Israel-Hamas War Law Student Interview Series: ‘It’s a time of crisis’ Features
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Israel-Hamas War Law Student Interview Series: ‘It’s a time of crisis’

Editors’ note: On Oct. 7, Hamas militants staged a surprise attack on Israel, as a result of which at least 1,400 Israelis were killed and hundreds were taken hostage. In the days since, Israeli forces have launched a counter-offensive in Gaza that has taken thousands of Palestinian lives, according to local reports. As tensions continue to escalate, JURIST is seeking perspectives from law students and recent law graduates across the region who have been directly affected by the hostilities. This is the first in an ongoing series of interviews.

JURIST Features Managing Editor Jaimee Francis talked with Yahel Gerlic, an LLM student at the Buchmann Faculty of Law in Tel Aviv, to get his unique perspective on the Israel-Hamas war. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.

Yahel, will you please tell me where you are from and where you are now?

I’m with my parents in a small town in the south, which is east of the Gaza Strip. So, we weren’t really impacted by the attack. I’m usually in Tel Aviv, where I study, but I came back to the south to be with my family. Also, Tel Aviv gets more bombarded with the rockets from Gaza compared to here.

Can you please tell me more about yourself and what your life was like before the war began?

I was just about to start my LLM studies at Tel Aviv University. The semester was supposed to start yesterday, but it got postponed, of course. I was also supposed to fly to Miami next week because I was invited to present a paper at an international comparative law conference. But right now, everything has been put on hold. I’m very fortunate, though, that the impact on my life has been so minimal. Luckily none of my immediate family was harmed. But my dad and his parents are originally from one of the kibbutzim that was unfortunately very impacted by the events October 7th.

We just marked the 50th year anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Just the other week, I was watching a documentary of the Yom Kippur War. And it felt like something in history: it didn’t feel like something that was going to repeat itself. But October 7th was a real repetition of history. While the Israeli Palestinian conflict has still been going on, I think many of us felt like we had reached a more stable point in our history where acts of violence and terrorism were more of these one-off things. I felt like diplomacy was a more possible path to take before October 7th.

What are your thoughts on how the world has responded to the war?

I feel disillusioned by the West’s level of avoiding facts and avoiding confrontation. I think the West has been trying to whitewash what Hamas has done. For me, it’s a huge disappointment to see. First of all, there were some Western media outlets and leaders in academia that, regardless of their opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, did not outright condemn this pure act of terrorism. I’m not even sure terrorism describes the gravitas of what Hamas did. More than that, I find it ridiculous when you have people in the West trying to put things in context, because the context that they give is just factually incorrect. It’s not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Hamas has for twenty years been perhaps even more brutal to the civilian population in Gaza than it has to the Israeli population. So, I think when people are protesting that they are pro-Palestinian, they missed the fact that in this specific war, it’s not about being pro-Israeli, and it’s not about being pro-Palestinian. It’s also not about the West Bank. It’s just this: you have a terrorist organization that’s been ruining the lives of almost two million Palestinians and is now ruining the lives of Israelis as well. I think that the West was very active in eradicating ISIS and Al Qaeda. And there’s no difference here. So, supporting Hamas under the premise of being pro-Palestinian not only harms Israel but also harms innocent Palestinian civilians.

What are your thoughts on how the West has responded to the war, not just in terms of media coverage, but also in terms of politics?

I want to start by saying many of us in Israel were extremely moved by President Biden’s speech. It personally moved me: the level of sympathy that he had. We not only appreciated President Biden’s support of Israel in that sense, but also the fact that officials in the U.S. are traveling to Israel. I think in the first days of the war, many in Israel felt like our leadership was lacking or failing us in some way. I felt like President Biden’s speech spoke to me more than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech.

