Palestinians ride a cart past a house destroyed in January's Israeli military offensive, in the northern Gaza Strip. Image Credit: AP

Antalya: While Israel withdrew its troops and colonies from the Gaza Strip in September 2005, it has failed to convince the international community that its occupation of the tiny strip of territory has ended. Israel has vowed to stop the flotilla by any means necessary, but under what legal pretext it aims to do so is unclear.

Israel’s flags, tanks and colonists have ended their permanent presence on the strip, but Israel continues to control Gaza’s borders, airspace and territorial waters. The United Nations and the international community continue to consider the strip to be occupied by Israel, along with the West Bank and occupied Arab East Jerusalem. Why then does Israel insist that the occupation of Gaza has ended?

Canadian-Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, said Israel “confuses” occupation with colonisation. While the colonisation of Gaza, in the form of its military and settlement presence there, ended in 2005, its occupation continues, she said.

“After it pulled out [of Gaza], the Israeli government went to the Supreme Court to get an assessment as to whether Gaza was still occupied. The court determined that Gaza was no longer occupied,” she said.

On the contrary, she said, Israel’s occupation of Gaza has intensified, as it controls every aspect of life in Gaza, including the population registry and the issuance of identity documents. Israel however is expected to face a dilemma in legally justifying any attempt to bar the Freedom Flotilla. If Gaza was indeed liberated territory, any Israeli action in its territorial waters would be considered as having taken place in the waters of another entity.

Israel, however, has a loophole. It has designated Gaza as a “hostile entity” and has reserved the right to protect itself from it. Buttu said that that is where Israel “traps itself”.

“Territory is either occupied or it’s not. There’s no shade in between. It’s like being half-pregnant,” she said.

She stressed, however, that as an occupying power, its laws hold little credibility, saying that international law, and specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention, should be the first reference. If all else fails, Israel could cite the security provisions in the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation of 1993, under which it has certain rights in a “security perimeter”.

Buttu argued, however, that those security perimeters were clearly defined in Oslo, but violated by Israel. Not only does Israel extend its activities to further than the defined perimeter, she said, it has also extracted natural gas off Gaza’s coastline, “which belongs to Gaza”.

“The caveat under Oslo is that in 2001 Israel declared Oslo dead… So it’s not really an argument any longer. They can’t say we want to maintain the security aspects of Oslo but we’re going to keep building colonies [in the West Bank] at the same time,” she said.