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With Gaza borders sealed, there's much we don't know about what's happening inside

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the voices that made it out of Gaza suggest the human cost of a war that is now three weeks old. The numbers of dead can be numbing, but they have climbed. The Hamas attack on Israel killed 1,400 people - men, women and children. And Israeli authorities add that attackers took away more than 200 hostages.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Palestinian health authorities say Israel's military response has cost at least 8,300 lives in Gaza. Upwards of 3,400 of those killed are kids, a death toll that exceeds the annual number of children killed across all of the world's conflict zones since 2019. That's according to the international aid group Save The Children. Monitoring all of this is Tirana Hassan. She's executive director of Human Rights Watch and joins us now from New York. Good morning.

TIRANA HASSAN: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Tirana, I want to start with this communications cut out - in and out since Friday. What does this mean for civilians as this war intensifies?

HASSAN: Well, the telecommunication services in Gaza had already been severely disrupted since the start of hostilities. But, you know, this near-total communications blackout that occurred on the 27th cut off most of Gaza's 2 million people from the outside world, but it just wreaked havoc with the emergency services, who were already struggling to treat thousands of injured people, civilians who have been injured and killed in airstrikes, and it prevented families from reaching their loved ones at a time when, you know, they feared for their lives. And the laws of war are grounded in this principle of proportionality, and deliberately shutting down and destroying telecoms systems would be considered disproportionate.

FADEL: What does it also mean, though, for visibility into the military operations?

HASSAN: I mean, an information blackout like this risks providing cover for mass atrocities and further contributing to impunity for human rights violations. I mean, that's absolutely accurate. But on top of that, you need to have communications so journalists can be able to report what's happening from the ground. And ultimately, we need to have proper investigations with investigators in Gaza and in Israel who are able to collect evidence for future prosecutions, because impunity for the crimes that are being committed will only fuel human rights abuses in the future.

FADEL: So at this moment, can Human Rights Watch do its work?

HASSAN: We're able to do our work in Israel, but we're also able to continue to, through having access to telecommunications, speak to people on the ground. But it's incredibly difficult, Leila, to be able to speak to survivors and witnesses. We also are able to use tools such as satellite imagery, which are giving us, you know, accurate descriptions of the level of destruction, and ultimately, these will all be important pieces of information as we piece together the violations of international humanitarian law.

FADEL: As we noted earlier, Israel suffered a huge loss earlier this month - 1,400 people, many of them civilians, including children, were killed in an attack by Hamas. More than 200 people, also including children, were taken hostage. Israel says its military operation aimed at ridding Gaza of Hamas is an appropriate response. Is this a fair response to such an atrocity?

HASSAN: Leila, atrocities from one side don't justify atrocities from the other side. No party to any conflict is above international humanitarian law, and the laws of war are very clear. The responses to the conduct of the warring parties must be proportional, and there is an obligation on the warring parties to protect civilians. We have to remember at this point in time that Israeli and Palestinian lives have the same dignity, and they deserve the same protection. And attacks on either, they should spark the same level of international indignation.

FADEL: Are they sparking the same level of international indignation?

HASSAN: Sadly, we are seeing the international community fall short, you know, and it might seem odd to talk about international humanitarian law and human rights law, but the importance that, you know, these standards are upheld is critical for the survival of civilians who are caught in this war. And it matters what the international community says, including countries like the U.S. who are close allies and being listened to by the Israeli authorities. They need to ensure that they are not making statements that allow for, or that there are permissive violations of international law.

We must be very clear that all violations of international humanitarian law will not be tolerated by the international community, and that there will be accountability for these violations. That's whether it's blockades, it's collective punishment, it's the bombardment of civilian infrastructure, the killing of civilians, the taking of hostages. All of this requires - all of this will be accountable under international law.

FADEL: So we've been hearing from Palestinians the term genocide. We heard that from a young woman just now on our air a few minutes ago. When you look at this, how do you view it?

HASSAN: Look, we're investigating laws of war violations by both sides, and we have found serious abuses that amount to war crimes. And they include summary killings, hostage taking, deliberate blocking of aid and collective punishment. And we've also seen that both sides have been firing heavy weapons into populated areas, which has meant large amounts of civilian casualties. And these are all grave violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war.

FADEL: Tirana Hassan is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Thank you for your time.

HASSAN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "THE FAIREST THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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