Frequently Asked Questions: Israel’s War on Gaza

Last updated: November 17, 2023

Is the Gaza Strip occupied by Israel?

Yes. Even before Israel’s recent re-invasion, the Gaza Strip was under Israeli military occupation (since 1967) and under blockade (since 2007.) Even though Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip in 2005, removing its illegal settlements and ground forces, experts including United Nations fact-finding missions, human rights organizations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross had concluded that Israel had not ended its role as an occupying power. Under international law, an occupation does not depend on whether a foreign power has a direct ground troop presence in a territory, but on whether it asserts “effective control” over the territory. As such, the Fourth Geneva Convention continues to apply in Gaza. This means that Israel, as an occupying power, has a responsibility to protect the welfare of the civilian population. 

Does Israel have a right to self-defence in Gaza?

In a general sense, Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations recognizes the right of self-defence in the case of armed attack by one state against another. However, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) determined in 2004 that Article 51 has “no relevance” in the case of Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, because Israel already exercises military control.   

As explained by Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel “cannot claim the right of self-defence against a threat that emanates from a territory it occupies, from a territory kept under belligerent occupation.”

While Israel does have a right to “respond” to violence “in order to protect the life of its citizens,” as affirmed by the ICJ, its actions are bound by the laws of occupation. As noted by American-Palestinian legal scholar Noura Erakat, the laws of occupation are more restrictive than other laws of war, as they put on Israel “an obligation and a duty to protect the civilians under its occupation.” For example, Israel must make a distinction between civilians and combatants, Israel’s response must be proportionate, Israel must allow civilians access to food and medicines, and Israel cannot impose collective punishment. By harming the population of Gaza through bombardment and siege, Israel’s war on Gaza is therefore unlawful.

Do Palestinians have a right to resist?

Yes. Under international law, Palestinians have a right to resort to armed violence against racist regimes, military occupation, and foreign domination. However, there are limitations to this right. For example, the actions of armed groups are subject to international humanitarian law, and must distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Violence directed at military targets, including Israeli occupation soldiers and military installations, can be considered within an occupied people’s right to resist. However, the deliberate killing of civilians is not consistent with this right, and such attacks should be investigated as war crimes.

Is Hamas using Palestinian civilians as human shields?

Israel has often alleged that Hamas uses Palestinian civilians in Gaza as “human shields.” This is an unfounded and inflammatory claim that Israel uses to deny Israeli responsibility for its illegal attacks on densely populated civilian areas including homes, schools, and hospitals. Amnesty International investigated the accusation following the 2014 war and concluded: “The Israeli authorities have claimed that in a few incidents, the Hamas authorities or Palestinian fighters directed or physically coerced individual civilians in specific locations to shield combatants or military objectives. Amnesty International has not been able to corroborate the facts in any of these cases.”

While Amnesty did not find evidence of Palestinians using human shields, it did determine that the Israeli military had used Palestinians as human shields in a number of instances. The UN’s 2009 Goldstone Report similarly documented multiple cases of Israel using Palestinians as human shields in Gaza. Today, Defense for Children International - Palestinian has repeatedly documented that Israel uses Palestinian children as human shields in the occupied West Bank - including five children in May of this year.

Why do we need a ceasefire and not a “humanitarian pause”?

It is clear that “humanitarian pauses” in the context of Israel’s war on Gaza cannot address the full scope of the critical humanitarian needs. Such an approach would amount to a temporary ‘pause’ in fighting, within a localized area, to allow for displaced people to leave their homes and possibly to facilitate the entry of aid. However, this makes little sense if these same people would immediately be targeted in subsequent mass killing operations and acts of deliberate starvation.

Frankly, the scale of the current humanitarian catastrophe inflicted by Israel cannot be reversed with temporary and localized influxes of aid, especially if Israel continues to block aid from reaching the north half of the Gaza Strip. A ‘pause’ will not bring the hospital system back from collapse. Instead, averting catastrophic human loss requires a total and permanent end to hostilities, the immediate, massive, unconditional transfers of aid throughout the entire territory, and the resumption of basic services necessary for maintaining the conditions of life.

Will Israel’s war make Israelis and Palestinians safer?

Israel’s war on Gaza has not reduced the risks to safety and security in the region, but appears to be escalating the conflict to a regional war, making everyone less safe. Israel’s actions have prompted attacks on US bases in Iraq, firefights on the border with Lebanon, and drone attacks from Yemen. This is still a powder keg that could blow wide open. This path we are on leads to war with Iran. Canada must pull Israel and the US back from the brink.

