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Israel-Palestine: The Complications of International Law and the Importance of a Critical Analysis

International Affairs Analyst

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

‘Nonsense upon stilts’, this is what Jeremy Bentham, a prolific political philosopher called human rights. I believe we’re living in a time where this is more relevant than ever, and the Israel-Palestine war serves as a grim reminder of the shortcomings of neoliberalism. Whilst it’s simple for a state to exercise legislation for your rights as a citizen, it becomes problematic in protecting prescriptions such as human rights, as who's really there to prosecute it?

While there’s certainly a nuance to this conversation in how liberal institutions can apply pressure, governments can issue sanctions, civilians can protest promoting certain discourses among other actions. The reality is that Israel is not adhering to international law, and it seems to get a free pass, all the while receiving a steady stream of foreign aid with Congressional Research Service reporting that the US alone has provided $158 billion (not adjusted to inflation) since 1948, and at present almost all of that aid is in military assistance. This is particularly concerning when looked at alongside the numerous NGOs which have called out Israel for its human rights violations. The International Federation for Human Rights says that it is ‘alarmed by a further spate of severe human rights violations in Israel and the occupied territory’ and that it ‘warns third states that their unconditional support for the State of Israel makes them complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses being documented, not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and against Palestinian citizens of Israel’. Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls for the bombing of hospitals in Gaza ‘should be investigated as war crimes’ despite the Israeli government’s claim of ‘Hamas’ cynical use of hospitals’. 

The list of various bodies condemning the violation of international law is endless, what’s really striking is that the US produced the same evaluation of human rights violations in Israel two years in a row. The US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s 2021 inquiry states that ‘significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; arbitrary detention, often extraterritorial detention of Palestinians from the occupied territories in Israel; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; substantial interference with the freedom of association; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; harassment of nongovernmental organizations; significant restrictions on freedom of movement within the country; violence against asylum seekers and irregular migrants; violence or threats of violence against national, racial, or ethnic minority groups; and labor rights abuses against foreign workers and Palestinians from the West Bank’. I’ve quoted this passage at length to highlight the breadth of interference by the Israeli regime against Palestinians, and for those interested, the document provides case specific examples of the reports. This report was reproduced with very similar findings in the following year. It seems entirely hypocritical that the US would produce reports from its own bureaus and continue to contribute military aid to Israel, where ultimately the US should be a footnote in its own report. The least we can draw is that by its own findings, the US is not only complicit but a willing aid to war crimes, and violations of human rights - tenets which it seems to hold to other Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya.

The above segment highlights the contradictions in enforcing human rights, the complexity of international law and how Bentham almost 200 years on was astute in his critique of the concept of it. No matter how logically you structure a law, unless it is reciprocated in reality it becomes difficult to find any use in it. That being said, semantics can carry humanitarian laws a long way, even if they are reified pieces of writing. I call them reified because of the inconsistency of which they are upheld, indicating that breaches of it don’t carry universal actioning of sanctions. Instead, the laws become a pick and choose supporting premise for states or governmental bodies to action or invade against other states, perverting the very concept of it. This was utilised in the 2011 invasion of Iraq or the 2011 intervention in Libya - while it’s important to establish that these actions were not carried out based solely on the violation of human rights - it’s interesting to explore how they became dominant justifications for it and how this can affect public opinion, despite the fact that ‘Iraq failed to meet the test for a humanitarian intervention’ as found by a 2004 HRW inquiry. “Humanitarian laws” appeal to a sense of morality, and by seemingly initiating conflict to restore breaches of said law, you are siding yourself with good, and categorising the perpetrator as evil. It carries a very binary narrative that does a disservice to the complexity and sensitivity of politics, this narrative has a large impact on public views too, and it can allow for complicity within societies or even provide moral ground for governments to engage in conflicts.

In this light, semantics play a vital role in politics and especially in the way societal views are formed. Discourse can make, break and further cement identities. It forms public opinion and as a result seeps into a society’s thoughts and actions; it is paramount that we are conscious in the process of identity making and political discourse. This is especially true within the Middle East, a region rich with varying identities, religions and cultures where ethno-sectarianism (divisions by ethnic sects) is prevalent, this is not because people born into their respective heritage perpetuate “historical religious conflicts”, but because identities and societal views are malleable and they can become politically motivated through the very act of speech. Therefore, it’s important to declare that the root of the Israel-Palestine war is not a religious one, but an ongoing multifaceted dispute since the 19th century over the right to land. As the conflict develops, it will only continue to further cement and divide identities, especially that of religious ones as these identities become embedded within the idea of a “threat”. Moreover, it’s crucial to understand the enabling conditions for which this securitisation of identities is allowed - securitisation being the process by which the state transforms political issues in to a matter of “security”, ‘enabling extraordinary means to be used in the name of security’, for those unfamiliar with the term.

It’s impossible to capture the entirety of these enabling conditions, and the securitisation process in this limited article however, I will try to highlight some important events. The 1917 Balfour Declaration promised Britain’s support for a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine. If we unpack this, a sectarian based conception of a state is intrinsically and clearly tied to the idea of an Israeli nation. Another major principle of an Israeli nation was that of security. Following a tormentous history of persecution and the horrors of WW2, Zionists sought refuge under a united Jewish nation.The two competing ideologies of classical Zionism, Labour and Revisionist, subscribed to these tenets with the latter placing further significance upon the ‘unchangeable condition of Jewish collective insecurity’ promoting ideals such as Jewish ethno-nationalism and maximalist territorial claims, essentially setting the very basis of sectarian securitisation. 

