Guest Columnist

ISRAEL-PALESTINE CONFLICT AND THE INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW– Israel ‘B Adeyemo

ISRAEL-PALESTINE CONFLICT AND THE INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW – Israel ‘B Adeyemo

Introduction – Brief History of Israel and Palestine

Israel, (Arabic –Isrāʾīl, officially State of Israel, or Hebrew – Medinat Yisraʾel) is a country in the Middle East, located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bounded to the north by Lebanon, to the northeast by Syria, to the east and southeast by Jordan, to the southwest by Egypt, and to the west by the Mediterranean SeaJerusalem is the seat of government and the proclaimed capital, although the latter status has not received wide international recognition.[1]

Palestine as a word is believed to originate from “Philistia” – the name given by Greek writers to the land of the Philistines, who had occupied a small pocket of land on the southern coast, between modern Tel Aviv–Yafo and Gaza in 12th century BCE. The name was revived by the Romans in the 2nd century CE in “Syria Palaestina,” designating the southern portion of the province of Syria, and made its way into Arabic, where it has been used to describe the region at least since the early Islamic era. 

A territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the region known as Palestine had been from about 1517 to 1917, ruled by the Ottoman Empire before the British took control at the end of World War I  in 1918. This transition witnessed the “British mandate for Palestine” – a document that gave Britain administrative control over the region (on behalf of the League of Nations), and included provisions for establishing a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.

The territory now inhabited by the Jewish nation of Israel and the Arabic nation of Palestine had been under the control of successive powerful Empires from the Babylonian to the Persian, Greek Hellenistic, Roman, up to the Islamic and Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Empire, and then, the British Empire. Indeed, the area now referred to as Palestine was so named when the Roman Empire in its effort to detach the Judean province from Jewish identity changed the name from Judea to “Syria Palaestina”.

Landmark and Territory History

According to various accounts, the Jewish population fled their settlement and were dispersed across Europe following massacre and occupation by the successive powerful empires and Crusaders. When Jews began to immigrate to Palestine in large numbers in 1882, fewer than 250,000 Arabs lived there, and the majority of them had arrived in recent decades. Palestine was never an exclusively Arab country, although Arabic gradually became the language of most of the population after the Muslim invasions of the seventh century.[2]

The Jewish people historically defined themselves as the Jewish Diaspora, a group of people living in exile. Their traditional homeland was Palestine, a geographic region on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Jewish leaders trace the source of the Jewish Diaspora to the Roman occupation of Palestine (then called Judea) in the 1st century CE. Fleeing the occupation, most Jews immigrated to Europe. Zionists always considered Palestine to be the site of their independent Jewish state. It is the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Many sites identified in the Hebrew holy book, the Torah, remained cities and towns in early 20th century Palestine. Many scholars say the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah, with their capital in Jerusalem, were Jewish kingdoms. By the time of the Roman occupation, Judea was a largely Jewish settlement[3]. Indeed, amongst other factors, Israel’s international “birth certificate” was validated by the promise of the Bible; uninterrupted Jewish settlement from the time of Joshua onward[4].

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are strongly tied to the ancient city, and followers of each of these religions have controlled all or part of the city over the past few thousand years.[5] All these religions have monumental structures and documented stories that support their claim to the city of Jerusalem which is an important feature of Palestine. It then appears that Arabian/non-Jewish also enjoys historical ties to the region.

The Jewish community in Palestine expanded by immigration of Jews from Europe. This immigration (First – Fifth Aliyahs) borne out of the desire to create a homeland for the Jewish population commenced before the British Mandate and was intensified by the massacre and decimation of Jews in Europe, especially as one of the attendant effects of the Holocaust. By the end of World War II, the Jewish population of Palestine had increased to 31% of the total population[6]. The influx which threatened the Palestinian Arab population in the region led to the move to partition Palestine, and ultimately, United Nation General Assembly’s proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arabian jurisdictions, – a move which was accepted by Israel but rejected by the Palestinian Arab.

Further immigration to Israel aided by the Israeli Immigration Department and the non-government sponsored Mossad LeAliyah Bet took place during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Today, Palestine in theory includes the West Bank (a territory that sits between modern-day Israel and Jordan) and the Gaza Strip or Gaza (which borders modern-day Israel and Egypt). Arab people who call this territory home are known as “Palestinians”.

