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.

Ibraheem Abu/Reuters
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.]

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.]

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.

A second reason that the self-defense argument fails is that even if Israel had genuinely ended its occupation and repression of Gaza, it has not ended its direct occupation over East Jerusalem and much of the West Bank. Instead, it has expanded the number of Jewish settlements and land-grabs in those areas.

Gaza is not a separate country or people from the West Bank, and the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo agreement specifically states that Gaza and the West Bank are “a single territorial unit.” Consequently, the Gazan people retain their right of resistance to occupation and repression.

To believe otherwise is like believing that, if the British had withdrawn from New Jersey in the 1770s but continued to occupy the other 12 colonies, New Jersey residents would no longer have had the right to take up arms to support American independence.

To be sure, the right of resistance does not include the right to employ terrorism. At the same time, it is certainly relevant that the Palestinians have no hope of gaining their freedom by defeating the Israeli armed forces. Nor is nonviolent protest and resistance likely to succeed, for Israel has either repeatedly ignored it or suppressed it, often meeting demonstraters (including Israelis) with beatings, rubber bullets, and sometimes real bullets.

The final flaw in the Israeli self-defense argument is that Western morality proscribes the use of force unless all nonviolent means of conflict settlement have been exhausted.

Israel, however, has repeatedly refused to negotiate long-term truces with Hamas, and it has even broken past agreements. While Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, since 2009 there has been substantial evidence that it is ready to go beyond ceasefires and join with the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in supporting a two-state political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although Hamas’s position has been ambiguous and sometimes contradictory, this does not justify Israel’s refusal even to negotiate with Hamas to explore the peace possibilities.

As long as the Israeli occupation, repression, and intransigence continue, Israel has no legitimate or persuasive claim that it is defending its homeland against unprovoked Palestinian attacks. To stop those attacks and make last year’s ceasefire permanent, it needs to fully lift its blockade and bring Hamas into the negotiation process.

Jerome Slater is professor emeritus of international politics, US foreign policy, and international security at the State University of New York at Buffalo. A longer version of this piece ran in the journal International Security.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article, based on reporting from the Associated Press, incorrectly described Israel's lifting of a 2007 ban on construction materials into Gaza. AP has issued a correction saying that the ban applied to materials for Gaza's private sector. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel has allowed humanitarian-related construction materials and materials under UN auspices. Lifting the ban allows private business to ship materials to Gaza. Also, an earlier version incorrectly described Israeli embargo efforts at the Gaza-Egypt border. Israel does not control that border.

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