Revisionist Zionism strongly influenced modern right-wing Israeli politics, with Herut being an adherent of the ideology, who later merged into Likud - party of the current prime minister Benjamin Netinyahu. Whilst this is not to draw the direct observation that Likud is a strict observer of Revisionist Zionism, but by critically analysing the processes of politics, we can begin to understand how vulnerable conditions for conflict are created. And through this, how religion on the surface of conflict seems to be a driver of war, when in actuality it is something that is drawn into it. The relevance of religion along with identity, fluctuates within the wider political and socio-economic context that it exists in. In the case of modern day Likud, they have dominated Israeli politics since 1977 and whilst they were originally secular, they have since adopted ‘messianic beliefs and the idea of religiously justified Jewish rights to biblical land’. Whilst it may seem radical, it begs the question as to why it became so popular, and how Netinyahu was able to secure a knockout victory in 2022.

Whilst there are many factors to explain this, an ongoing issue in Israeli politics has been security. Or rather, a permanent insecurity due to the persisting Arab-Israeli conflict, and the unresolved question of Palestine coupled with decades of attacks by insurgent groups. The severity of violence suffered certainly heightens a sense of insecurity, and when this is utilised by politicians in lobbying for policy, they easily gain prominence. With the failure of the Oslo processes and the second Palestinian intifada in the late 2000s, it certainly provided the enabling conditions for sectarian policy to be adopted by right-wing politicians. Frequent Palestinian suicide attacks targeting Israeli civilians over an extended period, along with rocket assaults from Hamas and Hezbollah, engendered widespread feelings of fear and insecurity among Israeli society, essentially triggering the 'rally around the flag' effect. The consequences of these events for Israeli politics were clear: the Jewish Israeli population favored the political right because they promised security. Thus, fear and security became tools for political gain essentially incentivising political discourse which heightened them. Issues such as terrorism targeting the Israeli Jewish collective became a centerpiece of political discourse in the start of the second Intifada. With then prime minister Ehud Barak coining the term ‘no partner for peace’ after the failed summit of Camp David in July 2000, essentially creating the narrative that Palestinians were only interested in acts of terrorism and aggression against the Jewish people, and ultimately in their annihilation. A narrative that would become a widely unquestioned truth within Jewish Israeli society and politics and presently within parts of the wider western world.

If we attribute an insatiable desire for violence at the core of a group of people, the Palestinian people, labeling them as ‘barbarians’, ‘cockroaches’, ‘vermin’, ‘a cancer’, calling for them to be ‘annihilated’ as various Israeli political, religious, and military leaders have stated. It becomes the semantic of dehuminasation, it provides a just cause for ethnic cleansing, for immeasurable violence, for systemic apartheid. The discourse reduces empathy whilst instilling fear, anger and separation. It is important to understand the consequences of it in full, so that change and progression be allowed to happen. 1/5th of the Israeli population is Arab and they are affected by Jewish Israeli politics and societal views (as are Israeli Jews!). These policies and views must be critically developed so that differing identities are able to exist together in peace and that the further separation of Arabs and Jews is not festered by the doctrines of politics. In the US Senator Linsey Graham appeared on FOX news stating ‘we are in a religious war here. I’m with Israel. Do whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourself. Level the place’ providing violently misguided discourse to the public. Whilst I have little explored the politics of Hamas in this article, I will do so separately. However, it is paramount to recognise that terrorism is not a single channel. The Palestinian people have long suffered death and occupation. Within power vacuums and weak governments, fringe groups rise to the mainstream giving way to organisations such as Hamas. Just as right-wing politics took over in the case of security and Israel, so did too with oppression and Hamas. 


Sharp. M. J. (2023). U.S Foreign Aid to Israel. Congressional Research Service (CRS). 

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). (2023). Alarming Increase of Human Rights Violations Against Palestinians in the Occupied Territory and Against Palestinian Citizens of Israel. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW). (2023). Gaza: Unlawful Israeli Hospital Strikes Worsen Health Crisis.

US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. (2021). 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Israel, West Bank and Gaza.

Human Rights Watch (HRW). (2004). War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention.

Del Sarto A. R. (2021). Sectarian Securitization in the Middle East and the Case of Israel, International Affairs, Volume 97, Issue 3.

Peleg I. (1987). Begin's foreign policy, 1977–1983: Israel's move to the right. As cited in, Del Sarto A. R. (2021). Sectarian Securitization in the Middle East and The Case of Israel, International Affairs, Volume 97, Issue 3.

Getmansky A. and Zeitzoff T. (2014). ‘Terrorism and Voting: the Effect of Rocket Threat on Voting in Israeli Elections’, American Political Science Review.

Peffley M. Hutchison L. M. and Shamir M. (2015). ‘The Impact of Persistent Terrorism on Political Tolerance: Israel, 1980 to 2011’, American Political Science Review.

Halperin E. and Bar-Tal D. (2007). The Fall of the Peace Camp in Israel: the Influence of Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Israeli Public Opinion, July 2000–February 2001.


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