Q&A: Why Israel's siege is illegal

Israel is still an occupying power in Gaza, which imposes on it certain obligations.

    Israel denies that it occupies Gaza, but it still maintains "effective control" over the territory [AFP]

    The International Committee of the Red Cross has described Israel's blockade of Gaza as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

    That conclusion rests on the Israeli government' status as an occupying power in Gaza, which assigns it certain obligations to the people of Gaza.

    Those obligations are spelt out in detail by the Fourth Geneva Convention. At their most basic, though, they require Israel to provide for the basic needs of the people, particularly food and medical care.

    To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.

    The convention also requires the occupying power to allow sufficient shipments of aid - food, clothing, medical supplies and other essentials - and to take steps to preserve the health care system in the occupied territory.

    Many Gazans rely on generators for power; their improper use has killed more than 100 people

    Israel does not meet those basic requirements, according to many observers. Eighty per cent of people living in Gaza rely on food aid to survive; 14 per cent of children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition.

    Power cuts are routine: 98 per cent of the population copes with routine blackouts. Fuel supplies are heavily restricted.

    More than 100 basic medicines are unavailable in Gaza, and the territory’s few remaining hospitals - several were damaged during the 2008-2009 Israeli war in Gaza - lack basic supplies and equipment.

    But didn't Israel withdraw from Gaza? How is it still an occupying power?

    It’s true that the Israeli government no longer has a presence inside the Gaza Strip. Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the withdrawal of all Israelis (including both soldiers and settlers) from the territory in his 2005 "unilateral disengagement plan".

    But the Fourth Geneva Convention applies whenever a state has "effective control" over a territory. The Israeli government still controls Gaza’s airspace, and its land and sea borders. The only goods and people allowed into Gaza are those approved by the Israeli government.

    Last month’s raid on the aid flotilla bound for Gaza is an instructive example. The organisers of the flotilla say their boats were on course to travel through Gazan waters, not Israeli waters. But the Israeli army still attacked the flotilla to prevent it from entering Gaza - showing that Israel maintains control over Gaza.

    If there was no occupation, would the blockade still be illegal?

    The principle of “proportionality” is central to international law: The military advantage gained by an action must outweigh the harm caused to the civilian population.

    Douglas Guilfoyle, a maritime legal expert, says the blockade does not meet the proportionality test

    The blockade does not meet this test. It imposes hardships on the entire population of Gaza - 1.5 million people - purportedly in order to achieve a limited military aim: preventing Hamas from firing rockets at Israel.

    What’s more, documents revealed last week by the Israeli human rights organisation Gisha show that the blockade actually has a political aim, not a military one. A written statement from the Israeli government described the blockade as "economic warfare" and said it was intended to break Hamas’s control over the government in Gaza.

    What about the Egyptian government?

    The Egyptian border crossing with Gaza, at Rafah, has been mostly sealed since Hamas took power in June of 2007. (The Egyptian government reopened the crossing earlier this month following Israel’s raid on the aid flotilla.)

    But Egypt is not an occupying power in Gaza - it does not exercise "effective control" over the territory - so, whatever the moral and political arguments against its blockade, it is not required to apply the same legal standard as Israel.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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