Introduction

On a December morning in 2015, H.A. left early from his home in central Gaza to tend to his fields of wheat, barley, peas, and fava beans a couple hundred meters from the Israeli border fence. He arrived to find a low-flying Israeli aircraft spewing a thick, white substance over his farmland as it traveled south along the Palestinian side of the divide. Two days later, H.A. observed signs of damage to the leaves of his plants. Within ten days, his entire crop had shriveled and died, leaving him without his only source of income and unable to repay a loan for agricultural inputs.1

Like many Palestinians, a substantial portion of H.A.’s lands lies within the Israeli-imposed “no-go zone” inside the Gaza Strip, which in recent years has also been converted into a “no-grow zone” for farmers.2 Facing threats of rocket attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and border infiltration, Israel sprays herbicides throughout this area in order to preserve a clear line of sight.3 Access to certain areas is restricted entirely, with Israel regularly firing on encroaching Palestinians, civilians and militants alike.4 The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have issued contradictory pronouncements as to the precise boundaries and rules of the no-go zone,5 but Gazan farmers have found it wisest to abandon most lands within one hundred meters of the border.6 Those who approach an even more intermediate range do so at great peril—dozens of Palestinian civilians have been killed and hundreds injured by IDF munitions in this murky region since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.7

Gaza’s no-go zone is an instance of a familiar tool in international politics: the buffer zone. Long favored as a means of defusing conflict, buffer zones have been employed on nearly every continent over the course of history. An early European application was the “neutral ground” that separated Spanish and British encampments in Gibraltar in the eighteenth century.8 Other notable, bygone examples include those established by the Concert of Europe (in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Switzerland),9 the Treaty of Versailles (German Rhineland),10 the Tanggu Truce (Chinese Manchuria),11 and the Geneva Conference (North and South Vietnam).12 Buffer zones were inaugurated as conditions of the independence of Norway from Sweden13 and of several Baltic states from Russia.14

In modern times, similar and long-standing arrangements can be found in regions as diverse as Cyprus, Korea, and Sinai.15 On one hand, the appeal of creating distance between hostile states—either by mutual agreement, unilateral withdrawal, or forcible population removal—is obvious: if, as realists theorize, states are conceived as opaque “billiard balls” colliding with one another in an anarchic world order,16 then buffer zones provide a layer of cushioning between them. Yet while realists tend to focus on state actors,17 buffer zones also provide capacity for dealing with nonstate actors, allowing governments to “pursue rebels or terrorists”18 beyond their territorial borders or, alternatively, to patronize fifth columns19 in enemy states.

In either sense, the establishment of a buffer zone necessarily entails a sacrifice of sovereignty, whether willful or not, and often bears disastrous consequences for civilians like H.A. caught within. From an international-law standpoint, H.A. could theoretically pursue a variety of legal avenues in a claim against Israel, invoking the UN Charter’s guarantee of state sovereignty (bracketing momentarily the issue of Palestinian statehood), the Geneva Conventions’ safeguard of civilians in armed conflicts, and international customary law’s protection of private property rights.

But the enigmatic nature of buffer zones leaves the applicability of these sources of law—and thus the legal remedies available to impacted civilians—very much in doubt. Neither zones of war nor peace, neither fully sovereign nor militarily occupied, buffer zones seem to fall through the cracks of international law, “function[ing] in a legal grey area whereby jus ad bellum or jus in bello norms are temporarily suspended.”20 As a result, little legal action has been taken with respect to the rights of civilians within buffer zones.21

This ambiguity persists primarily because the law of buffer zones has yet to receive focused legal attention as a field of its own, both from a “jus ad buffer zone” and a “jus in buffer zone”22 perspective. This Comment fills that gap by providing a conceptual framework to classify different modes of buffer zones and to assess their legal consequences. Part I presents a novel definition of international buffer zones, emphasizing the loss-of-sovereignty aspect. With this concept in mind, Part II develops the conditions under which introducing a buffer zone might be sanctioned under international law. Part III then addresses the governing law within buffer zones, focusing on restrictions of civil rights, the destruction of property, and the rules of military engagement. Finally, Part IV considers whether civilians adversely affected by the operation of a buffer zone could pursue a legal remedy against the state responsible under an international-law takings theory. This Comment utilizes case studies throughout its exploration to illustrate real-world applications of legal principles.

