Israel is Using 'Self-Defence' as Ethical Blank Cheque

Published: August 03, 2014 20:34 IST
(A.B. is an academic who frequently visits Palestine.)

There is a morality tale that is ritualistically repeated at the beginning of every discussion of Israel's bloody onslaught on Palestine's Gaza. What nation, so the catechism runs, would tolerate rockets being hurdled at its innocent civilians without striking back in defence?

But is the Israeli case for bombing Gaza really so morally obvious? Has Israel not confused the shield and the sword?

For the sake of argument, let us inhabit the moral universe that Israel has created for itself and see if its actions are consistent with any common-sense notion of self-defence.

"Terrorists" are holding civilians hostage, using them as human shields while launching homemade rockets at Israeli civilians. Gaza is extremely dense, and with the use of human shields it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish between the terrorists and the civilians. Israel, on the other hand, is completely secure behind its Iron Dome, its hi-tech, anti-missile missile defence system.

So no harm can come to any Israeli from these attacks. But it cannot respond to its attackers without seriously harming Palestinian civilians. Is there an ethical route out of this quandary?

This set up almost sounds like that well-worn movie trope, the hostage crisis. A group of bad (and invariably swarthy) men has taken innocents hostage. A SWAT team and negotiators gather, snipers take their positions, and we go through the playbook of demands and offers even as the secured city parries fire.

What should the SWAT team do? Should it wait behind its solid defence for the attackers to run out of bullets and provisions and then just take back the yard while minimising casualties? Or should it start firing at the terrorists in the name of self-defence, even though there is no way they have a clean shot?

Put this way, the choice seems farcically obvious. Shooting the hostages can never be a legitimate or indeed sane form of self-defence when you are in an impregnable citadel.

The critical detail here, of course, is the status of the hostages. If the hostages are fellow citizens, then all due care must be taken to rescue them without harm.

But what if the hostages are not civilians at all but non-citizens in an open air prison? In this case, there is no ethical demand to save these hostages other than the fact that they too are fellow beings.

Tragically, conflict has meant that the Israelis refuse to recognise the humanity of the people it itself calls "hostages." Failing to see the humanity of the "human shields," Israel has used the excuse of self-defence as an ethical blank cheque, absolving itself of any sense of proportionality. They shot at us, so now we can do whatever we want. The inevitable "collateral damage," is on Hamas.

This is a cheap sleight of hand, clumsily conflating the concepts of defense and attack. Thanks to the US-gifted Iron Dome system, there have been near zero Israeli deaths from rockets; the vast majority of their casualties have come from the ground invasion.

In other words, Iron Dome is successful self-defence, full stop. And by sparing the hostages, it is also legitimate self-defence. So even within the Israeli moral frame, anything beyond Iron Dome is morally indefensible.

Thus even if one agrees, for the sake of argument, with the premise that this bloodshed is all in the name of Israeli self-defence - a far-fetched notion given the fact of colonial occupation and oppression - any kind of attack under these conditions cannot be justified.

Defence is a shield, not a sword. With an iron-clad defence and no ability to distinguish between "terrorists" and innocents on the ground, how could bombing Gaza and killing hundreds of innocent children ever be sold as self-defence? How has Israel been given the notion that this would be tolerated?

The sad answer is that Palestinian lives are simply not counted as worthwhile. Yet in dehumanising the Palestinians, Israel has only dehumanised itself.

The right of self-defence has been the proverbial get-out-of-jail-free card for Israel, used cynically to justify its butchering of a people that it first ejected and then imprisoned.

This self-righteous framing of its shameful actions is entirely of a piece with the broader Zionist project of instrumentalising historical victimhood in the service of a very modern colonialism. Perhaps now, at long last, this ultimate insult to the long history of Jewish persecution will collapse from wretched overuse.

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