On December 27, 2008, Israel launched its brutal assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. The aim here has been to collect in one place the most frequently-asked questions and to offer answers and sources. You can read the whole thing through (warning: it’s long!) or see a separate list of sections and questions, and jump to the ones you’re interested in.
1. Doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself and its population from rocket attacks?
Rockets from Gaza aimed at Israeli civilians violate international law.
But any assessment of whether Israeli military actions constitute lawful self-defense has to take account of the context and the question of proportionality.
The broad context is that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal and unjust and Israel can’t claim self-defense when Palestinians struggle by legitimate means to end the occupation. (In the same way, Japanese troops couldn’t claim self-defense when they were attacked by guerrillas in occupied China or the occupied Philippines during World War II.)
The proper Israeli response to such Palestinian actions is not "self-defense," but full withdrawal from the occupied territories.
2. While conquests in wars of aggression are clearly illegal, didn’t Israel obtain the West Bank and Gaza as the result of a defensive war against an attack waged by neighboring Arab states?
The West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, as well as the Sinai and the Golan Heights were conquered by Israel during the June 1967 war, a war in which Israel attacked first. Israel’s supporters argue that although Israel fired the first shots, this was a justified preventive war, given that Arab armies were mobilizing on Israel’s borders, with murderous rhetoric. The rhetoric was indeed blood-curdling, and many people around the world worried for Israel’s safety. But those who understood the military situation — in Tel Aviv and the Pentagon — knew quite well that even if the Arabs struck first, Israel would prevail in any war. Egypt’s leader was looking for a way out and agreed to send his vice-president to Washington for negotiations. Before that could happen, Israel attacked, in part because it rejected negotiations and the prospect of any face-saving compromise for Egypt. Menachem Begin, who was an enthusiastic supporter of that (and other) Israeli wars was quite clear about the necessity for launching an attack: In June 1967, he said, Israel "had a choice." Egyptian Army concentrations did not prove that Nasser was about to attack. "We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him."
However, even if it were the case that the 1967 war was wholly defensive on Israel’s part, this could not justify continued rule over Palestinians. A people do not lose their right to self-determination because the government of a neighboring state goes to war. Sure, punish Jordan and don’t give it back the West Bank (to which it had no right in the first place, having joined with Israel in carving up the stillborn Palestinian state envisioned in the UN’s 1947 partition plan). And don’t return Gaza to Egyptian administrative control. But there is no basis for punishing the Palestinian population by forcing them to submit to foreign military occupation.
Israel immediately incorporated occupied East Jerusalem into Israel proper, announcing that Jerusalem was its united and eternal capital. It then began to establish settlements in the Occupied Territories in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit a conquering power from settling its population on occupied territory. The Israeli government legal adviser at the time, the distinguished jurist Theodor Meron, warned that any settlements would be illegal, but he was ignored.
And the International Court of Justice has ruled — in a portion of an opinion that had the unanimous support of all its judges, including the one from the United States — that all the settlements in the occupied territories are illegal.
3. Hasn’t Israel withdrawn from Gaza, thereby ending its occupation?
The Israeli withdrawal did not end the occupation. As John Dugard, the UN’s then special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, noted in 2006:
Statements by the Government of Israel that the withdrawal ended the occupation of Gaza are grossly inaccurate. Even before the commencement of ‘Operation Summer Rains,’ following the capture of Corporal Shalit, Gaza remained under the effective control of Israel. This control was manifested in a number of ways. Israel retained control of Gaza’s air space, sea space and external borders. Although a special arrangement was made for the opening of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, to be monitored by European Union personnel, all other crossings remained largely closed…. The actions of IDF [Israeli Defense Force] in respect of Gaza have clearly demonstrated that modern technology allows an occupying Power to effectively control a territory even without a military presence.
On November 20, 2008, Human Rights Watch wrote to Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, stating, among other things,
"Even though Israel withdrew its permanent military forces and settlers in 2005, it remains an occupying power in Gaza under international law because it continues to exercise effective day-to-day control over key aspects of life in Gaza."