Brief Account of Armed Conflicts before 2021

As a reaction to continued Jewish immigration and land purchases, the Arab revolt of 1936–1939 was launched. Several hundred Jews and British security personnel were killed, while the British Mandate authorities alongside the Zionist militias of the Haganah and Irgun killed 5,032 Arabs and wounded 14,760,[7] resulting in over ten percent of the adult male Palestinian-Arab population killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled.

The resulting effect of the rejection by Palestinian-Arabs to partition Palestine is the declaration of statehood by Israel on May 14th, 1948 – a decision which prompted the invasion of Israel by the armies of the Five Arabian countries, namely; Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

In the period of 1949–1953, Arab attacks killed hundreds of Israelis, four-fifths of whom were civilians. In early 1953, Israel decided to take the offensive against Arab guerrillas who were infiltrating from Jordan and the Egyptian-run Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) escalated retaliations, fighting pitched battles not only with guerrillas but with regular Jordanian and Egyptian army units. The Israelis also carried out covert operations which included the so-called Lavon affair, which was a failed attempt by Israeli intelligence at hurting Egypt’s reputation in the United States (US) by staging attacks on U.S. facilities in Egypt and blaming Arab extremists.

The continued blockade of the Suez Canal and Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, together with the growing amount of Fedayeen attacks against Israel’s southern population, and recent Arab grave and threatening statements, prompted Israel to attack Egypt in the late 1956. The war, known as the Suez Crisis, resulted in significant reduction of Israeli border infiltration.

In what was termed “Six-Day War”, Israel defeated Jordan and captured the West Bank, defeated Egypt and captured the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, defeated Syria and captured the Golan Heights.[8] This brought the enlargement of Jerusalem’s boundaries, with East Jerusalem becoming incorporated, and the 1949 Green Line becoming the administrative boundary between Israel and the occupied territories.

Between 1967 and 1970, Israel faced attacks from the Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula, and from Palestinian groups targeting Israelis in the occupied territories, in Israel proper, and around the world – War of Attrition. Most important among the various Palestinian and Arab groups was the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1964, which initially committed itself to “armed struggle as the only way to liberate the homeland”.[9]

On 6 October 1973, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a surprise attack against Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, as Jews were observing Yom Kippur, this in effect opened the Yom Kippur War. The war ended on 25 October 1973 with Israel successfully repelling Egyptian and Syrian forces, but having suffered over 2,500 soldiers killed in a war which collectively took 10,000–35,000 lives in about 20 days.[10]

There were also the First and Second Intifadas that witnessed the killing of Jewish population in concerted attacks and suicide bombings, and the reprisal attacks that followed which led to death of thousand of Palestinian-Arabs.  

Also worthy of mention is the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014 following the 10 days of aerial bombardment which failed to stop Palestinian militants from launching rockets on Israeli cities. The conflict which according to the United Nations Human Rights Council accounted for the death of 2,251 Palestinians, of whom 1,462 were civilians, and Israeli’s loss of 67 soldiers and six civilians, lasted for 50 days between July and August and ended in a truce.

Brief Account of 2021 Conflict

The recent conflict has been credited to diverging causes and motives. The Arabs view it from the lens of an agenda to create “a wider Israel” which aims at driving out Palestinians from the territories they presently inhabit. The Israeli on the contrary have described the conflict as a dispute over real estate.

Essentially, the immediate cause of the conflict which would last 10-11 days, can be traced to the May 10  2021 raid carried out by Israeli Police on one of the Islamic holiest sites, the Al-Aqsa Mosque located in East Jerusalem which is predominantly inhabited by Palestinians. The event which left hundreds of Israeli Police officers and Palestinians alike wounded was exacerbated by militants rockets launch into Jerusalem from Gaza and the reprisal airstrike by the Israeli on Gaza. The attacks and airstrikes as described by Israel are its efforts at destroying as much as possible Hamas’ infrastructures, including the group’s network of rocket factories and underground tunnels.

