The Catholic University of America

Leading the discussion, from left-toright: CUA law professor Robert Destro; Paul Scham, professor at the University of Maryland; attorney Gregory Khalil, former legal adviser with the Palestinian Authority; and CUA law professor Marshall Breger.

Standoff in Gaza

Why do the Israelis and Palestinians continue to square off over one of the world's poorest and most densely populated plots of land, a dusty spot barely larger than Washington, D.C.?

Seeking to provide history, context and perspective in the answer, the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion's Middle East Religious Dialogue Program sponsored "The Conflict in Gaza: Legal Perspectives and Political Approaches," before a packed room at the Columbus School of Law on Jan. 14.

Moderated by CUA law professor Robert Destro, the discussants included Gregory Khalil, an attorney and former legal adviser with the Palestinian Authority; Professor Paul Scham, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland; and CUA law professor Marshall Breger, who was in Israel just prior to the start of the latest outbreak of hostilities on Dec. 27, 2008.

Each panelist explained a different aspect of the bewilderingly complicated puzzle driving Middle East unrest that has culminated in a massive invasion of Gaza by Israel at the cost, so far, of more than 1,000 lives.

"Israel wants to make sure that no more rockets can be launched from Gaza. Israel sees [the latest fighting] as existential. So do the Palestinians," observed Scham. He called for the U.S. to develop a plan that gives neither side all that it wants, but one "that guarantees a U.S.-backed peace."

Khalil acknowledged that Israel had a sovereign right to defend itself against ceaseless rocket bombardment. But he thinks that both U.S. and Israeli policy makers are deluding themselves with the belief that a military invasion of Gaza will convince its populace that the ruling authority, Hamas, has to go.

"Hamas will emerge stronger, not weaker, because of these policies," said Khalil. "You think it is bad now in the Middle East? It's very quickly going to get much worse under current policies, in my opinion."

Khalil noted that even as Gaza's population increases, Israel's tight control over its entrance and exit points has resulted in citizens who are more impoverished and illiterate now than ever before. "These children are not going anywhere," Khalil stated. "Gaza in 2020 will look like the "'Lord of the Flies,'" a reference to the famous British novel about the descent into savagery of a society without controls.

Professor Breger thought that Israel had no choice but to proceed with the invasion.

"Clearly there's a self-defense right. The missiles [launched from Gaza] were an attack," he said. But Breger wondered whether Israel's military response has been proportional to the threat posed, and whether the right targets have been chosen for retribution.

"There's been some slippage in what is a legitimate target," he noted. Summarizing the feelings of most of the participants, Breger concluded that "the situation is not sustainable."