Israeli Self-Defense Does Not Include the Right to Kill Civilians
Daniel Levy is the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. He was a negotiator in Palestinian talks under Prime Ministers Rabin and Barak, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.
JULY 22, 2014
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005; now Hamas is firing rockets at civilians; Israel has the right to self defense – the endlessly repeated question is “well, what would you do under such circumstances?”
To be clear, Hamas does carry responsibility for this situation – its targeting of Israeli civilians violates international law. The Hamas charter, its political platform, and its military activities all deserve to be condemned. But Israel’s share of the responsibility is far greater. That is a hard conclusion to draw but a necessary one if our understanding of events, our responses and policies are to improve.
Israeli self-defense does not include the right to (again) kill hundreds of Gazan civilians, to bomb hospitals, or even to warn people to evacuate buildings when there is nowhere for them to go. The Israeli government’s attempt to a priori blame Hamas for all losses and thereby absolve itself of responsibility for casualties cannot be accepted.
Take a step back from this latest escalation. Most Gazans are refugees; their roots lie in the war and expulsion of 1948. From 1967 they lived under direct Israeli occupation and under blockade ever since, almost for the past decade.
Israel is not offering Gazans "quiet for quiet." When Hamas ceases to fire, when it is "quiet," Israel returns to normality, but Gazans remain cut off from the world, denied the most basic daily freedoms we take for granted.
Step further back to the West Bank, where the Palestinian strategic alternative to Hamas is pursued. The Fatah movement of President Abbas recognizes Israel, pursues peaceful negotiations and security cooperation. That is met with entrenched Israeli control, ever-expanding settlements, and Israeli military incursions into Palestinian cities at will.
So what would you do under such circumstances? Perhaps start by not denying another people’s rights in perpetuity, including the right to self-determination. Reverse the current incentive structure that reciprocates both Fatah demilitarization and Hamas cease-fires with variations on an Israeli brand of deepening occupation.
There is no military solution, but Israel’s government refuses any political solution – neither it nor the governing Likud Party have ever voted to accept a Palestinian state. Hamas's nonrecognition of Israel is troubling, and so should this be. Humans do not respond well to humiliation, repression, and attempts to deny their most basic dignity. Palestinians are human. Palestinians will find ways to resist -- that is human -- and sometimes that resistance will be armed. When the Palestinian struggle abandons, rather than uses, international law, as Hamas does, it is right to call that out and to respond proportionately (Israel has gone well beyond proportional), even as channels should be kept open with Hamas.
Of course, Israelis do not respond well to being under fire either, but unlike the Palestinians they have a state, an army, American support and weaponry, and, thankfully, their freedom.
What would you do under such circumstances? Start by treating the Palestinians as humans, as you yourself would wish to be treated.