Since the horrific atrocities perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023, Israel has been engaged in a devastating military operation in the Gaza Strip. Over 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, 70% of whom have been women and children, and tens of thousands injured. About 85% of Gaza’s 2.2 million inhabitants have been internally displaced with no safe place to go.
Israel has systematically targeted Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, including hospitals. Over 60% of Gaza’s housing units have been damaged or destroyed. As a result of Israel’s siege of Gaza, which has blocked all but a trickle of humanitarian aid, half of Gazans are starving, and the entire population is at imminent risk of famine. The government of South Africa has filed an application with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) charging Israel with the crime of genocide.
So, how should libertarians view this situation?
There are two basic positions on this issue held by Americans. One is that Israel is justified in doing whatever it takes to eliminate Hamas in Gaza. The other is that, while Israel has a right to self-defense, it must exercise that right in accordance with international humanitarian law.
The only view compatible with the foundational ideal of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle, is the latter.
While much of the post-World War II regime of “collective security” under the United Nations, enforced primarily by U.S. power, may be objectionable from a libertarian standpoint, Israel’s government is a signatory to the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Genocide Convention so it is in their case the law, and ceteris paribus they are bound by it.
Apologists for criminal Israeli government policies defend the indiscriminate nature of Israel’s attacks by absolving it of responsibility on the grounds that Hamas uses civilians as “human shields.” This argument, though, depends on a euphemistic use of that term that rejects its definition under international law to instead mean any civilians killed simply by virtue of their being in Gaza.
There is also the popular trope that Israel benevolently ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005 only to come under repeated attack by Hamas. But while Israel withdrew military forces and settlers from Gaza, it has remained an Occupying Power by virtue of its continued control of the strip. Nothing and nobody go into or out of Gaza without Israel’s permission. Gaza remains, as it was described in 2004 by Head of Israel’s National Security Council Giora Eiland, “a huge concentration camp.”
The 2005 withdrawal was part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan,” which entailed abandoning the Jewish settlements in Gaza while maintaining control over the territory and advancing the illegal settlement regime in the occupied West Bank with the aim of Israel unilaterally determining its yet-undeclared borders. In the words of Sharon’s top advisor Dov Weisglass, the disengagement plan provided the “formaldehyde” that was “necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.”
Another important piece of context is how Israel initially supported Hamas as a counterforce to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which in the late 1980s had accepted the two-state solution premised on the applicability of international law to the conflict, including implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242.
Passed after the June 1967 war, that resolution requires Israel to withdraw to the armistice lines drawn after the 1948 war, during which 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes to establish the demographically “Jewish state.”
About 70% of the population of Gaza are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing and their descendants, and about half the population are children who have lived their entire lives in this “huge concentration camp.”
In 2004, Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin announced a shift in policy by stating the group’s willingness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel within the pre-1967 boundaries, with a long-term truce to establish mutual intent. Israel responded by assassinating him. Nevertheless, Hamas repeatedly reiterated its truce offer thereafter while also engaging in the political process by participating in municipal elections in 2005.
In 2006, though winning only a plurality of the votes, Hamas defeated Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, in parliamentary elections. In response, Israel colluded with the US and Fatah to overthrow the elected Hamas-led government. That effort failed, resulting in Hamas taking total control of Gaza while the PA remained in power in the West Bank.
Israel’s further response was to escalate the blockade of Gaza in place since 1967 to a state of siege designed to collectively punish the entire civilian population for living under Hamas’s rule—yet another violation of international law.
For over half a century, Israel has defied international law by maintaining a belligerent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that UN bodies and international human rights organizations have in recent years described as an apartheid regime. Indeed, it should hardly be controversial to state that Israel exists as a Jewish supremacist state. To demonstrate this, it suffices to observe that the Jewish National State Law passed in 2018 literally defines self-determination in Israel as a right exclusive to Jews.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also long maintained a policy of utilizing Hamas as a strategic asset to block movement toward peace negotiations with the Palestinians. As he reportedly told fellow Likud party members in the Knesset, “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas” as part of the strategy of keeping the Palestinian leadership divided.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 22, 2023, Netanyahu also illuminated the aim of Israel’s efforts to “normalize” relations with Arab states by effectively demanding that the Palestinians accept their subjugation, and by holding up a map of the “New Middle East” showing only Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The Palestinians would neither have equal rights as Israeli citizens nor independence in a state of their own. They would just have to accept their total defeat and indefinite subjugation.
As President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” While there is no possible justification for Hamas’s killing and kidnapping of civilians on October 7, neither is there any possible justification for Israel’s retaliatory violence against the entire civilian population of Gaza, which has been characterized by war crimes carried out with impunity because of the US government’s support, which has included blocking a ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council.
While South Africa’s case at the ICJ doesn’t raise the matter of US complicity, this move also places the Biden administration on notice that the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide not only prohibits the US from supporting genocide but also obligates the US to act to prevent it.
Self-described libertarians are in the meantime obligated by the non-aggression principle to oppose indiscriminate attacks on civilians regardless of the ethnicity or nationality of either the perpetrators or the victims.