Israel, Hamas, and International Law: What You Need to Know

Oct 18, 2023 | History

After Hamas fired rockets and invaded southern Israel, killing some 1,400 hundred people and abducting more than 200, Israel’s response has been under intense scrutiny. Some commenters have deliberately spread falsehoods about Israel’s actions and intentions, and others have criticized them in ways that reflect a misunderstanding of Israel’s legal obligations as it works to eliminate the threat posed by a terrorist organization committed to its violent destruction.


Israel’s actions have been informed by the rules of International Humanitarian Law, or the law of armed conflict, which places obligations on parties to war whether they are states like Israel or non-state actors like the terror group Hamas. These rules are intended to limit the harm that civilians experience as a result of war to the greatest extent feasible while not impeding parties to war from pursuing legitimate objectives. In Israel’s case, those objectives include eliminating Hamas’ capacity so they can never again carry out atrocities like those seen on October 7.

Since October 7, Israel has taken and is continuously taking several important steps to prevent harm to Palestinian civilians. Hamas, on the other hand, has not only deliberately killed and kidnapped civilians in Israel, but has also deliberately put Palestinian civilians in harm’s way, making it extremely difficult for Israel to effectively protect innocent lives. Here’s what you need to know about International Humanitarian Law and who is violating it.


What is required by International Humanitarian Law?
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) refers to the rules that govern how nations (Israel), along with armed actors that aren’t governments (Hamas) conduct themselves in war. These rules are designed to protect civilians and prisoners of war, reduce war-related suffering, and restrict the means and methods of warfare that are allowed.


What principles govern International Humanitarian Law?
There are three key principles that inform the global rules of combat during wartime: Necessity, Distinction, and Proportionality.

Necessity allows parties to armed conflicts to take necessary measures that are not otherwise prohibited to carry out legitimate military actions. It also anticipates that collateral damage may occur as a result.

Distinction requires that all parties to conflicts distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks that deliberately target civilians are prohibited. To achieve this, IHL requires military structures to be built separately from civilian populations. It also requires fighting forces to wear military uniforms.

Proportionality requires that acts of self-defense and retaliation be proportionate to the overall threat from the aggressor. It bans attacks that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or excessive damage to civilian homes and structures that would go beyond the anticipated military advantage sought from the attack.


Read more at American Jewish Committee.