Israel must abide by international law even if other countries and non-state entities - a reference to Hamas and Hizbullah - do not, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak said Monday night, during a speech in Jerusalem to participants in a colloquium on Israel and international law.
"Israel is not an isolated island," said Barak. "We are part of the international community, and the international community goes by international customary and treaty law. There are countries that are not democratic, but there are many others that are and we learn from them.
"Hamas, of course, does not follow international law," he added, "but that does not excuse us."
The colloquium was sponsored by Mishkenot Sha'ananim and the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life of Brandeis University. It featured former undersecretary-general of the UN Hans Corell, Judge John Hedigan, a member of the Irish Supreme Court and former judge on the European Court of Human Rights, acting and retired members of the Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli academics.
Barak, who was repeatedly questioned about the legality of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said that they had existed for so many years that by now their status should be determined in a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Pointedly, however, he declined to respond to a question about whether or not he considered Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem to be legal.
Except for Barak's speech, the colloquium was closed to the media. One of the participants, however, David Benjamin, a former legal adviser to the IDF, said the participants were largely split between the Israelis and the representatives of international legal bodies.
"There are two different worlds here," he said. "[The international judges] have different concerns and agendas than the Israelis. They're approaching the situation from a very Euro-centric point of view, as opposed to a Middle East one. I don't think it's clear to them what we have to deal with.
"The international participants are more concerned with human rights and the protection of individual rights," Benjamin continued. "They have less of an appreciation of the real security concerns we're facing.
"I can't blame them, because that's simply where they're coming from. But we have to protect the rights of our society, and that sometimes comes at the expense of individual rights."
Mishkenot Sha'ananim director-general Uri Dromi told The Jerusalem Post that although the participants did not necessarily agree with each other, a forum such as this was vital for Israel's standing in the international community.
"Emotions did run a little high at times, in terms of how the Israelis responded to criticism," he said. "But I believe that it is important to maintain personal relations with judges.
"The dialogue itself prevents ties from being severed. Discussing the issues in this kind of space is the way to do it."