- International law authorizes Israel to initiate military countermeasures in Gaza. If Gaza is seen as having independent sovereignty, Israel's use of force is permissible on the grounds of self-defense. If Gaza is seen as lacking any independent sovereignty, Israel's use of military force is permissible as in other non-international conflicts.
- The rule of "distinction" includes elements of intent and expected result: so long as one aims at legitimate targets, the rule of distinction permits the attack, even if there will be collateral damage to civilians. The rule of "proportionality" also relies upon intent. If Israel plans a strike without expecting excessive collateral damage, the rule of proportionality permits it. Israeli attacks to date have abided by the rules of distinction and proportionality.
- Israel's imposition of economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip is a perfectly legal means of responding to Palestinian attacks. Since Israel is under no legal obligation to engage in trade of fuel or anything else with Gaza, or to maintain open borders, it may withhold commercial items and seal its borders at its discretion.
- The bar on collective punishment forbids the imposition of criminal-type penalties to individuals or groups on the basis of another's guilt. None of Israel's actions involve the imposition of criminal-type penalties.
- There is no legal basis for maintaining that Gaza is occupied territory. The Fourth Geneva Convention refers to territory as occupied where the territory is of a state party to the convention and the occupier "exercises the functions of government" in the territory. Gaza is not territory of another state party to the convention and Israel does not exercise the functions of government in the territory.
- The fighting in Gaza has been characterized by the extensive commission of war crimes, acts of terrorism and acts of genocide by Palestinians, while Israeli countermeasures have conformed with the requirements of international law. International law requires states to take measures to bring Palestinian war criminals and terrorists to justice, to prevent and punish Palestinian genocidal efforts, and to block the funding of Palestinian terrorist groups and those complicit with them.
Since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, Palestinian groups including Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Resistance Committees have launched thousands of rocket attacks at Israel. All the attacks have been on civilian targets, with no more than a handful of possible exceptions. The brunt of the Palestinian assault has been borne by the town of Sderot. The attacks have killed several residents and injured dozens, struck houses and public buildings like kindergartens, and so traumatized residents that three-quarters of all Sderot children between the ages of 7 and 12 suffer from post-traumatic anxiety.
Faulty Arguments Made by Opponents of Israel
Unsurprisingly, in the wake of Israeli countermeasures, persistent critics of Israel have strongly objected to Israel's defensive actions to date, while remaining mostly mute on the crime under international law committed daily by the Gazan militias' attacks on Israeli civilians. As will be explained below, it is evident that the criticisms are without legal basis. Israeli responses to the Palestinian terror attacks emanating from Gaza correspond to the requirements of international law, and the claims that Israel has violated international law are without merit.
One widely reported criticism came from John Dugard, a professor of international law who has accepted a permanent appointment as special rapporteur on human rights in the "occupied Palestinian territories" from the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights and its successor UN Human Rights Council. Dugard has publicly and repeatedly interpreted his mandate as requiring him to criticize only Israel and, true to form, Dugard criticized Israeli defense measures for alleged illegality in the high-profile Sunday New York Times (Jan. 20, 2008).
First, Dugard claimed that Israel's attack on Hamas headquarters in a Palestinian Interior Ministry building in Gaza was illegal because the target was "near a wedding venue with what must have been foreseen loss of life and injury to many civilians." However, contrary to Dugard's insinuation, the building was certainly a legitimate target under the international humanitarian legal rule of distinction as it makes a definite contribution to Hamas' hostilities. That one Palestinian civilian lost her life in the Israeli strike is unfortunate, but not a violation of the rule of proportionality, which authorizes collateral damage to civilians where justified by military necessity.
Second, Dugard asserted that Israel's closure of its borders with the Gaza Strip constitutes illegal "collective punishment." Yet there is nothing in international law that requires Israel to maintain open borders with such a hostile territory, whatever its sovereign status. Exercising legal counter-measures against a hostile entity does not constitute "collective punishment" under international law. Dugard's refusal to level the same charge against Egypt, which also kept closed its border with the Gaza Strip, underlines the bias that accompanies the legally inaccurate statement.
Dugard was not alone. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour denounced Israel's "disproportionate use of force." UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council that collective penalties were prohibited under international law (Financial Times, Jan. 22, 2008). UNRWA Commissioner General Karen Koning Abu Zayd joined the chorus by criticizing Israel's "sporadic" electricity supply to Gaza and its border closures and called on the international community to act (Guardian, Jan. 23, 2008). Unfortunately, these skewed assertions and misstatements of international law by UN officials framed how international public opinion views the illegal Palestinian actions in Gaza and the merits of Israeli defensive actions, and especially Israel's legal right to defend itself.
Some parties had the courage to reject the one-sided and faulty arguments. In the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Canada, a state that prides itself in making the defense of human rights and international law a significant factor in its foreign policy, voted against a resolution condemning Israel for the Gaza fighting. While the European state members abstained in the Human Rights Council vote, some European officials, such as Franco Frattini, European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, correctly defended the legality of the Israeli actions, and others, such as Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, criticized UN bias against Israel. Finally, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad told the UN Security Council on January 22, 2008, that Hamas was "ultimately responsible" for the current situation in Gaza.
This essay nevertheless attempts to construct a rational legal basis for evaluating Israeli behavior and potential criticisms. This is no easy task as many of the criticisms of Israel's conduct are made in conclusory fashion, without reference to legal doctrines or legal materials in support of the charges, or, alternatively, based on a misunderstanding of the requirements of the law and the factual context.
This essay examines, in turn, the six distinct bodies of law that could potentially affect the legality of Israeli counterstrikes:
- the laws of initiating hostilities (jus ad bellum);
- international humanitarian law, which governs the conduct of military actions;
- the laws of occupied territory, which some have argued applies to Israeli actions against Gaza-based terrorists;
- human rights laws;
- laws on genocide; and
- anti-terror laws.