The Goldstone Report and the Israeli “Right of Self-Defense”

by Jerome Slater / March 2nd, 2010

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

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.

  • First appeared at Huffington Post.
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