The Goldstone Report and the Israeli "Right of Self-Defense"

05/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jerome Slater Professor Emeritus of political science, SUNY Buffalo

Richard Silverstein is one of the best bloggers on Israeli affairs. He was recently interviewed about the Goldstone report on the Seattle television program, Moral Politics. The interview, now posted Silverstein's blog, Tikun Olam, is rather long but well worth watching -- his defense of the Goldstone Report is courageous, articulate, and convincing.

However, Silverstein does not discuss the Goldstone commission's most crucial error: while its report courageously and persuasively labeled Israel's methods in Gaza as "war crimes," it failed to challenge the argument that however unjust its methods, Israel was exercising its legitimate right of self-defense when it attacked Gaza. Perhaps this was not so much an error as a policy decision, adopted by the Goldstone commission in the hope that this would somewhat diminish the predictable firestorm that would follow the publication of its report. However understandable such tactical and political considerations, the consequences have been grave.

Any discussion of Israeli policy and behavior towards the Palestinians should -- must -- start from the most important fact, which often, incredibly, seems to be overlooked: namely the Israeli occupation and the harsh repression that accompanies it. That is the central point, not the Palestinian methods of resistance. True, terrorism cannot be morally justified, but Israel crushes all methods of Palestinian resistance, increasingly including nonviolent resistance.

In Western moral philosophy -- "just war" theory -- we first evaluate the use of force by considering whether it is a "last resort," necessary to attain a morally imperative just cause that cannot be attained by peaceful methods; it is only when that criterion is satisfied that we must then go on to consider whether the methods of warfare are also just. Put differently, absent last resort and just cause, all methods of warfare are morally prohibited, even if they are in some sense proportional, do not employ indiscriminate weapons that cause massive civilian death and destruction, and -- above all -- never engage in direct, intentional attacks on civilians and their crucial infrastructures and institutions.

In its economic siege of Gaza and its various military attacks, especially last year's three week attack on Gaza, Israel massively violated the principles of proportionality, discrimination, and noncombat immunity -- which is what led not only the Goldstone commission but many other Israeli and international human rights groups to conclude that Israel was guilty of war crimes. However, what needs much more emphasis is that even if Israel had scrupulously adhered to all of those principles, it still would have been guilty of the crime of aggression because -- its methods aside -- its behavior also violated the just war principles of just cause and last resort.

But, it will be objected, doesn't Palestinian terrorism support the Israeli claim that its military attacks are justified self-defense? No: not so long as the occupation continues. Palestinian attacks on Israel are primarily, even if not exclusively, the consequence of over forty years of continued Israeli occupation, repression, assassinations and other killings; of the destruction of governmental, economic, public health, educational, and other societal institutions and infrastructures; and of the deliberate impoverishment and humiliation of the Palestinian people. Consequently, Israel is not engaged in "self defense" when it uses force to crush resistance to its repression -- and that holds true even when the form of resistance -- terrorist attacks intended to kill civilians -- are themselves morally wrong.

Further, Israel's claim that its attack on Gaza was a legitimate method of self-defense is further undermined because of its violation of the last resort principle. As Silverstein points out, it was Israel that was primarily responsible for the breakdown of a ceasefire agreement that for six months had effectively ended all terrorist attacks on Israel. (For the details, see here and here).

Moreover, it has been Israel and not Hamas that has repeatedly refused to negotiate over the Gaza issue, as part of an overall political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, it will be objected that Hamas doesn't just seek an end to the Israeli occupation, it seeks the destruction of Israel. However, that argument -- no matter how often it is repeated -- ignores the increasing evidence that Hamas is moving toward a de facto acceptance of the existence of Israel, and would probably be willing to end its attacks in exchange for the end of the Israeli occupation.

The only way to test Hamas's true intentions would be to negotiate with it for such a settlement, an obvious course that nonetheless is adamantly rejected not only by Israel, but even the United States. Still, it will be further objected, what if Hamas appears to accept a two-state settlement but then resumes its attacks once an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank is created? In that highly improbable case, Israel would have a genuine and irrefutable right of self-defense, and it would still have an overwhelmingly strong military capability of doing so and would receive overwhelming international support.

In short, since the Israeli occupation is unjustifiable, its only legitimate method of "self-defense" is to end the occupation and all other means of repression of the Palestinian people. Consider the following thought experiment. In 1956 the Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution, a fully justifiable attempt by the Hungarian people to free themselves from Soviet occupation and tyranny. Suppose that the Hungarians, lacking any other means of responding to the overwhelming Soviet forces, had launched rockets at Russian towns, and that this precipitated an even more destructive Soviet "retaliation." Would we regard this Soviet response as a legitimate act of self-defense?

Let me answer my own rhetorical question: Not a chance. Rather, we would correctly dismiss the argument as absurd and point out that if the Soviets wanted to end the attacks on its soil, the best and only legitimate way it could do so was to end its occupation and repression of Hungary and go home.

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