On the other hand, when it came down to Israel acting in self-defense and trying to combat Hamas, the international community has back-pedaled. Rather than trying to think of how to solve humanitarian crisis and the humanitarian situation, these organizations are just condemning Israel. For example, when it comes to the siege on Gaza: instead of trying to perhaps pressure Egypt to open the border so refugees can flee to Egypt, they condemn Israel for telling civilians to evacuate the northern part of Gaza. And that’s Israel trying to take proactive actions to avoid civilian casualties so that northern Gaza would just house the Hamas terrorist combatants, and Israel could abide by the laws of war. I just find it horrendous that U.N. officials and other officials are accusing Israel of violating international law without a real explanation as to how they reached this conclusion. For example, people have been saying that a siege is illegal under laws of war, but the Geneva Conventions expressly allow for sieges so long as the civilian population won’t be harmed to a disproportionate level. Also, I think there is a misunderstanding about civilian damage. When you target military objectives, there are sometimes incidental damages to civilians. But there’s a big difference between Israel attacking a military objective of Hamas and Hamas attacking Israeli residential places. Israel has been taking maximum precautions like giving civilian warning to evacuate northern Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas uses these civilian as human shields. I think it’s misleading when people equate the same kind of morality to Israel and Hamas when Hamas deliberately targeted Israeli neighborhoods and slaughtered entire families. If Hamas targeted its rockets towards a military air force base in Israel, they’d be abiding by the laws of war. But they don’t do that. They target civilian areas. It’s outright murder in the most barbaric way possible.

And I’ve seen lots of interviews where reporters ask the Israeli interviewee about the children in Gaza, and, in some kind of way, trying to suggest that Israel doesn’t care about children in Gaza. We care very much, and that’s why I’m very distressed that the international community has just accepted that Hamas is torturing its own civilians and using them as human shields to attack Israel. I’ll be very happy to liberate Gaza so that they can have a peaceful life side by side with us, and I am very disappointed that the international is not doing more to bring peace.

You mentioned feeling like the government in Israel let its civilians down. Can you elaborate on how officials in Israel have responded to the war?

When it’s a time of war, it’s a time of crisis. The government definitely bears responsibility for October 7th, but I don’t think this is the appropriate time to be pointing fingers.

Going back to before October 7th, I think we failed in our responsibilities. In 2005, Israel left Gaza. The Palestinians held elections there, and Hamas won a narrow majority. Hamas then conducted a military coup, and ever since, Gaza has basically been an extremist dictatorship. I think Israel should have called out to the international community about the lack of democracy there. Politically, I don’t think we could have intervened, but we should have called on the international community to respond. And now the violence has spilled over.

More than that, Israel and the West, including the U.S., have been funneling billions of dollars to Gaza in order to appease Hamas. We knew there was major corruption and most of the money just went to the officials there and not to investments. I think that was a huge mistake on Israel’s part, and it is now blowing up in our faces. With the billions of dollars that went into Gaza over the last several years, they could have been have built water plants and electricity plants. But after twenty years, they are still dependent on Israel for supplying them water and electricity. That just shows the level of corruption.

So, from a broader historical context, I think Israel and the international community has failed. I would be happy if Israel got rid of Hamas, not just for itself, but also for the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

What are your hopes for the future of Israel?

I hope that we first eliminate Hamas. Hamas has had twenty years propaganda, teaching students in school to hate Jews and Israel. But still, polls show many in Gaza don’t support Hamas. They don’t support violent clashes with Israel. They just want to live side by side with the current borders.

Another historical point that needs to be mentioned is the Camp David Accords. Under that agreement, Israel returned Sinai, which used to include Gaza as well. The Egyptians were very persistent that they did not want to take Gaza back. So, part of the Camp David Accords included Egypt taking back Sinai, but Gaza, which used to be part of Egypt, Israel has to keep. I think the Egyptian government still has some responsibility here, at least historically.

But there was quite a peaceful time around the 1980s. People from Gaza would work in Tel Aviv, and Israelis, like my dad who lived in the south, were able to easily go to Gaza and its beaches. But then you had extremist groups committing acts of terrorism, so Israel slowly began to build a border between these two areas.

So, my hopes would be going back to a more peaceful time. I don’t think Israel has legitimacy to take over Gaza, and I honestly don’t want Israel to be there. Instead, I would hope that the international community ensures that any money sent to Gaza actually reaches civilians and helps economic growth there. Because Gaza borders Israel and Egypt and has access to the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza has so much potential. I think it could really become this prosperous city where people would come visit. People would go see Jerusalem, they would go see Tel Aviv, and they would go see Gaza. But none of these hopes that should happen can happen as long as there is a corrupt and terrorist organization that doesn’t represent the Palestinian people or their interests.

Is there anything else you would like to address?

I would ask people to not take my word for it and don’t take any reporter’s word for it. Go out there and read for yourself. I think if people would actually read into the situation, then they would realize it’s complicated. I think they would realize that in this specific situation, it is not about being pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, but about being pro-terrorism or anti-terrorism.