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The military leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Ahmed Jabari, has been assassinated in an Israeli air strike in Gaza. The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on Wednesday night (14th November) to discuss the onslaught and heard a plea from the Palestinian UN observer to stop “war crimes being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people”. The Israeli ambassador replied that the strikes were launched after days of rocket fire out of Gaza and Israel had a right to defend itself.
The assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari in a missile strike in Gaza City was the “start of a broader operation”, according to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), which it named Operation Pillar of Defense. Since the start of this Operation at the 14th November, a total of 1,500 rockets have been fired at southern Israel, about half of which were recorded as hits in Israeli territory. The Iron Dome anti-missile defense system has intercepted over 400 rockets, preventing them from striking populated areas in Israel.
Right of legitimite self-defense or aggression?
In international law, use of force excercising the right of (legitimite) self-defense has to be proportional. It means the use of force in self-defense has to be limited to the use of force necessary to counter the initial attack or aggression.
So, who is the initial aggressor in this particular case?
Professor International Law Terry Gill (University of Utrecht, University of Amsterdam) argues that the recent hostilities point into the direction of Israel as initial aggressor. It looks like the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari is rather a retaliation than a direct reponse to a particular Hamas attack. If Israel is considered to be the initial aggressor, Hamas has a right to self-defense. According to professor Gill, Hamas has reacted disproportionally by launching hundreds of rockets.
Hamas has violated international humanitairian law, because Hamas in the launch of those rockets has not been able to make a distinction between military objectives on the one side and civilian and civilian objectives one the other side: legitimite self-defence has turned by accident into aggression. Israel has on its turn a right to legitimite self-defense against Hamas’ rocket attacks. Of course the principle of proportionality applies to Israel’s right to self-defense too.
In Professor Alan Johnson’s view Israel’s response to Hamas’ rocket launches has been a proportional exercise of the right to self-defense. In Johnson’s words: ”in international law and just war theory, proportionality is not the same thing as symmetry. (…..) Proportionality, then, must be measured in part against the future: What is the value of the end-in-view to be achieved? What is the future threat to be avoided? Israel’s stated end-in-view has been rightful: to protect the citizens of southern Israel by stopping the rocket attacks.”
Professor Johnson again: “In comparison to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, what is striking about the current military action is precisely how limited the civilian casualties have been. As of this morning, the Israeli Defence Force has conducted over 1,500 targeted strikes against the weapons caches and the command and control facilities of armed groups; on the rocket launching sites, the tunnels through which they are smuggled, and the terrorists who fire them – all deliberately hidden in built-up civilian areas. These 1,500 strikes have caused around 130 deaths and a significant number of those are terrorists.”
Peace negotiations with Hamas resulted in a ceasefire on November 21, at 9 pm., which has been respected so far.
Both parties claim the victory.
However, there is still a continuing potential explosive situation in Gaza, for two reasons:
- Israel faced an arsenal of Iranian-supplied Fajr 5 missiles able to pound Tel Aviv. Israel was surprised by the recent Rocket Range from Gaza. In 2008 Israel faced an arsenal of 5,000 rockets held by armed groups in Gaza. Today it is 12,000. In the past, Israel faced home-made Qassam rockets fired over the border onto the people of Sderot. Then Hamas acquired Grad rockets, then Qassams. Today Hamas’ rockets will be able to reach Jaffa, Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem.
- Abbas, who views himself as the leader of all Palestinians, has been sidelined as Hamas has taken center stage in the struggle against Israel and received a string of VIP visitors in Gaza, even as Israeli airstrikes continued to pound the Hamas-ruled strip. But is Israel willing to negotiate with Hamas in the (near) future?
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- ROY, S., Hamas and civil society in Gaza : engaging the Islamist social sector, Princeton, NJ [etc.] : Princeton University Press, 2011.