By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
(originally published in The Washington Post on Saturday, May 10, 2008)
Hamas claims that former president Jimmy Carter’s recent meeting with its leader, Khaled Meshal, marks its recognition as a “national liberation movement” — even though Hamas rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, which Hamas rules as an elected “government,” continue to rain down on Israel’s civilian population. While Hamas is clearly trying to bolster its legitimacy, the conflict along Israel’s southern border has a broader legal dimension — the question of whether, as a matter of international law, Israel “occupies” Gaza. The answer is pivotal: It governs the legal rights of Israel and Gaza’s population and may well set a legal precedent for wars between sovereign states and non-state entities, including terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
Israel’s critics argue that Gaza remains “occupied” territory, even though Israeli forces were unilaterally withdrawn from the area in August 2005. (Hamas won a majority in the Gazan assembly in 2006 and seized control militarily in 2007.) If this is so, Jerusalem is responsible for the health and welfare of Gazans and is arguably limited in any type of military force it uses in response to continuing Hamas attacks. Moreover, even Israel’s nonmilitary responses to Hamas-led terrorist activities — severely limiting the flow of food, fuel and other commodities into Gaza — would violate its obligations as an occupying power.