Three Myths About the Laws of War and the Israel-Hamas Conflict

Three Myths About the Laws of War and the Israel-Hamas Conflict
An Israeli artillery unit fires shells toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli-Gaza border, May 19, 2021 (AP photo by Tsafrir Abayov).

After 11 days of rocket fire and air strikes, a tenuous cease-fire has brought to a close, at least for now, the latest outbreak of violence between the Israeli government and the armed group Hamas in Gaza. As in previous rounds of fighting between them, narratives about which side was to blame and whether either or both were committing war crimes were rampant in media coverage, social media debates and commentary on the conflict.

These narratives included a number of misconceptions about or mischaracterizations of the nature of the conflict as well as of belligerents’ obligations under international law more generally. Three in particular warrant closer examination because of how common and widely shared they have become.

Israel has the right to self-defense. Yes and no. The right of self-defense is typically understood to mean a right exercised by sovereign states to defend their territory from invaders. This right is laid out in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which—in the context of a treaty expressly meant to apply reciprocally among equal sovereign states—outlaws war between states but allows a state to defend itself from such attacks until such time as the U.N. Security Council acts.*

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