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Alan Dershowitz Headshot

Israel Is Well Within Its Rights

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What if Israel defended its citizens the way the British, the French, the Americans and the Russians did? When German rockets hit British cities during the World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill retaliated by bombing German cities, killing thousands of German civilians, and promised to continue until Germany's unconditional surrender. The United States did the same following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The French did much worse in Algeria and the Russians showed no concern for civilian life in Chechnya or Georgia.

The Israeli army, on the other hand, has gone to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilian casualties, despite the reality that Hamas deliberately fires its rockets from densely populated civilian areas and hides its rocket launchers in schools, hospitals and mosques.

Every Hamas rocket attack against Israeli civilians -- and there have been more than 6,500 of them since Israel ended its occupation of Gaza -- is an armed attack against Israel under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes member nations to respond militarily to armed attacks against it.

Under international law, Israel is entitled to do whatever it takes militarily to stop Hamas rockets from targeting its civilians. Every Hamas rocket has the potential to kill dozens of Israeli civilians. Recently one hit a school just hours after the principal dismissed the students, fearing such an attack. If the rocket had hit and killed hundreds of schoolchildren, would those who protest Israeli actions acknowledge that Israel would then have the right to respond? No country need allow terrorists to play Russian roulette with the lives of its children.

In fact, under international law, Israel has the right to declare all-out war against the Hamas-controlled government of Gaza. In an all-out war, there would be no obligation to provide humanitarian assistance, electricity or any other services to an enemy who had started the war by an armed attack.

No one condemned Great Britain and the United States for the collateral damage it caused while trying to defeat those who attacked it during the second world war. Moreover, Germany did not deny the right of Great Britain or the United States to exist. The Hamas Charter not only denies Israel's right to exist, it calls for the complete destruction of the Jewish state. Surely Israel has as much right to defend its citizens as did the United States and Great Britain.

Why then is Israel singled out for such ferocious criticism?

Indeed, The only reason Israel has not won overwhelming military victories in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza now, is that Israel has decided to engage in only limited and proportional military actions designed simply to stop the rocket attacks. Yet it is being condemned both for not winning a decisive victory and for killing too many civilians.

Hamas has learned how to manipulate the media's coverage of Israeli military actions. They deliberately fire their rockets from behind civilian shields in order to provoke Israel to respond and kill civilians. They are then ready to bring out the cameras to record and transmit every civilian death around the world.

Well, not quite every civilian death. The day before Israel launched its air attack against Hamas, Hamas fired a rocket in the general direction of Sderot. The rocket fell short of its mark and landed in Gaza -- killing two young Palestinian girls. Hamas, which imposes total censorship in Gaza, refused to allow cameras to record or transmit pictures of these dead Palestinian girls, because they were killed not by Israeli rockets, but rather by Palestinian rockets.

The Hamas tactic is encouraged by selective condemnation of Israel. Such condemnation creates a win-win situation for Hamas terrorism. Every time they kill an Israeli civilian, they win; every time Israel kills a Palestinian civilian, Hamas also wins.

The only way to defeat this cynical tactic is for the international community to place the blame squarely on Hamas for engaging in the double war crime of targeting Israeli civilians and using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, "The Case Against Israel's Enemies."