The Public Humanist

Israel's Right of Self Defense, and Gaza's?

There is a great deal of difference between Presidents Bush and Obama, not least in speech. President Bush spoke in short, often disconnected, spurts that gave him the appearance of not understanding what he was saying. President Obama speaks in complete sentences, one leading to the next at a steady pace that gives him the appearance of understanding exactly what he is saying. Yet both fall back on cant when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

On 27 December, Israel launched a campaign against Gaza. (See this link for a general view of Gaza and maps.) Israeli bombing began near noon when streets are at their busiest: children on their way home from school, men and women combing the shops for food. Within minutes Israeli planes had dropped some 100 tons of explosives killing and wounding up to 1000 Palestinians. Over the next three weeks as Israeli troops, tanks, and helicopters joined in the attack, Palestinian casualty figures mounted. By the end some 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were dead. Many noted the disproportionate casualty rate, but very few questioned the framework of the Israeli attack: Israel was responding to Hamas rocket attacks. In their different styles both outgoing President Bush and incoming President Obama intoned the Israeli mantra: Israel has a right to defend itself.

In American criminal law, a successful self-defense strategy in murder trials depends on providing and proving a context of clear and imminent lethal threat. On the international level, there are no legal procedures to judge claims of self-defense in matters of national or communal security. Rather, public relations and public opinion establish such judgments. When Israel began its aerial bombardment of Gaza on 27 December, Israeli official sources and public opinion held that Israel was acting in self-defense.

 According to Israeli officials, Hamas broke the ceasefire that had tamped down Israeli-Hamas violence since 19 June 2008. By the terms of this cease-fire, Israel was to stop its siege of Gaza imposed after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006; Hamas was to stop firing rockets into southern Israel. Neither met the conditions of the ceasefire. Israel maintained its closure, which dangerously depleted food, fuel, and medical supplies and increased rates of unemployment and poverty in Gaza. Hamas greatly reduced rocket fire, but did not entirely eliminate it. According to Israeli statistics Palestinian militants in Gaza fired 15 mortars and 11 rockets at southern Israel between 1 July and 1 November. They caused no Israeli fatalities. Nonetheless, the ceasefire was still in effect on 4 November when Israeli planes and ground forces killed 6 Palestinian militants in Gaza. Thereafter the numbers of rocket firings from Gaza into Israel increased, though still without causing Israeli casualties. On December 18, Hamas announced that it would not renew the ceasefire, which expired that day, and 9 days later Israel launched its attack. Is this a context that excuses Israeli aggression as self-defense? Was Israel acting in clear and imminent lethal danger?

In official Israeli terms, when Israeli forces kill Palestinian civilians the fault lies in the hands of the Palestinians. Israeli President Shimon Peres’s comments at Davos encapsulate this analysis: "The tragedy of Gaza is not Israel, it is Hamas… Why did they fire rockets? There was no siege against Gaza. Why did they fight us, what did they want? There was never a day of starvation in Gaza.”

The World Health Organization paints a different picture, as does the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate agreed with President Peres. In the last days of the Bush administration both passed non-binding resolutions that condemned Hamas for, in effect, Israel’s attack on Gaza. The Senate vote was unanimous; there were 5 dissenting votes in the House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the case in homey terms: "I ask any of my colleagues to imagine that happening here in the United States. Rockets and mortars coming from Toronto in Canada, into Buffalo New York. How would we as a country react?"

President Obama, like Senator Reid, put his sympathy in very personal terms: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." Does no one see Palestinians in such a light? Senator Reid was making a case for Israel, but his empathy for Israel ignores Israel’s overwhelming military superiority: How would we as a country react if Canada sent warplanes to bomb Buffalo and tanks through its streets, killing thousands of Americans? We would not react with ineffectual rockets because we like Israel have preponderant military force on our side, including nuclear weapons.

Is it impossible to accord Palestinians the right of self-defense that we so easily grant Israel? If somebody was preventing food and fuel imports so that I could not feed my children and provide them shelter, and sending rockets into my house … I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Palestinians to do the same thing.
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