Infrastructures destroyed in Gaza as a result of the conflict according to the New York Times[11] include; 17 hospitals and clinics in Gaza, Gaza’s only coronavirus test laboratory, water pipes serving at least 800,000 people. Sewage systems inside Gaza, a desalination plant that helped provide fresh water to 250,000 people in the territory, dozens of schools now damaged or closed, forcing some 600,000 students to miss classes. Additionally, some 72,000 Gazans fled their homes.

Rockets fired by Palestinian groups also damaged Israel’s infrastructure, for instance, a gas pipeline was damaged and operations at a gas rig and at two major Israeli Airports was paused.

Truce – The Truce, Ceasefire and Peace Agreements Reached Over the Time

After a year of fighting the Israeli-Arabian war of independence, a ceasefire was declared and temporary borders, known as the Green Line, were established[12]. Jordan annexed what became known as the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. The United Nations (UN) estimated that more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by or fled from advancing Israeli forces during the conflict—what would become known in Arabic as the Nakba (“catastrophe”)[13]. Some 156,000 remained and became Arab citizens of Israel[14].

The 50 days conflict between July and August 2014 notably ended in a truce. For Israel, accepting a truce offered an opportunity to thwart the threat of tunnels being used to attack or kidnap its citizens, without risking more of the civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip that were turning world opinion against it, while Hamas accepted the truce, not only out of pressure from international negotiators but from many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who were suffering under continuous Israeli bombardment and grappling with the devastation and destruction around them.[15]

The latest of all the conflicts between the two nations has also brought about a ceasefire arrangement brokered by the Egyptian government, whereby both sides have claimed victory. For Israel, the bombing campaign of Palestinian armed groups according to Benjamin Netanyahu[16] witnessed “exceptional success”, having led to the death of “more than 200” fighters in Gaza including 25 senior commanders. Ismail Haniya,[17] also on behalf of Hamas,[18] expressed victory as he noted that Hamas have “dealt a painful and severe blow that will leave its deep marks” on Israel.

The Different Views of the International Community on the Conflict and Efforts at Restoring Peace

Although not yet able to deliver its mandate, the United States, European Union, Russian Federation and United Nations had in 2002 established a peace process negotiation front in furtherance of a permanent Two-States-Solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The setback could be argued to be a result of the extremely opposing positions held by the two nations in conflict.

World leaders have also expressed their views and perceptions on the conflict and the ceasefire deal. The United State’s President, Joe Biden (who had publicly supported Israel’s right to defend itself) in support of the ceasefire deal expressed his believe in “a genuine opportunity to make progress’’ and commitment to “working towards it”. The European Union also expressed its view of supporting a “two-state solution”[19] to the conflict.

India which has expressed its commitment to the Palestinian cause has also condemned the rocket attacks on Israel civilian population and described Israel’s airstrikes as retaliatory. The country also supports the “two-state solution” to the conflict.

Russia and China have also suggested a return to peace talks between the two nations.

In the spirit of resolving the conflict or at least setting an atmosphere for a roundtable discuss between the two nations, the Egyptian government has shown its dedication to peace as it played a crucial part in brokering the cease fire deal between the Israeli government and its Arab counterpart. 

Matters of Concern for International Humanitarian Law

The main actors in the age-long Israeli-Palestine conflict have always been the Jewish state and their Arabian counterpart, whom together are inhabitants of the geographic location now divided into Israel and Palestine. The May 10, 2021 conflict can be described to have been conducted on the one hand by the Hamas for the Arabian state and on the other hand by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for the Jewish state.

The conflict that remarkably started on May 10, 2021 can be categorised as an International Armed Conflict which is under the purview of the Common Article 2 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the 1977 Additional Protocol I. International Armed Conflict under this Convention means “…declared war or any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them”. The application of the Convention also extends to “all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance”. It should be noted that the threshold for considering a conflict as an International Armed Conflict is very low as even a mere border clash between the armed groups of two states can trigger the application of the rules on International Armed Conflict in so far as resort was made to armed violence.

In both international and non-international armed conflicts, it is a settled principle that the highest level of precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event it becomes unavoidable, to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.[20] Civilian population and properties are excluded from military attacks, and such distinction between civilians and combatants must be made at all times during armed conflict, save for exceptional circumstances where the civilian population or property has been rendered military targets.