Isn’t war necessary to rescue the hostages?

No, Israel’s war on Gaza is undermining efforts to secure the safe release of civilian hostages who are being held by Hamas in violation of international law. Further military escalation is the last thing that would secure their release. Instead, the escalation of Israel’s ground operations is putting the lives of hostages in direct jeopardy, making the conditions less safe for them to be released, and is undermining Qatar-led negotiations towards a prisoner/hostage swap. The release of hostages is supposedly a priority for the Canadian government, and a ceasefire is the best way to ensure their freedom.

Is Israel’s goal of ‘eliminating’ Hamas feasible?

There is no military solution to Israel’s problems in Gaza. Israel has repeatedly bombed Gaza and has always ended up back in the same place. Even if the elimination of Hamas was possible, its war has already caused a catastrophic loss of human life. Canada must be honest about how many Palestinian children it will allow Israel to kill to achieve this goal.

It is also evident that Israel has no clear end game. Even if Hamas could be successfully eliminated, what happens the day after? We have learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria that Western-led operations to topple regimes and replace them with compliant clients will lead to worse actors arising from the power vacuum (ISIL), or their return when we finally give up (Taliban). Without addressing the underlying problems of occupation, dispossession, and the denial of freedom for millions of Palestinians, there is no hope for a just resolution. The mass killing, starvation, displacement, and oppression of millions of Palestinians will never lead to peace.

Is a ceasefire with Hamas possible?

Both Israel and Hamas have held to ceasefires in the past, and both parties have also been responsible for violating them. All parties must be held responsible to the same standard.

Canada must remember that you don’t make peace with your friends, but with your enemies. The only way forward is through a negotiated ceasefire and a resolution of the underlying issues of dispossession, occupation, and apartheid. To this end, Hamas must be seen as a political actor and negotiating partner, not a force of evil outside of history to be ‘eliminated.’

Would a ceasefire give a ‘free pass’ to the crimes of Hamas?

No, a ceasefire would not give a free pass to the crimes of Hamas, no more than it would give a free pass to the crimes that Israel has also committed since October 7. Instead, a ceasefire would bring an immediate end to the pointless destruction of human life in Gaza, and prevent further catastrophic loss. A ceasefire would put a brake on Israel’s efforts to forcibly displace the population of Gaza. A ceasefire would allow for unrestricted access to humanitarian aid and for society to rebuild.

Both Hamas and Israel must be held accountable for the war crimes committed before and after October 7. However, this accountability cannot be reached through a war of elimination, but through international forums of justice that are capable of investigating and prosecuting these crimes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has an open investigation into alleged war crimes committed by all parties in the occupied Palestinian Territories since 2014, and the ICC’s chief prosecutor has confirmed that it has jurisdiction to investigate the ongoing actions of both Israel and Hamas. To pursue justice, Canada should put its full support behind this investigation.

Why do you say that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza?

This determination is not made lightly, as genocide is a grave crime under international law. As defined in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the crime of genocide involves certain acts conducted with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Genocide can be committed in either a time of war or peace. Acts associated with genocide include “killing members of the group,” “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Israel’s war on Gaza amounts to the collective punishment of the civilian population, and very much embodies the crime of genocide as legally defined. Indiscriminate Israeli airstrikes – at times targeting even schools, mosques, churches, hospitals, ambulances, and apartment buildings – have killed over ten thousand Palestinians in just one month, most of them women and children. Israel’s ‘total siege’ – illegal under international law – has cut off access to water, food, electricity, fuel, and medicines to civilians, bringing the health of the population to the brink of death. Israel has also ordered more than 1,500,000 people in northern Gaza to flee their homes, and is considering plans to push the population of Gaza into Egypt. In justifying these illegal actions, Israel’s defence minister and other key official have referred to Palestinians in Gaza in dehumanizing language, including as “human animals.”

Looking at all of these factors, UN human rights experts say that they are “convinced that the Palestinian people are at grave risk of genocide.” Palestinian human rights organizations have filed a lawsuit with the International Criminal Court (ICC), urging the body to investigate Israel for “genocide,” and Canada should support these efforts.

What is the meaning of the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”?

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is a widely popular chant in support of the right of Palestinians to live freely throughout their homeland, which spans between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It asserts that Palestinians have a right to be free from Israeli domination and oppression, and that this right applies whether they are living under Israeli military occupation, as second-class citizens within Israel, or as refugees waiting to return to their homes. It is a call for a future in which all inhabitants of Palestine-Israel can live as free and equal citizens, and no group is privileged over another.