Rona Dissects the Role of International Law in the Israel-Hamas Conflict

In the wake of the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the case against Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip, Gabor Rona, professor of practice at Cardozo Law School, spoke to the nuances of applying law to the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

“Is Israel permitted to use force against Hamas?” Rona asked. “Yes—self defense. Is Hamas permitted to use force against Israel? Yes—in furtherance of the right of self determination. But, is this really about Jus Ad Bellum?” 

Rona spoke at Boston College Law School on Jan. 26 at an event titled “International Law and the Israel-Hamas Conflict,” which unpacked the role of law during times of war. 

The case against Israel, initiated on Dec. 29, 2023, was filed by The Republic of South Africa “concerning alleged violations by Israel of its obligations under the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in relation to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,” according to the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ international adjudication body.

On Jan. 26, the court delivered its ruling, demanding Israel take proactive measures to ensure the prevention of genocide in the immediate future, but not ordering an immediate cease-fire.

According to Rona, the court’s decision shows a concern that Israel holds the means and potential to carry out a genocide, or otherwise overlook one.

Trying to understand the utility of law during war—alongside the ethics of law during war—is an ongoing process, Rona said.

“Limitations of violence” exist to ensure that in times of conflict, there is a proper resolution that allows for the mutual survival of involved parties, he explained.

But these “limitations of violence” can only be applied in wartime scenarios if both groups share and accept them, according to Rona.

“Even when all humans were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, war had limits,” Rona said. “We know this because such limits remain today among such peoples in Amazon, Papua New Guinea, et cetera. But until 200 years ago, no international law limited when you could go to war and how.” 

According to Rona, by the rules of international law, Israel has the right to use force against Hamas in self-defense, but is nonetheless obligated to limit its defense to Israel’s to the bounds of what is just and necessary.

If the destruction of a certain person or land mass offers a military advantage, it can be characterized as military necessity, but, as military objectives become intertwined with the civilian population, a distinction must be made between combatants and civilians stuck in crossfire, Rona said.

“If the deaths exceed the value of the attack, or if the attacks are clearly disproportionate to the advantage, this should be characterized as a war crime,” Rona said.

Rona ended his talk by reminding attendees of the power law has to uphold justice during times of war.

“Law does less than you may like, but more than you think,” Rona said.

February 2, 2024

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