Why does Israel supply Gaza with electricity and cement?
When my children ask me why Israel supplies Hamas with the cement and electricity used to build tunnels for the storage of rockets and the kidnapping of Israelis, I refer them to an unforgettable scene from the movie Ice Age 4. In it, terrified prehistoric animals flee the apocalypse but two of them keep laughing. “Doesn’t it weigh on you?” asks a puzzled co-traveler, “that the world might be ending?” Trying to give a serious answer, the two merry fellows reveal their secret: “We are very, very stupid.”
Is Israel just being stupid, or does it have a legal obligation to supply the Gaza Strip with cement and electricity? As explained by Prof. Avi Bell from Bar-Ilan University in a recent paper published by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think-tank, Israel is under no legal obligation to provide Gaza with electricity.
Article 23 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states, inter alia, that the contracting parties shall allow the free passage of food, clothing and medicine to children under 15 and to pregnant women (the article mentions neither electricity nor cement). The Gaza Strip is not a contracting party to that Convention, nor is it occupied by Israel. Israel, for its part, is not a party to the First Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1977, whose Article 70 imposes wider duties upon belligerents (though it doesn’t mention electricity and cement, either). Even if these articles were to apply to the conflict between Israel and Gaza, Israel would still be under no obligation to supply electricity to Gaza because the parties are required “to allow the free passage” of goods (Article 23) and to “allow and facilitate” their “rapid and unimpeded passage” (Article 70) - but not to supply them.
On the specific issue of electricity, targeting electric plants during wartime is a widespread and accepted practice. How can a country be allowed to destroy its enemy’s electric supply but be required to guarantee that supply? This is why Prof. Yoram Dinstein, a renowned expert on international law and on the laws of war, writes in his book "The Law of Belligerent Occupation:"
"The notion that a Belligerent Party in wartime is duty bound to supply electricity and fuel to its enemy is plainly absurd.”
Israel is accused of imposing a blockade on Gaza but, in truth, Israel only maintains a maritime military blockade, whereas the Gaza Strip is landlocked because of Egypt. Israel prevents the entry of Iranian weaponry to Gaza by sea, while Egypt does not want Gazans to enter its territory. A 2011 UN panel chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer concluded that Israel’s naval and military blockade of Gaza is both justified and legal under international law. Indeed, even Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said in June 2010 that Israel’s military maritime blockade was necessary in order to prevent Hamas from obtaining more weapons. Four months ago, in March 2014, the Israel Navy intercepted a shipment of missiles sent by Iran to the Gaza Strip.
While Israel supplies the Gaza Strip with electricity, water, food, medicine, and all non-military items, Egypt prevents the entry of such goods into Gaza. In January 2008, Gazans forced their way through the Egyptian border, only to be pushed back. In June 2010, the Arab Physicians Union asked Egypt to allow the entry of 400 tons of food, blankets and electric generators into Gaza, but the Egyptian government rejected the request. Israel’s Security Cabinet, on the other hand, approved, also in June 2010, the entry of non-military material into the Gaza Strip.
Once Operation Protective Edge is over, Israel will have to decide what to do about Gaza. Admittedly, the Israel Defense Forces have not been able to deter Hamas the way they have been deterring Hezbollah. Should Israel reoccupy Gaza or, instead, repeat its military operations every two years? A “political solution” is obviously impossible with Hamas. As for the PLO, it was toppled by Hamas in Gaza in 2007. Were Israel to reinstall the PLO there, it would likely be toppled again. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that the Gaza Strip must be demilitarized. This statement doesn’t even pass the laughing test. Who will keep Gaza demilitarized? The PLO? The Blue Helmets? Or the French Foreign Legion, maybe?
The US should use its economic leverage over Egypt so that Cairo ends its land blockade of Gaza and partially retakes control of that enclave (as it did between 1949 and 1967). Egypt would rather keep Gaza sealed, but that policy is inhumane and counter-productive. There are no ethnic, religious, and language differences between Arabs on both sides of the border between Egypt and Gaza. With massive economic aid from donor countries, Egypt could and should re-integrate the Gaza Strip.
Emmanuel Navon chairs the Political Science and Communication Department at the Jerusalem Orthodox College and teaches International Relations at Tel-Aviv University and the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. He is a Senior Fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.