The 'Self-Defense' Mantra Is a Green Light for War Crimes

Self-defense does not give a government license to commit war crimes at will.

Every time that the Israeli military carries out indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the occupied territories and kills Palestinian civilians, there is inevitably the rote response from American politicians and pundits that Israel has the “right to defend itself.” In almost all cases, this invocation of the right of self-defense is an all-purpose permission slip that gives any Israeli military action a stamp of approval. We heard this when Israeli snipers were gunning down and maiming unarmed protesters at the barrier between Gaza and Israel, and we have heard it every few years when the Israeli government uses its massive military superiority to bludgeon the imprisoned inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. What makes this all the more tedious is that no one actually disputes that Israel is permitted to defend itself. But self-defense does not give a government license to commit war crimes at will. Unfortunately, because the Israeli government knows that it can act with impunity and faces no practical consequences for its many violations of international law, the “self-defense” mantra serves as a green light for more needless killing of innocents.

The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, recently found himself flailing as he tried to hide behind the standard line in the face of persistent questioning from the journalists in the room. Price recited the usual lines about the right to self-defense, and then he was asked if the same applied to the Palestinians who were coming under attack from Israeli forces:

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I want to ask you about East Jerusalem, but let’s talk about what you said about the principle of self-defense. Does that in any way apply to the Palestinians? Do they have a right to self-defense? Do Palestinians have a right to self-defense?

MR PRICE: I’m – in – broadly speaking, Said, we believe in the concept of self-defense. We believe it applies to any state. I don’t think that —

QUESTION: All right. I —

MR PRICE: I certainly wouldn’t want my words to be construed as —

QUESTION: No, I understand. I want to ask on East Jerusalem. I don’t want to harp on this either. But the Israelis killed 13 people just now, including maybe five or six children. Do you condemn that? Do you condemn the killing of children?

MR PRICE: Said —

QUESTION: I’m asking: Do you condemn the killing of Palestinian children?

MR PRICE: Obviously – and these reports are just emerging. And I understand – I was just speaking to the team. I understand we don’t have independent confirmation of facts on the ground yet, so I’m very hesitant to get into reports that are just emerging.

Obviously, the deaths of civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinians, are something we would take very seriously.

Price is a spokesman and he is naturally going to stick to the administration line, but his evasive and pitiful answers underscore just how bankrupt U.S. policy is here. The U.S. offers full-throated support for the vastly more powerful party to “defend” itself when it is the one leveling whole buildings with airstrikes, and in the same breath condemns any Palestinian response to violence committed against them. As many have noted, the conflict is asymmetrical, and so is the indulgence that the U.S. shows to the side that is far more secure and powerful at the expense of the much weaker, more vulnerable population living under occupation. Our government cannot even bring itself to condemn the killing of civilians when they are killed by our client. The administration started off with some very weak “both sides” messaging that has since devolved into the usual reflexive support for Israeli bombardment of civilians.

The last time there was a major Israeli military operation in Gaza, I found the arguments for self-defense ringing hollow then, too:

Not only is the operation creating far greater evils than the ones it is supposed to remedy, but it is also difficult to identify what the purpose of the operation is. Waging war that inflicts disproportionate harm would be bad enough, but to wage a war that doesn’t seem to have any discernible strategic goal–or indeed any purpose besides raining devastation on a largely defenseless population–is inherently wrong. It’s not self-defense, and it makes a mockery of the idea of self-defense to claim otherwise.

Israel is the occupying power, and it has an obligation to provide for the protection, security, and welfare of the people living under their occupation. For decades the Israeli government has sought to have things both ways: they occupy the territories, but they seek to dispossess and displace Palestinians rather than protect them. Israel continues to present itself as the put-upon victim while it presides over an ongoing Nakba with the goal of driving more Palestinians from their own lands. It is long past time that we stop treating this aggressive policy of ethnic cleansing as “self-defense” and recognize it for what it is.