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The Complex Legal Landscape of Israel’s Obligations Toward Gaza

Israel Defense Forces - Humanitarian Aid is Unloaded at the Ashdod Port - From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

As the world witnesses the developing conflict between Israel and Gaza, many are questioning Israel’s recent actions of cutting off utilities and essential supplies to the strip. This controversial move has not only sparked outrage but also reignited the debate on what responsibilities sovereign states have toward regions they do not govern.

The tenets of international law hold that states have sovereignty over their territories and populations. This notion underlines the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. Essentially, without explicit international agreements mandating otherwise, Israel has no legal obligation to supply Gaza with utilities or essential goods.

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the obligations change significantly if a state is recognized as an occupying power. According to the convention, an occupying power has specific responsibilities toward the welfare of the occupied populace. However, Israel relinquished its status as an occupying power in Gaza following its disengagement plan in 2005. Consequently, Israel is not legally obligated under the Fourth Geneva Convention to supply utilities and essentials to Gaza. While this argument remains a matter of legal and political debate, it offers a significant legal standpoint that cannot be dismissed outright.

Critics who focus solely on Israel’s role in the humanitarian situation in Gaza often overlook an important geopolitical element: Egypt’s shared border with the Gaza Strip. In international relations, it’s important to consider the responsibilities and capabilities of all actors involved in a crisis. As political scientist Robert D. Kaplan notes, “geopolitics is the stuff of unbalanced multi-actor power plays.” (“The Revenge of Geography,” Kaplan, 2012)

The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been, historically, another potential avenue for humanitarian aid, commercial goods, and utilities like electricity and water. Yet, Egypt has also enforced blockades and restrictions on its border with Gaza, mainly citing concerns over the spread of militancy and instability in the Sinai Peninsula. As noted by the Middle East analyst Tarek Osman, Egypt has security concerns that are often “closely tied to the situation in Gaza.” (“Egypt on the Brink,” Tarek Osman, 2010)

It’s not just critics in the West who focus exclusively on Israel; regional actors and organizations have a similar focus. 

What is often missing in the discourse is a comprehensive approach that includes Egypt as part of the solution. Such an inclusion could distribute responsibility more evenly and might offer more holistic solutions to a deeply complex problem. Focusing solely on Israel’s role perpetuates an incomplete narrative, neglecting the multi-actor landscape of this humanitarian issue.

The intricacies of humanitarian aid in the context of the Israel-Gaza relationship have been under the global microscope for years. International norms, such as those embodied in humanitarian principles, advocate for aid provision based on humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. While these norms emphasize the moral duty to provide relief in crises, they remain largely aspirational, without the stringent enforcement mechanisms that legally binding treaties might possess.

A key consideration in the Israel-Gaza situation is the ongoing security threat posed by Hamas, which both the EU and the US have designated as a terrorist organization. The moral dilemma of humanitarian aid becomes far more complex when the receiving entity has a history of diverting aid for militant purposes, a claim Israel has repeatedly made regarding Hamas. As Jonathan Schanzer notes in The Gaza Conundrum, Gaza’s suffering continues, however, because Hamas continues to divert funds for commando tunnels, rockets, and other tools of war. And under Hamas rule, there is not much political space to challenge these policies. Anti-Israel sentiment is the only permissible form of protest. This has only served to further radicalize a population that has for years been fed a steady diet of hate.”

Critics quick to point fingers at Israel for the challenges in Gaza often fail to adequately address such nuance, and the challenges that come with it. Instead of considering the broader geopolitical stage, there is a tendency to resort to a binary approach, driven more by biases and preconceived notions than by objective analysis. The situation in Gaza will not improve until words cease to serve as cover for the insistence to destroy Israel.

A comprehensive approach would take into account not only Israel’s legitimate security concerns but also the roles of other actors in the region, notably Egypt. It is not just a matter of convenience but a necessity to understand the region’s intricacies and how Egypt, with its shared border with Gaza, can significantly impact the situation.

Laying blame exclusively at Israel’s feet, therefore, is not only an oversimplification but also a result of deeply entrenched prejudices. While the moral pull of humanitarian assistance is undeniable, using it as a tool to single out one actor in a multifaceted conflict is neither fair nor productive. As international relations scholar Dr. Sara Roy argues, “The humanitarian discourse, while critically important, cannot be allowed to substitute for a political discourse.” (“Hamas and the Transformation(s) of Political Islam in Palestine”, Sara Roy, 2003) This reinforces the notion that for genuine solutions to emerge, the discourse must be as nuanced as the situation it seeks to address.

The strategy of withholding or adjusting humanitarian aid as a means of addressing terror or pushing for political change it must be said isn’t novel. Western powers have employed such tactics on multiple occasions, predicated on the argument of national security or as leverage for political aims. Following the 9/11 attacks and in the face of the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, the U.S. pressured Pakistan to cut off truck routes supplying food to Afghanistan, a move that the United Nations warned might worsen the already dire humanitarian situation.

While the court of public opinion may have reached its verdict, branding Israel as the great evil of our time, for reasons that are fraught with antisemitism, the legal landscape presents a more complicated picture. While the moral and ethical arguments for providing humanitarian aid to Gaza are strong, from a strictly legal standpoint, Israel’s obligation remains a subject of contention. 

Ignorance and oversimplification of this issue serve no one, least of all the citizens of Gaza and Israel, who bear the brunt of this protracted conflict.

In navigating the treacherous waters of the Israel-Gaza quandary, it’s paramount that we employ a lens of objectivity, resisting the allure of reductive reasoning. It’s high time that, instead of succumbing to historical prejudices and biases, we commit to a discourse driven by fairness, knowledge, and a genuine desire for resolution. Both the inhabitants of Gaza and Israel deserve a discourse that champions their shared humanity above all else, not one muddied by oversimplified narratives and political agendas.

About the Author
Catherine Perez-Shakdam - Director Forward Strategy and Executive Director Forum of Foreign Relations (FFR) Catherine is a former Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and consultant for the UNSC on Yemen, as well an expert on Iran, Terror and Islamic radicalisation. A prominent political analyst and commentator, she has spoken at length on the Islamic Republic of Iran, calling on the UK to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. Raised in a secular Jewish family in France, Catherine found herself at the very heart of the Islamic world following her marriage to a Muslim from Yemen. Her experience in the Middle East and subsequent work as a political analyst gave her a very particular, if not a rare viewpoint - especially in how one can lose one' sense of identity when confronted with systemic antisemitism. Determined to share her experience and perspective on those issues which unfortunately plague us -- Islamic radicalism, Terror and Antisemitism Catherine also will speak of a world, which often sits out of our reach for a lack of access.
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