Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

More on a controversial legal opinion about Israel's options in Gaza: Professor Bell responds and corrects the record (UPDATED: Prof. Enoch replies)

Avi Bell (Bar-Ilan & San Diego) writes:

I saw your posting on my short paper on Israel’s legal duties to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip.

I understand that you have been in contact with David Enoch, who may not have fully appraised you of the facts.

I have written about the legal subject several times in past years: here and here, for example.

None of the material I have written on the subject is classified, and it has always been open to all to read, and reflective of my opinion of the law.

Several days ago, an article appeared in Haaretz written by a reporter who had not contacted me that incorrectly reported that I had “authorized” steps by Israel in a report prepared for a classified Knesset committee on the subject (apparently the English translation of the article dropped the claim that the work was classified). I have not produced a classified report. I have no position in the Israeli government allowing me to authorize any steps; I work for the state of Israel only in the sense that I am a faculty member of a state school. I do not have the security classification to participate in classified Knesset committee hearings. I did not prepare any writing for a committee hearing on the subject. In fact, I did not know, and still do not know if there ever was a Knesset committee hearing on the subject, or if one was even planned.

I found out about the newspaper article by receiving a carbon copy of a posting David Enoch made in a Hebrew University listserv to which I have no access as I am not a member. In the posting, David criticized me for the content of the “classified report” (apparently, the reporter was referring to the second of the above short pieces) and, in the last part of his posting, addressed to me directly, demanded that I deny the content of the newspaper article (about which I had not known until receiving the copy from David), lest he be forced to respond, creating unspecified consequences in the international academic legal community.

I invited David several times to have a substantive discussion about the piece in a forum which was open to us, without the threats. Repeatedly, he did not assent. All our mails were addressed to each other and the listserv. After four rounds, the moderator of the listserv informed me that none of my mails had been or would be posted on the listserv. I forwarded that email to David. I did not hear from him thereafter.

I did not refuse to forward David any of my writings, and I presume he is sufficiently skilled in Google to find them on his own in any event.

I believe that the legal opinions I wrote are more reflective of mainstream thinking on the subject than David appears to think, though, of course, in the best spirit of academic exchange, I think there’s nothing wrong with us disagreeing about what the law says. Likewise, I don't think there's anything wrong with out-of-the-mainstream views. I welcome feedback on my legal analysis, and have received a number of interesting comments so far, some in agreement, and some not....

As a matter of policy, I would suspect that most people – including most Israelis – would oppose a policy of Israel suddenly cutting off Israeli-supplied electricity and water to the Gaza Strip (which, if memory serves, is about two-thirds of the electricity and one sixth of the water used by Gaza). In fact, I think many of the policy arguments against cutting off electricity and water have merit, but that, of course, is not the question I addressed in either of the pieces. In fact, several weeks ago, I was asked in an interview whether I support cutting off electricity to Gaza, and I unequivocally answered that I would not recommend doing it. The fighting, and its adverse effects on innocent civilians, is nothing less than a tragedy, and I am chary of recommending too strongly courses of action that seem likely, no matter what is done, to result in harming the innocent.

You can do with this information as you wish. On the one hand, I think it is important to protect my good name from David’s attacks. On the other hand, I...don’t want to get into a mud-slinging fight. I did feel it important to convey to you an accurate picture of events because your opinion is valuable to me, and I hold you in highest possible esteem, as I’m sure you know.

UPDATE:  Professor Enoch writes in response:

Avi Bell denies many things – not the important ones, though, and mostly not anything I said. I did not, for instance, say that his opinion was classified, or that he holds governmental office, or that he has authorized such drastic measures, or that he supports it as a matter of policy. What he doesn’t deny – what he seems proud of – is that he’s written, on different occasions, that cutting off the water and electricity supply to Gaza is permissible as a matter of international law.   


This is not just a matter of the quality of the legal analysis (though it is that too, of course, as people in the field who have read the text and are working on a response assure me). Bell knows what he’s doing – he’s making this point in public settings, as the issue is being debated, with the clear aim of increasing the likelihood of Israel taking these measures. His 3-page opinion has now been posted online here (published on the website of a forum in which he is a member, and so, I suspect, with his permission), and here you can see an interview on Israeli television where he’s making the same claims again (starting around minute 26). All of this is in Hebrew, I’m afraid, so here are my translations of some of the main points:  


-          The title reads: “Israel is permitted to stop supplying power and water to the Gaza Strip”.

-          “Electric power does not count as a basic humanitarian need and therefore Israel is permitted to stop supplying it.” And later on “There is good reason to believe that unlike food and medications, electricity does not count as a humanitarian need according to the laws of war, and that therefore Israel is not even under an obligation to allow third parties to supply electric power to the Gaza Strip.”

-          “Still, several legal arguments have been voiced against the implementation of these sanctions by Israel. Subjecting them to scrutiny shows that none of them is valid.”

-          “Although international law forbids ‘collective punishment’, the denial of access to water and electricity does not constitute such punishment.”

[English version here.] 

I have no interest in conducting a civilized, academic discussion with Bell, or in reading his “scholarship” on the matter. Life’s too short (it tends to be shorter, by the way, with no water and electricity). What I have an interest in is exposing the moral horror (and with the help of experts in the field, the legal incompetence) of his relevant texts, thereby minimizing to the extent possible the chance of the implementation of the measures he deems permissible.

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