The Right to Self-Defense—by Peter Eisenstadt

The Right to Self-Defense

Peter Eisenstadt

Israel has a right to defend itself. I have no problem with this statement. Every country, ever person, has the right to defend itself, herself, himself. Hamas, I would argue, was goaded into this war by Israel, but it was foolish enough to take the bait. But a provocation is not a justification. Hamas still had to take the step of starting to fire rockets, knowing what the probable impact would be on Israel and on Gaza. And once Hamas started to use its tunnels for raids into Israel, once again, they knew what the response would be.

But what does this familiar phrase mean, “a right to defend itself?” First, we must recognize that the word “defense,” in this context, is a Cold War euphemism, a weasel word. When, in 1947, the US Department of War changed its name to Department of Defense, this did not mean that the United States was removing its troops from Germany, from Japan, from various far-flung places, and hunkering down in the homeland. It meant that rather than wage war, the United Stated would from now on be waging defense. And since 1947, with the possible exception of the initial attack on Afghanistan after 9/11, nothing the US military has done, certainly not Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq, can be considered defensive. (The Cuban missile crisis, the only other example of a genuine threat to the American mainland since the end of World War II, was indeed resolved defensively, without US forces firing a shot.)

And the same is true on a personal level. In this country, as the meaning of the 2nd amendment has been inflated beyond recognition of the “well-regulated militia” it was supposed to protect, we have seen a rash of “stand your ground” cases, in which people, feeling threatened, or allegedly feeling threatened, have killed numerous innocent people who had meant them no harm. Let’s call it like it is; “the right to defend oneself” is the right to attack someone else. And the response must be absolutely necessary, and proportionate to the threat. To use deadly force, your own life must be in danger. If someone is trying to rob you, you are permitted to use force to stop the robbery, not to kill the would-be robber. And always, in attacking someone else, you are responsible for your actions.  What can we say about the current Gaza war? Israel is responsible for the deaths of civilians in Gaza. Israel is boasting of the precautions it is taking in trying to get civilians out of harm’s way—warning rockets, leaflets, phone calls.

But still the civilians are dying. Israel tries to blame Hamas—they are fighting among civilian populations. But this is the way guerilla forces, fighting a much stronger have always fought—does Israel expect Hamas to assemble its forces on a field, and start parading? The fact is that Israel is fighting a guerilla army, and the likely civilian causalities fighting it will entail, needs to be part of the initial calculation. If it is a cynical strategy, it is one that every guerilla force (including the Haganah and the Irgun) have always used. There’s no point blaming the other side for not fighting the sort of war you want to fight. And the question of whether Hamas should have built bomb shelters, or really, any failing on Hamas’s part towards its own population, is I think irrelevant from a moral position. This needs to be taken into account before you start fighting with deadly weapons, and when do, you are responsible for the deaths you cause. No one, I think, will take the fact that whomever (presumably Russian separatists) shot down the Malaysian jet, did not intend to shoot down a civilian airliner as any sort of exculpation. When you fire a surface to air missile, and you shoot down a plane, a mistake about the target is no defense. And I think the same applies to civilian deaths in Gaza.

I think this war was avoidable. Both sides were looking for a confrontation, and both sides got what they wanted. Given the profound asymmetries of force, Israel could have achieved most of its objectives without this level of force. The level of death and casualty has been excessive. I think Hamas’s negotiating positions were reasonable, and could have led to a truce, if Israel had been interested, which I don’t think it was. But Hamas is responsible for the people it killed, and Israel is responsible for the people it killed. And both sides have to live with the consequences of their actions. And the number of people killed by Israel, in a war with very high civilian casualties, with unclear war aims, with an uncertain future, is simply unacceptable. The gains Israel from the latest Gaza war will be temporary, the losses, perhaps making the possibility of any agreement between Palestine and Israel far more remote, might well be permanent.

If you disagree with me, fine. But take responsibility for Israel’s actions. Certainly the rest of the world will judge Israel by what they do, not by what they say
When thinking about these issues, I often turn to something the great African American religious thinker, Howard Thurman, said while teaching a course on social ethics in the Howard University School of Religion in the late 1930s, as related by James Farmer, one of his protégés, and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s:

When you young preachers fulminate against about what you should do in any given situation, remember one thing: we are what we do—in spite of our reservations.”

He would wait for a response. My hand usually was up first with a question. “Dr. Thurman, are you saying that if a soldier kills the enemy, he is a murderer, or at least a killer? Or if one accepts an assigned status of inferiority–let us say, sits in the balcony of a Jim Crow theater–he is inferior?

We are judged not by our qualms, our moral complexities and compromises, our doubts, but by our actions, Howard Thurman was telling his students. We must not only think ethical and moral thoughts, we must act ethically and morally. We are what we do—in spite of our reservations. And when a country kills a lot of civilians, it better be because there absolutely was no alternative. I don’t think this is the situation that Israel faced. Israel needed to respond to the Hamas rockets in some fashion. But not like this. At the least, Israel needs to declare an immediate, unilateral cease fire, let both sides bury their dead, and try to start talking with Hamas to ensure nothing like this will happen again.