  • 1. Israel Sprays Gazan Farmland Close to Border Fence, Destroying Crops and Causing Heavy Losses (B’Tselem, Feb 4, 2016), archived at http://perma.cc/56FA-2NGZ. For additional reports of Israeli planes spraying pesticide on Palestinian farmland, see Belal Aldabbour, Israel Spraying Toxins over Palestinian Crops in Gaza (Al Jazeera, Jan 19, 2016), archived at http://perma.cc/8AV3-V8VH; Gaza Farmers: Israel Sprayed Herbicides in the Gaza Strip Again (Gisha, Jan 7, 2016), archived at http://perma.cc/4S2G-TU2X.
  • 2. Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, IDF Admits Spraying Herbicides inside the Gaza Strip (+972, Dec 28, 2015), archived at http://perma.cc/G25N-YKWY.
  • 3. Id.
  • 4. No-Go Zones near Gaza Strip Perimeter Fence (B’Tselem, Oct 14, 2012), archived at http://perma.cc/EUN2-L6SQ (“Between September 2005 and the end of September 2012, Israeli security forces killed 213 Palestinians near the fence. At least 154 of those killed were civilians not taking part in hostilities.”).
  • 5. IDF Spokesman Provides Contradictory Answers Regarding the Width of the “No-Go Zone” Which Residents of the Gaza Strip Are Prohibited from Entering (Gisha), archived at http://perma.cc/4UFW-JWPP (describing a series of contradictory statements from IDF sources as to the extent and accessibility of the Gaza buffer zone); Noam Sheizaf, IDF: ‘Forbidden Zone’ in Gaza Three Times Larger Than Previously Stated (+972, May 12, 2013), archived at http://perma.cc/FX9G-3Y8G.
  • 6. See Israel Sprays Gazan Farmland (cited in note 1).
  • 7. See Within Range: An Analysis of the Legality of the Land “Buffer Zone” in the Gaza Strip *9 (Diakonia, Aug 2011), archived at http://perma.cc/4J2V-5J8U (“From January to May [2011] alone, at least 19 civilians—men, women and seven children—were killed and 252 others were injured including 73 children.”); Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment against the Palestinian Population in Gaza Strip by IOF *31 (Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, July 2011), archived at http://perma.cc/
    S7AU-7SPA (documenting 26 killings and 142 injuries over a two-year period).
  • 8. See Chris Grocott and Gareth Stockey, Gibraltar: A Modern History ix, 11 (Wales 2012).
  • 9. See Charles A. Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace 193 n 11 (Princeton 2010).
  • 10. See Martin S. Alexander, The Military Consequences for France of the End of Locarno, 22 Intelligence & Natl Sec 563, 563 (2007).
  • 11. See Peter Worthing, A Military History of Modern China 117 (Praeger 2007).
  • 12. See Brent Langhals, Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), in Spencer C. Tucker, ed, Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History 157, 157 (ABC-CLIO 1998).
  • 13. See Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends at 115 (cited in note 9).
  • 14. See Peter N. Stearns, ed, Demilitarization in the Contemporary World 4 (Illinois 2013).
  • 15. See Lionel Beehner and Gustav Meibauer, The Futility of Buffer Zones in International Politics, 60 Orbis 248, 248 (2016).
  • 16. Stephen D. Krasner, Regimes and the Limits of Realism: Regimes as Autonomous Variables, 36 Intl Org 497, 498–99 (1982).
  • 17. See, for example, Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics 98–99 (McGraw-Hill 1979) (focusing on the relationship between state actors in a systems theory of international politics).
  • 18. Beehner and Meibauer, 60 Orbis at 251 (cited in note 15).
  • 19. A “fifth column” is defined as “a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 466 (11th ed 2003).
  • 20. Beehner and Meibauer, 60 Orbis at 251 (cited in note 15).
  • 21. One notable exception is the recent attempts by Palestinian advocacy groups to hold Israel to account for its no-go zone. See Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, Gaza Farmers Seek Damages for Israel’s Crop-Spraying (Al Jazeera, July 13, 2016), archived at http://perma.cc/
    Q3Z5-N7YJ; Response to Gisha’s Freedom of Information Application Regarding Gaza’s “Buffer Zone” (Gisha), archived at http://perma.cc/828V-EV6Q.
  • 22. Playing on the just war theory concepts of jus ad bellum (just cause for war) and jus in bello (just conduct in war), “jus ad buffer zone” and “jus in buffer zone” here are taken to mean, respectively, just cause for the establishment of a buffer zone and just conduct within a buffer zone.