If Israel had truly withdrawn from Gaza, then Israel could not prohibit Gaza from trading by sea or air with other nations, bar people from sailing or flying in to or out of Gaza, overfly Gazan airspace or patrol its coastal waters, or declare "no go zones" within Gaza. Israel also controls Gaza’s Population Registry and collects import duties on any goods it allows into Gaza.
4. Regardless of whether the occupation legally continues, didn’t Israel give up its settlements and its military bases in Gaza?
Israel’s Gaza "disengagement" was a unilateral move, not worked out with any Palestinian leaders at all. Israeli settlers were removed from Gaza, but more new settlers moved to the West Bank in 2005 than left Gaza and more Palestinian land was taken over on the West Bank than was given up in Gaza. To many it seemed clear that the disengagement, rather than a step towards eventual Palestinian statehood, was in fact a move to secure Israel’s hold on the West Bank and deny any independent existence for the Palestinian people. As Ariel Sharon’s chief aide, Dov Weisglass, told an interviewer for an Israeli newspaper: The significance of the disengagement plan
"is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."
5. Why should Israel have an obligation to open its borders with or transmit electricty or fuel to Gaza? Doesn’t it have the sovereign right to close its borders as it wishes?
When a country has controlled a territory for 40 years, and prohibits all construction or development that might allow that territory to function independent of the country, it bears obligations. When, in addition, the country prohibits the territory from engaging in trade via air or sea, it cannot claim the right to cut off land crossings.
6. Gaza shares a land border with Egypt. Why is Israel blamed for cutting off Gaza’s borders?
When Israel "disengaged" from Gaza, it did not turn the Rafah crossing — the connection to Egypt — over to the Palestinians. Instead, the Rafah crossing was the subject of an Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) signed in November 2005 by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, with U.S. backing, that provided that the crossing would be staffed by personnel from the European Union (EU). According to the Agreement, Israel would have a veto on who could come and go through the border (though Israelis wouldn’t be present at the crossing, but they would have real time video feed and advance notice of anyone seeking to cross).
As the Israeli human rights organization Gisha has noted, "With the exception of personal effects brought by travelers, imports through Rafah, the only crossing into Gaza not directly controlled by Israel, are not permitted. "
Egypt could, of course, ignore the AMA and open the border anyway. And it should do so. And the EU and the U.S. governments could and should end their financial strangulation of Gaza and send supplies by sea to Gaza’s coast, ignoring any Israeli blockade, since presumably Israel wouldn’t sink EU or U.S. vessels. The behavior of all of these governments is reprehensible.
7. Didn’t Hamas just use the Israeli disengagement from Gaza as an opportunity to launch rockets at Israel without provocation?
Rocket attacks declined after the Israeli "disengagement." There were 281 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza in 2004, and 179 in 2005. The disengagement was completed in September 2005. In the four month period October 2005 through January 2006, there were only 40 rockets fired.
In late September, there was a flurry of rockets launched from Gaza, following a deadly explosion at a Hamas armed victory parade in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. Most observers, including the Palestinian Authority (then involved in internecine conflict with Hamas) blamed the explosion on a Hamas accident; Hamas claimed Israel was responsible. Whatever the truth, according to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israeli think tank closely tied to the Israeli intelligence and military establishment:
"Afterwards, Fatah factions and the PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] launched the greatest number of rockets. Hamas stopped its direct involvement in rocket launching following the internal and external criticism it received for having harmed the civilian Palestinian populace, and later because of its governmental commitments."
Other Palestinian groups did launch rockets. In October 2005 there was another bout of rocket fire. But this did not occur in isolation. And in the pattern of violence and retaliatory violence it is hard to determine who "started" it. On October 23, 2005, Israeli forces killed two Islamic Jihad members on the West Bank; rockets were then fired from Gaza, without causing any injuries; Israel then closed border crossings; its planes flew low over Gaza creating sonic booms and it fired air to ground missiles, injuring five; a suicide bomber from the West Bank attacked an Israeli town, killing five; Israel unleashed further airstrikes and artillery on Gaza, killing eight including three children. Things cooled down a few days later and remained reasonably calm until after the election of Hamas at the end of January 2006.
