It is unfortunate that the crisis at the Gaza Strip has taken a back seat to two ongoing domestic issues: those of the Alabang boys and the Pangandaman Valley Golf incidents. While perhaps the distant location of Gaza and its lack of “soap opera” appeal may largely be to blame for the lack of serious discussion on the Gaza issue, it is imperative that equal importance be accorded to Gaza since it involves important rule of law issues that are equally relevant to the Philippines, what with our armed conflicts against the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as well as our unresolved territorial controversies that may also lead to further armed conflicts.
Thus far, the bulk of the reportage by Philippine media on the Gaza crisis has been on the plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who continue to be stranded in the place of conflict. This is a sorry reflection of how Philippine foreign policy has been crafted of late: parochially reduced only to how events overseas may directly affect our overseas workers constituting the Diaspora. Not much has been said as to why there are mammoth rallies around the globe against this latest instance of Israeli adventurism. That is, that by unilaterally resorting to the use of force, Israel has again showed its defiance of International Law, which prohibits the use of force and restrictively allowing the same only to circumstances constituting self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations. Imperfect as the UN may presently be, it has nonetheless been largely instrumental in preventing what the UN Charter describes as “scourges of war.” This prohibition on the use of force is in fact the most important rule stated in the UN Charter and one that has proven largely effective in preventing armed conflicts of the scale that ravaged humanity in the past two world wars.
Why Israel has not opted to have the Hamas issue debated in the Security Council is open to speculation. The fact though is that if the missile attacks are indeed threats to international peace, the international community has already granted the Security Council primary jurisdiction to deal with these types of threats. For Israel and its ally, the United States, to now insist on unilateral use of force is a blatant disregard of a cardinal rule recognized by all civilized states.
Israel of course will claim that its recent offensive is but an exercise of self-defense. In fact, it has stated that it will only stop when and if Hamas stops launching missiles into Israeli territory. But the question is: self-defense against whom?
Hamas is a non-state party that Israel accuses of operating in the territory of its neighboring states. Without accusing either Palestine or Lebanon of aggression, it has waged wars against both these states solely on the ground that Hamas operatives are found in the territories of these two states.
Meanwhile, the death toll as a result of the crisis continues to rise. Among the victims are protected individuals under humanitarian law, such as civilians, including women and children. What is the sense, for instance, of targeting even the 11 children and four wives of an alleged Hamas leader? Has there since developed a principle attributing criminal guilt to a person solely by virtue of family relations?
The fact that Israel has been targeting civilian homes is a breach of humanitarian law itself since the Geneva conventions prohibit combatants from targeting civilian infrastructures. And yes, the fact that Israel has been violating the non-derogable norms of humanitarian law apparently with impunity is equally deplorable since these grave breaches weaken the rule-enforcing value of the law. Why should our own soldiers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, or the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, desist from targeting civilians when the Israelis have seemingly gotten away with it?
Ultimately the Gaza issue should be accorded equal importance as the case of the Alabang boys and the Valley Golf incident because it undermines the rule of law on the prohibition against the unilateral use of force and the non-derogable rule according protection to civilians and other non-combatants in times of armed conflicts. The Gaza issue could spell disaster to countries like the Philippines. For while Israel may have the confidence to engage in military adventurism and commit grave breaches of humanitarian law owing to its superior military strength, countries like the Philippines can only rely on other countries’ compliance with the rule of law against threats of these nature. Think of the Spratlys. Think of China. Think of Malaysia. Think of terrorists operating in Mindanao. This is why Filipinos should take the Gaza incident more seriously. Because unless the rule of law is observed, our “tora-tora” planes will simply be no match to the military might of our potential state adversaries.
Prof. H. Harry L. Roque Jr. teaches Public International Law at the UP College of Law and at the Philippine Judicial Academy. He is also chair of the Center for International Law (CENTERLAW).