Israel’s Self-Defense Plea

Amos Guiora defends the bombing of Gaza on traditional lines, stressing that “Israel has an obligation to protect its citizens harmed by Hamas’s decision to endanger its own population”:

While the number of Palestinian casualties suggests both a disproportionate operational response and an exaggerated application of self-defense, the reality is simultaneously nuanced and obvious. Nuanced because limits must be imposed; otherwise, the nation state violates the essence of international law. Obvious, because the nation-state’s primary obligation is to protect its civilian population. Israel has the right to self-defense in accordance with commonly accepted principles of international law. Application of that right, in the context of Hamas’s actions, requires recognizing two realities: the price paid by innocent Palestinians as a result of human shielding and the clearly foreseeable deaths of numerous Israelis if tunnels are not destroyed. While the loss of innocent life is always tragic, aggressive self-defense is the essence of operational counterterrorism.

Spot the euphemism: “aggressive self-defense.” Just war theory allows for no such thing. Defense is defensive, not aggressive. Pre-emptive slaughter as a means to deter future attacks doesn’t hack it. And defense should be proportionate to the actual threat to Israel not the potential one. Or as George Bisharat puts it: “All nations have a right of self-defense, including Israel. But that right may be exercised lawfully only in limited circumstances. Israel cannot validly claim self-defense in its recent onslaught against Gaza for two main reasons”:

First, despite its 2005 withdrawal of ground forces and settlers from Gaza, Israel still exercises effective control over the region by controlling its airspace, coast and territorial waters, land borders (with Egypt), electromagnetic fields, electricity and fuel supply. Accordingly, Israel remains an occupying power under international law, bound to protect the occupied civilian population. Israel can use force to defend itself, but no more than is necessary to quell disturbances. Hence this is not a war – rather, it is a top military power unleashing massive firepower against a penned and occupied Palestinian population.

Second, self-defense cannot be claimed by a state that initiates violence, as Israel did in its crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting more than 400, searching 2,200 homes and other sites, and killing at least nine Palestinians. There is no evidence that the terrible murders of three Israeli youths that Israel claimed as justification for the crackdown were anything other than private criminal acts that do not trigger a nation’s right of self-defense (were an American citizen, or even a Drug Enforcement Administration agent killed by drug traffickers on our border with Mexico, that would not entitle us to bomb Mexico City).

And that, in a nutshell, is Waldman’s answer for why Israel is losing the PR war:

If Israel is losing the propaganda war, it’s because propaganda can only take you so far when the facts are telling a story you’d rather people didn’t hear. Social media has something to do with it, but it’s still traditional media that show the largest numbers of people what’s going on. And when you have a Palestinian death toll that now exceeds 500 and is going nowhere but up while the numbers of Israeli civilians who have died is still in the single digits, you just aren’t going to be able to spin a story of equal suffering and blame.

It’s as though Hamas said, “I dare you to kill those people,” and Israel replied, “You got it,” then turned to the rest of the world and said, “Hey, what do you want — he dared me!”

It’s impossible to be a moral human being and not be horrified by what is happening to the civilians in Gaza. If that is the price for quiet, it is too high. And what this toll is doing to Israel’s broader global legitimacy far outweighs its short term security goals.