8. How did Israel and the West react to Hamas’s election victory?
In January 2006, Hamas participated in Palestinian legislative elections (reversing its previous policy of abstentionism), and received a plurality of the votes. International observers certified the elections as fair, and indeed, these were among the rare democratically elected leaders in the Arab world. Washington had pressed Israel to allow the 2006 election and Hamas’s victory was a surprise to everyone (including Hamas).
Ironically, earlier, the United States and Israel had given support to Hamas in an attempt to undermine the secular leadership of the PLO.
Most analysts concluded that voters were expressing not so much support for Hamas’s religious positions, as rejection of Fatah’s corrupt and pusillanimous leadership, which after many years had brought Palestinians no closer to a viable state of their own.
Hamas’s entry into the government might have been taken as an opportunity to try to encourage it to moderate its positions, but Israel, the United States, and the European Union determined to crush it. Israel refused to turn over Palestinian tax revenues and closed borders, causing severe economic hardship. International donors, especially the United States and the EU, withheld funds, and Washington went a step further and imposed draconian regulations. As the mainstream International Crisis Group explained,
"NGOs engaged in humanitarian relief work face significant obstacles stemming from extraordinarily restrictive U.S. Treasury Department regulations; U.S. organisations, for example, require pre-approval for their donations, which must be in-kind rather than cash.
"Such restrictions affect developmental assistance – $450 million in 2005 – even more severely, for it often involves direct contacts with the PA. Some U.S. NGOs have had entire projects suspended. CARE, the international aid agency, which had hitherto provided 30 per cent of the health ministry’s medicines under a USAID-funded emergency medical assistance program, halted regular supplies after USAID withheld approval."
9. How could Hamas be a partner for peace? Didn’t they refuse the three U.S.-Israeli conditions: that they recognize Israel, renounce violence, and agree to accept all agreements previously accepted by the Palestinian Authority?
Hamas has indeed refused these three conditions, but no more so than Israel and the United States have done.
Hamas has not recognized Israel, but Israel and the United States have not recognized an independent Palestinian state.
Consider General Assembly resolution 63/165 that was adopted on December 18, 2008. The resolution reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right to an independent State of Palestine, and further urged all States and United Nations entities to continue to support and assist the Palestinian people in the early realization of their right to self-determination. The resolution passed by the overwhelming vote of 173 in favor and 5 opposed, with 7 abstentions. The five nay votes were the United States, Israel, and three tiny U.S.-dependent Pacific island nations.
Of course, Israel may say that it is willing to accept a Palestine state, just not on the 1967 borders, and indeed so long as it is confined to a tiny swath of unviable territory. But if Hamas returned the favor, saying it was willing to recognize Israel, but only if it were confined to Tel Aviv and its suburbs, one doubts Israel and the United States would consider that adequately forthcoming.
Regarding the use of violence, it would be nice if Hamas renounced the use of violence. Certainly, however, any sermons in this regard from the United States or Israel are preposterous. (Think Sinai, 1956, or Lebanon, 1982, or Iraq, 2003.) It might also be noted that those Israelis who actually renounce violence — by refusing military service in an occupying army — are imprisoned.
As for agreeing with previous agreements, put aside Washington’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, its "unsigning" of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and its failure to comply with the World Court’s ruling on Nicaragua. Consider simply that the World Court found Israel to be in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention (to which it is a party) in its construction of the Wall on the occupied West Bank. By a vote of 150 to 6 with 10 abstentions, the General Assembly affirmed that World Court opinion and called on Israel to comply. Israel refused to do so and the United States supported its refusal. Thus, for Israel and the United States, treaties solemnly accepted are just scraps of paper.
For Palestinians, who signed on to the 1993 Oslo Accords which promised them a state by 1999, only to see no state and a huge expansion in the number of Israeli settlers, Israel’s insistence that Hamas adhere to agreements must seem a cruel joke.
10. Hasn’t Hamas refused to ever accept the existence of Israel?
When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2006, he declared his continuing belief "in our people’s eternal and historic right to this entire land." Yet, he said, he understood the necessity of compromise. Hamas has taken a similar position: it considers Palestine in its entirety to be sacred Muslim land, it considers the state of Israel to be illegitimate, but yet it has