[This article is part of a roundtable that is a product of a public forum that Academics for Justice in Palestine (AJP) at UCSB held on 8 December 2023. To see all other entries in this roundtable, click here.]
For better or worse, my expertise is what is legal in war. It may seem, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the laws of war, that it’s almost oxymoronic. Legal in war? But there is a thing called international humanitarian law. And “humanitarian” signals the centrality of protecting civilians in the context of any war. The things that constitute gross violations of IHL—or war crimes—include deliberately targeting civilians, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure, excessive use of force, siege warfare, collective punishment, and forced displacement. All of these are war crimes, and we have seen all of these things happening. That is the reality of Gaza now. For 16 years, Gaza has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison, and now it can be described as the world’s largest crime scene. It is a crime scene.
When I teach my students or talk to people, people often say, “What good is the law when it is so often violated and it’s rarely enforced, especially against those who are powerful?” In my opinion, and what I teach my students, is that the law has value. The law is a lens through which we can judge the world. We can judge the world and we can name reality. That is how we can talk about Palestine now in urgent ways—to name the crimes that are being perpetrated on the Palestinian people, to name them, to blame, and to hold up the idea that no one should be subjected to this kind of treatment. This is illegal.