In the same spirit of Distinction, Article 16 of the 1977 Protocol II to Geneva Convention 1949, states that “it is prohibited to commit any acts of hostility against historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples, and use them in support of the military effort”. This position remains supported as the preamble to the Hague Convention 1954 recites: “Being convinced that damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world; considering that the preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance for all people of the world and that this heritage shall receive international protection”.

It is clear from the foregoing that not everything belonging to or associated with an opposing party is to be subject to hostility during armed conflicts. More so, the various Laws, Treaties and Conventions relating to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) have established some regimes of criminality in the conduct of war – this definitely is backed with punitive measures. Some of such prohibited conducts have been categorised as War Crimes.

Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has defined War Crimes in the context of International Armed Conflicts as:

(i) Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949

(ii) Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict

Delving into instances of these definitions would show that War Crimes largely relate to inhumane conducts and treatment directed at the civilian population/properties.

A few instances of War Crimes from the May 10 conflict are recounted below:

The conflict notably occasioned serious human right abuses of international humanitarian concern even though both sides have given divergent views as to their involvement in such conducts.

Indeed, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), 1998 includes in the list of serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict, the following acts: “Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purpose, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives”[23]. The Statute confers jurisdiction to ICC in this matter.

Conclusion and Recommendations

War /Armed Conflict by its very nature leaves too much to be desired; its conduct shows how vile and vicious humans can be while attempting to preserve rights, exert dominance, protect sovereignty of states or whatever the goal the conflict is meant to achieve from the angles of the belligerents[24]. It is no gainsaying that the Law of war, i.e., International Humanitarian Law (IHL) has taken this into consideration and recognised the need to maintain humane values at all times, even during hostilities. This is shown in the various rules, norms and guidelines that have been established over the years, aimed at regulating the conduct and lessening the impact of war. Impressively, these rules and norms have been accepted internationally as seen in their ratification/adoption by nations of the world.

It is has however been observed that States, especially high contracting parties, have  found interest in flouting the established IHL rules and invariably diminishing the calculated placating effects the rules are meant to afford. Throughout the Israeli-Palestine hostilities, especially the May 10, 2021 Conflict discussed in this article, casualties are made of otherwise protected persons, assets and establishments; this should not be a feature of modern day hostilities as parties are meant to comply with the guidelines already provided by IHL or face the punitive measures associated with breach of those rules. Sadly, the reality is that most high contracting parties are able to avoid sanctions even when they have clearly breached the rules. The Israeli-Palestine saga continues even with the recent change in the Israeli Government on June 13, 2021 with an election that witnessed the handing over of the mantle of the state’s leadership from Benjamin Netanyahu to the 49 years old Naftali Bennett.

It is against this backdrop that an attempt would be made at recommendations in support of humanitarian concerns below.

A) Every nation of the world including the occupiers and the inhabitants of occupied territory, should create programmes aimed at disseminating IHL principles and objectives both in armed forces and in civilian society, they should in all circumstances of armed conflict ensure observance of the principles of IHL, especially, the principle of Humanity which safeguards the dignity to which all human beings are entitled, and support the activities of the ICRC[25] and of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in their humanitarian efforts.

B) States should enact appropriate local laws aimed at preventing and repressing violations of IHL, be willing to prosecute and ensure the prosecution on a national level of individual violators. They should also support international efforts to try alleged perpetrators of war crimes.

C) International and regional organisations concerned with world peace should hold regular meetings of States Parties aimed at diplomatic dialogue to identify and proffer solutions to general problems regarding the application of IHL by parties to armed conflicts so as to ensure respect for the set rules.

D) International and regional organisations should forge a united front in ensuring the United Nations (UN) Security Council is able to administer sanctions and other punitive measures in accordance with the UN Charter against States Parties which violate the Convention, and that victims of such violation are justly compensated.

E) The ICC should be firm in the administration of international criminal justice which is its core mandate as established by the Rome Statute. It is important to emphasize that one of the critiques of the ICC has been its disposition to shutting its eyes at crimes committed by nationals of high contracting parties while focusing on those from the not so powerful states, especially Africans.

