Is Israel entitled to exercise self-defense in Gaza?

Israel has raided Gaza’s largest hospital and targeted residential areas and refugee camps, causing a “nightmarish” situation in the besieged Palestinian enclave, according to the United Nations human rights chief, Volker Turk. Amid a worsening humanitarian situation, where thousands face the risk of starvation due to the Israeli blockade of the territory housing 2.3 million people, there is a growing call for a ceasefire.

Israel, along with its allies, contends that the bombings are justified, citing the right to self-defense in response to the October 7 Hamas attacks that resulted in 1,200 deaths and over 5,600 injuries in southern Israel. However, questions arise about the nature of this right to self-defense, as the death toll among Palestinians has surpassed 11,500, with 29,800 wounded since then.

What does the right to self-defense entail?

In adherence to Article 51 of the UN Charter, the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense remains unimpaired until the UN Security Council implements measures to uphold international peace and security, specifically in the event of an armed attack against a member of the United Nations. Since the commencement of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, officials from Israel and its Western allies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, have consistently justified Israeli actions by referencing Article 51.

Is it applicable to Israel in the context of Gaza?

Many experts remain unconvinced that it applies.

Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, expressed this skepticism in an address to the Australian Press Club on Tuesday, stating, “The right to self-defense can be invoked when the state is threatened by another state, which is not the case.” The attack Israel faced on October 7 originated from an armed group in the territory of Gaza, which Israel effectively controls.

Despite Israel’s withdrawal of forces from Gaza in 2005, it has maintained a land, sea, and air blockade since Hamas assumed power in 2007. Albanese argues that this amounts to occupation, a viewpoint contested by Israel and its allies. She points out, “Israel does not claim another state has threatened it. It has been threatened by an armed group within an occupied territory. It cannot claim the right of self-defense against a threat that emanates from a territory it occupies, from a territory kept under belligerent occupation.”

Albanese referred to a 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which deemed the construction of Israel’s separation wall in the occupied West Bank illegal. The ICJ rejected Israel’s argument to build the wall, stating that it could not invoke the right to self-defense in an occupied territory.

  • Do additional challenges exist for Israel’s argument?

Additional experts highlight the extensive impact of Israeli assaults on Gaza.

Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a London-based organization conducting research and advocacy on armed violence against civilians, remarked, “The death of a reported 4,710 children, attacks on healthcare, the withholding of water and electricity – these cannot be merely justified as a ‘right to self-defense.'” He further stated that for Israel to assert this right without facing challenges “would be a mockery of international humanitarian law.”

Which rules regulate Israel’s conflict with the Gaza Strip?

Armed conflicts are regulated by international humanitarian law (IHL), a set of rules outlined in international agreements such as the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, along with other agreements and conventions designed to ensure that all member nations adhere to fundamental rules during conflicts. However, member states do not always abide by these rules, as evidenced most recently in the Ukraine-Russia war. Despite accusations of war crimes in previous military assaults on Gaza, Israel has not faced accountability.

In the ongoing conflict, experts note that Israel’s actions appear to violate all four main principles of IHL: the distinction between civilians and combatants, proportionality between anticipated loss of civilian life and damage and the strategic military advantage of an attack, legitimate military purposes, and the humane treatment of all individuals, from civilians to detainees and hostages.

As of Thursday, among the Palestinian casualties in the current conflict are 4,710 children and 3,160 women. Iain Overton, speaking to Al Jazeera, raised concerns about Israel’s adherence to proportionality, stating, “The scale of the bombardment and its impact on civilians raises questions about Israel’s adherence to proportionality.” Additionally, Israel’s bombing of Gaza has resulted in the deaths of 102 aid workers with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), marking the deadliest conflict ever for UN staff in the organization.

Is it acceptable to target civilians in times of conflict?

IHL emphasizes the fundamental rule of all wars, stating that parties in a conflict must always distinguish between civilians and combatants, and civilians and civilian objects must never be attacked. Consequently, there is no justification for either side to attack civilians in the current conflict, and such actions are deemed unlawful.

Neve Gordon, a professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London, asserts that both Hamas’s and Israel’s actions constitute “clearly war crimes.” He points out that it is evident to anyone that Hamas’s actions on October 7 violated IHL. Gordon also contends that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza since October 7, citing collective punishment, compelled population movement, and the unleashing of violence causing civilian casualties and infrastructure destruction.

Furthermore, Gordon challenges Israel’s claims about Hamas operating from civilian facilities, suggesting that these assertions are aimed at justifying civilian casualties by emphasizing the high value of the targets.

Are the Israeli attacks on hospitals, schools, and refugee camps lawful?

International humanitarian law mandates the protection of medical units and prohibits attacks on essential civilian survival facilities, such as drinking water installations and farmland. Targeting schools and hospitals during the conflict, as observed in Israel’s actions, is considered “one of the six grave violations” by the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Despite facing significant criticism, Israel has persisted in these attacks, often asserting that Hamas is using civilians in these locations as “human shields.” On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden echoed the Israeli claim of a Hamas base at al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, without providing evidence, and Israel has not presented any proof for this claim.

Sources from Aljazeera.

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