Israel Has Overreacted to the Threats It Provoked
This column appeared in the New York Times' Room for Debate on 23 July 2014.
All nations have a right of self-defense, including Israel. But that right may be exercised lawfully only in limited circumstances. Israel cannot validly claim self-defense in its recent onslaught against Gaza for two main reasons.
First, despite its 2005 withdrawal of ground forces and settlers from Gaza, Israel still exercises effective control over the region by controlling its airspace, coast and territorial waters, land borders (with Egypt), electromagnetic fields, electricity and fuel supply. Accordingly, Israel remains an occupying power under international law, bound to protect the occupied civilian population. Israel can use force to defend itself, but no more than is necessary to quell disturbances. Hence this is not a war – rather, it is a top military power unleashing massive firepower against a penned and occupied Palestinian population.
By attacking civilian officials in their homes, striking hospitals and infrastructure, Israel gave up the principle of attacking only military targets.
Second, self-defense cannot be claimed by a state that initiates violence, as Israel did in its crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting more than 400, searching 2,200 homes and other sites, and killing at least nine Palestinians. There is no evidence that the terrible murders of three Israeli youths that Israel claimed as justification for the crackdown were anything other than private criminal acts that do not trigger a nation’s right of self-defense (were an American citizen, or even a Drug Enforcement Administration agent killed by drug traffickers on our border with Mexico, that would not entitle us to bomb Mexico City).
Hamas and other groups began to intensify rocket fire only after Israel’s provocation. Prior to that, Hamas had proved itself a reliable partner for calm along the Gaza border, withholding rocket fire for nearly two years and largely curbing attacks by other groups.
Israel is also apparently violating the principle of distinction, that requires armies to attack only military targets. By attacking civilian officials and Hamas political figures in their homes, and striking hospitals, water and sewage lines, and other civilian infrastructure, Israel has abandoned distinction. Unsurprisingly, 75 percent of Palestinian victims have been civilians.
Israel has also used flechettes (small darts sprayed in the thousands by tank shells). Flechettes don't violate international law per se, but their use in densely populated areas like Gaza is necessarily indiscriminate and therefore illegal.
Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket salvos also likely violate international law, but have caused only one death. Every life is valuable, but the gravity of Hamas’s violations pale in comparison to Israel’s serious war crimes.