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The Israeli Strikes on Iranian Forces in Syria: a case study on the use of force in defence of annexed territories

Published on June 8, 2018        Author: 
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Factual Background and Legal Issue

The extensive air strikes launched by Israel on Iranian forces and assets across Syria in the early morning of 10 May 2018 present a complex case study which deserves proper legal scrutiny. According to the reconstruction given by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), the strikes were decided in retaliation for a rocket barrage fired some hours earlier from Syrian territory on IDF forward outposts in the Israeli-controlled Golan. Despite denials by Iranian officials of any direct involvement of their military in Syria, the rockets were immediately attributed by the IDF to the Quds Force, the special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in charge of extraterritorial operations.

Reacting to the alleged Iranian attack and to Syria and Iran’s condemnation of Israel’s response as an act of aggression against Syria, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany explicitly referred to Israel’s right to act in self-defence against Iran. The same Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, before the operation could take place, had invoked ‘Israel’s obligation and right to defend itself against Iranian aggression from Syrian territory’. This claim, although phrased in legal terms, was not formalised in an Article 51 letter filed with the UN Security Council, which should include a justification for the use of force against both Syria (whose territorial integrity was violated) and Iran (whose forces and facilities were targeted). A self-defence argument however would raise in the present case a legal issue related to the status of the territory attacked: the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967 and annexed in 1981. Can an annexing state invoke Article 51 UN Charter to justify the use of force in self-defence against an armed attack directed exclusively at a territory that it annexed? This post submits that the answer to this question, which appears unsettled and largely unexplored, cannot overlook the situation of manifest illegality that a self-defence argument would purport to preserve and protract. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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Prolonged Occupation or Illegal Occupant?  

Published on May 16, 2018        Author: 
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An unresolved question in international humanitarian law is whether an occupying power – whose authority as occupant may have initially been lawful – can cross a bright red line into illegality because it is acting contrary to the fundamental tenets of international law dealing with the laws of occupation.  This question has become especially relevant in light of several prolonged occupations in the modern world, including the 50-year-old Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory.

The principal instruments of international humanitarian law, including the 1907 Hague Regulations, the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, are silent on this question. However, a purposive reading of these instruments, together with the foundational tenets of international humanitarian and human rights law, leads to the conclusion that an occupying power whose intent is to turn occupation into annexation and conquest becomes an illegal occupant.

In my October 2017 report to the United Nations General Assembly as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, I argue that a four-part test can be derived from general principles of international law, including the laws of occupation, to determine whether the status of an occupying power has become illegal. Violating any one of these four parts of the test could establish the occupying power as an illegal occupant. Read the rest of this entry…