About the Author

Israel ‘B Adeyemo is a Transactional Attorney licensed to practice as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He has acted on diverse commercial transactions where he advised clients, both local and foreign, in line with Nigerian laws. 
In addition to law practice, Israel has a further interest in Foreign Relations/Diplomacy and International Law. 
Israel is the Founder of a Humanitarian oriented outfit, Israel Adeyemo Foundation (IG: @the_iaf).
Contact details:
Email: adeyemoisrael@gmail.comLinkedIn: Israel ‘B Adeyemo


[1] Russell A. Stone, ‘Israel- Facts, History, Population, & Map’ (2021) Britannica <https://www.britannica.com/place/Israel&gt; accessed 22-06-2021

[2] Mitchell Bard, ‘Pre-State Israel: Jewish claim to the land of Israel’  Jewish Virtual Library <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-claim-to-the-land-of-israel> accessed 22-06-2021

[3] “Migration of Jews to Palestine in the 20th Century” (2012) National Geographic Society  <https://media.nationalgeographic.org/assets/file/jews_MIG.pdf)> accessed 22-06-2021

[4] Mitchell Bard, ‘Pre-State Israel: Jewish claim to the land of Israel’  Jewish Virtual Library <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-claim-to-the-land-of-israel> accessed 22-06-2021

[5] Becky Little, ‘Why Jews and Muslims Both Have Religious Claims on Jerusalem’ (2018) History.com

<https://www.history.com/news/why-jews-and-muslims-both-have-religious-claims-on-jerusalem&gt; accessed 22-06-2021

[6] ‘Government of Palestine, Department of Statistics, Village Statistics, 1945’ (2021) Wikipedia<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Village_Statistics,_1945&gt; accessed 22-06-2021.

[7] Hughes, Matthew, “The banality of brutality: British armed forces and the repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936–39” (2009)  English Historical Review CXXIV (507): 314–354.

[8]  Smith, “Nasser, the Egyptian president, decided to mass troops in the Sinai … casus belli by Israel.” (2006), p. 126.

[9] Bennet, James, “The Interregnum” (The New York Times Magazine 2005). . .

[10]  BBC News, “1973: Arab states attack Israeli forces” (On This Day (The BBC) 6 October 1973.).

[11]Dan Bilefsky, “What Drove the Israel-Gaza Conflict? Here’s What You Need to Know.” (2021) NY Times <https://www.nytimes.com/article/israel-gaza-what-we-know.html> accessed 22-06-2021

[12] Karsh, Efraim,  ‘The Arab–Israeli conflict: The Palestine War 1948’.(Osprey Publishing 2002)

[13] Morris, Benny  ‘The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited’ Cambridge University Press 2004) p. 602..

[14] Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, “Relations between Jews and Arabs during Israel’s first decade (in Hebrew)” https://lib.cet.ac.il/pages/item.asp?item=13336 accessed on 22-06-2021 from <https://en,m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_language_in_Israel>

[15] Dan Bilefsky, “What Drove the Israel-Gaza Conflict? Here’s What You Need to Know.” (2021) NY Times <https://www.nytimes.com/article/israel-gaza-what-we-know.html> accessed 22-06-2021

[16] Israeli Prime Minister as at the time of the 2021 conflict

[17] Political leader of Hamas

[18] The Palestinian group governing Gaza

[19] Establishment and recognition of an independent Jewish state of Israel and an independent Arab state of Palestine

[20] Article 58(c) of Additional Protocol I; and Article 13(1) of Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions

[21] “During times of war, people need more treatment than usual, now we can’t give people medicine” Mohammed Abu Samaan, a Senior Administrator at Al Rimal health clinic in Central Gaza.

[22] Iyad Abuheweila, Rasgon,e.t.c, ‘Gaza War Deepens a Long-Running Humanitarian Crisis’ (2021) The New York Times <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/18/world/middleeast/gaza-israel.html> accessed on 22-06-2021

[23] (Art. 8.2.(b) ix.) Rome Statute 

[24] For instance, Hamas viewed the conflict as one to regain Palestine land for the Arabs while Israeli government viewed the conflict as self defence from attack by Hamas

[25] International Committee of the Red Cross

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