI and PNA to put the protection of civilians first, according to their obligations under international humanitarian law that is, their commitments under Common Article One of the Geneva Convention, that is, ‘… [to] undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances’.

It proposes that an external mechanism be found to protect civilians in the occupied Palestinian Territories and to improve the humanitarian situation. Safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians and Israelis will enhance the prospects for peace and a renewed political process, as well as regional and global security.

This paper is based on detailed, verifiable, and objective research carried out by a range of reputable organisations, whose principal concern is the welfare of the people of the region and a just and sustainable solution to the conflict. It documents the violence inflicted on civilians by Israelis and Palestinians and the suffering experienced by people on both sides. It is based on Oxfam’s direct experience with poor communities and our work with partners in the occupied Palestinian Territories.


The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has claimed nearly 4000 lives since October 2000. Families in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories have been torn apart as their loved ones have had their lives cut short. Nearly 3000 Palestinians, a majority of whom are unarmed civilians, [2] have been killed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and more than 600 Israeli civilians have died as victims of Palestinian terrorism, in addition to the 265 Israeli security-force personnel who have been killed. [3] At least 25,000 Palestinians and 5467 Israelis have been injured, [4] and Palestinians have died because curfews and the checkpoints imposed by the Israeli military around their towns or villages have prevented them from receiving medical attention. Thousands more have had their homes destroyed.

The current violence is taking place against the background of Israel’s 37-year military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and the breakdown of the Oslo peace process.

Israel’s separation barrier, the stated aim of which is to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers reaching Israel, is now limiting the access of more than half a million West Bank Palestinians to their land, livelihoods, and water. Fear has become a part of everyday life for ordinary people everywhere. Moreover, the majority of the 3.8 million Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as a significant percentage of the Israeli population, live in poverty as a direct result of the conflict.

Civilians are more vulnerable than ever before in the current climate of violence. Yet the protection of civilians is a central obligation of states in the law of war (also called international humanitarian law, or IHL). [5] Under IHL, civilian protection means that people have the right to have their basic needs met as well as to be protected from personal violence. All parties have committed grave abuses of human rights. The Israeli government has failed to fulfil its obligations towards the occupied population; the Palestinian Authority has failed to defend civilians and to stop the violent actions of the extremist groups. The international community has also failed to ensure respect for the rules of international humanitarian law, prejudicing the prospects for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. A political solution based on international law is required to bring about a sustainable and just peace. However, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis cannot afford to wait for one. They need protection now.

Fresh thinking is required to change this situation, and Oxfam is calling for urgent action to be taken by the international community to ensure protection for civilians on both sides. The effective protection of civilians is essential for establishing peace through a political process that must lead to an end of occupation and the creation of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state.

Several models of international action exist already. All put the protection of civilians first, under international humanitarian law. Some have been successfully deployed in other conflicts. We suggest some ideas and models for consideration in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Oxfam does not commit itself to any particular model; only to the principle that in armed conflicts, international humanitarian law should be respected and civilians protected. We believe that their protection will, in turn, increase support for a peaceful settlement and marginalise those who wish to pursue violence. It would also greatly enhance the prospects for regional peace and global security. The application of these models needs urgent discussion and implementation by the GOI, the PNA, and member governments of the EU and UN via the Quartet. This would demonstrate that members of the Quartet and other governments are acting according to their responsibilities under Common Article One of the Geneva Convention.

Oxfam is calling on these key players to meet around the negotiating table without delay, to decide what action to take in order to protect civilians on both sides – and to start to put an end to the suffering.


1.‘Foundations for Peace’, Oxfam International Briefing Paper No. 21, p1.

2. Accounting Palestinian combatant and civilian casualties separately is difficult, because most Palestinian combatants do not wear uniforms. Many accounts of individual incidents report more civilian casualties than combatant casualties.

3. Source: and Palestinian Red Crescent Society and Israel Defence Force.

4. Source: Magen David Adom. Statistics for Palestinian injuries alone range from 26,129 (Palestinian Red Crescent Society), 38,000 (Palestinian National Information Centre), to 41,000 (Palestine Monitor).

5. International humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflicts or the law of war, is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, designed to safeguard those not actively taking part in the conflict, particularly civilians, and in the Hague Regulations which regulate the conduct of military operations (see