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Israel Is Committing War Crimes

January 14, 2009
George E. Bisharat
1/12/2009

Israel’s current assault on the Gaza Strip cannot be justified by self-defense. Rather, it involves serious violations of international law, including war crimes. Senior Israeli political and military leaders may bear personal liability for their offenses, and they could be prosecuted by an international tribunal, or by nations practicing universal jurisdiction over grave international crimes. Hamas fighters have also violated the laws of warfare, but their misdeeds do not justify Israel’s acts.

The United Nations charter preserved the customary right of a state to retaliate against an “armed attack” from another state. The right has evolved to cover nonstate actors operating beyond the borders of the state claiming self-defense, and arguably would apply to Hamas. However, an armed attack involves serious violations of the peace. Minor border skirmishes are common, and if all were considered armed attacks, states could easily exploit them — as surrounding facts are often murky and unverifiable — to launch wars of aggression. That is exactly what Israel seems to be currently attempting.

Israel had not suffered an “armed attack” immediately prior to its bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Since firing the first Kassam rocket into Israel in 2002, Hamas and other Palestinian groups have loosed thousands of rockets and mortar shells into Israel, causing about two dozen Israeli deaths and widespread fear. As indiscriminate attacks on civilians, these were war crimes. During roughly the same period, Israeli forces killed about 2,700 Palestinians in Gaza by targeted killings, aerial bombings, in raids, etc., according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

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