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Opinion

Israel's 'self-defense' argument against Hamas holds no water

Israel's ceasefire with Hamas is holding, but unless Israel completely lifts its blockade and includes Hamas in two-state negotiations, renewed rocket attacks from Gaza are likely. Should that happen, Israel would not be justified in arguing self-defense.

By Jerome Slater / January 7, 2013

Ban lifted: A truck loaded with building materials drives at the Rafah crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip Dec. 30. Israel had banned construction materials for Gaza's private sector after Hamas seized control there in 2007. Op-ed contributor Jerome Slater says that Israel "needs to fully lift its blockade and bring Hamas into the negotiation process" if it wants to permanently stop attacks from Gaza. [An earlier version of this caption was incorrect. See editor's note at the bottom of this article.]

Ibraheem Abu/Reuters

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As part of a November ceasefire agreement with Hamas, Israel has partially lifted its blockade of the Gaza Strip, allowing private construction materials into the region pummeled by Israeli airstrikes. It’s a single, forward step that ends a five-year ban on such materials. But without progress in settling the overall conflict, Palestinian rocket or suicide attacks and heavy Israeli responses will almost surely resume. [An earlier version of this paragraph was incorrect. See editor's note at the bottom of this article.]

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If the past is any guide, even those who would criticize such Israeli attacks as “disproportionate” would hasten to add: “Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself.”

Israel, however, is not defending its homeland against unprovoked attack. Rather it is “defending” a nonexistent right to continue its occupation (direct or indirect) and repression of the Palestinians – and that is what provokes Palestinian attacks from Gaza.

The eight days of Israeli bombing and air strikes on Gaza last November were essentially a continuation – though on a much smaller scale – of “Operation Cast Lead,” the three-week Israeli attacks that began in late December 2008. Then as now, Israel and its supporters justified Cast Lead as a legitimate use of force in self-defense to end Hamas’s terrorist attacks on Israel’s civilian population.

After Cast Lead, a number of major human rights investigations – including the Goldstone Commission, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch – concluded that Israel’s indiscriminate and disproportional attacks against the Gazan population, economy, and societal infrastructures constituted war crimes. At the same time, none of these groups sought to refute Israel’s claim that it acted in self-defense.

Essentially, Israel and its supporters argue that even though Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005, Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli population centers have continued, and thus justify Israel’s right to defend itself.

Their argument is wrong on several counts. First, even though Israel withdrew its Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005, it continued its indirect occupation of the strip – especially through its land and naval embargo that followed the violent takeover of the strip by Hamas in 2007.  

Israel continues to wield great power over Gaza’s economy, water, electricity, telecommunications, and transportation networks. Among other measures, it has refused to allow Gaza a functioning airport or seaport, radically cutting Gazan trade and commerce with the outside world. [An earlier version of this paragraph was incorrect. See editor's note at the bottom of this article.]

The stated reason is for security purposes, but the result is widespread hardship on ordinary Gazans, including heavily restricted movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza; inadequate imports of water used for drinking and irrigation; farmers prevented from tending to and harvesting their fields and crops in border areas, and inordinate harassment of Gazan fishing boats.

Additionally, Israel has continued to assassinate Palestinian militants and periodically attack Gaza’s governmental and police institutions, electrical generating system, roads, bridges, farms, and olive orchards – and many of its bombs and shells have fallen on schools, ambulances, and hospitals, whether intentionally or not.

It cannot be seriously maintained that Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel – even though morally wrong – are “unprovoked” or have nothing to do with this history.

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