Israel and The Right to Self Defense

Posted on Posted in Ethics, Political Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized


The main argument being used in Israel’s defense is that “Israel has a right to defend itself,.” President Obama has said it.

Hillary Clinton is saying it.  Isreal claims it has such a right.

There have been a number of response’s to this claim including an excellent one by John Dugard,  emeritus professor of international law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, titled Dubunking Israel’s Right to Self-Defense.

He analyzes the issue from a perspective of international law. I’d like to consider the claim from a philosophical perspective.

The right to self-defense is a fundamental human right, like all other basic human rights. What does it mean to say someone has a right to defend themselves? It means that a person has a right to use violence to protect themselves from someone who is using violence against them. In a social state violence against another member of society is prohibited. From a social contract point of view, when we enter into the social contract the we give up the right to use force anytime and for any reason. In fact this is really the primary freedom that we give up upon entering the social contract. And once we enter into a social contract it is only when threatened with violence are we permitted to use violence.

So, to claim that Israel has a right to self-defense is absolutely trivial. Everybody has such a right. The real question is whether Israel’s use of violence against Palestinians an instance of self-defense. Are they using violence to protect themselves from violent attacks? Or is it something else?

I think the first useful thing to note is that Israel’s military operations in Gaza are not the prototypical instance of self-defense.

When you think of self-defense you might normally think of shooting a burglar who enters your home,or  of defending yourself when someone picks a fight with you at a bar, or maybe using martial arts to disable a mugger on the street.

Israel’s military operations are self-defense, if they actually are self-defense, in a much broader sense. They are actions aimed at preventing future attacks by a militant organization that exists as part of a larger society. No one argues that Israel doesn’t have a right to build bunkers to protect themselves from rocket attacks, or that Israel shouldn’t make use of its Iron dome or cell phone warning technologies, all of which are clear examples of self-defense.

What is under question is Israel’s right to launch military offensives against Gaza that kill and injure large numbers of civilians.

Let’s ignore the history for a bit and think more about whether Israel has a right to perform the military operations it conducts in Gaza. The claim to self-defense stems from the fact that some persons in Gaza fire rockets into Israel. To date 40 Israelis have been killed by rocket fire coming from Gaza. Is the rocket fire significant justification for the military operations Israel conducts and the civilian casualties caused by those operations?

I think some reflection on the issue makes it clear that the answer is not an obvious and unequivocal “Yes.” I am suggesting that even if we completely ignore the history of the conflict and ignore the fact that Israel is occupying gaza it is far from obvious that Israel has a right to conduct the military operations it conducts in Gaza.

Israel’s military operations in Gaza serve as self-defense in the sense that they are directed at harming a group responsible for the violence against Israel and by the harm done thereby deterring future attacks. We might say they are a pre-emptive defense against future attacks. Like they say, “The best defense is a good offense.”

The problem with this deterrence strategy is that it kills innocent persons. Just because something is a threat to you it doesn’t mean you can just kill innocent persons. I am legitimately threatened by Ebola at this point, although the threat is relatively minor. Even if it were a much larger risk it would not be morally permissible for me, assuming I had the power, to use nuclear weapons to destroy all persons in the countries currently experiencing the Ebola outbreak. You can’t just kill innocent persons when you experience some degree of threat from them or you require to kill them to protect yourself.

Given that self-defense isn’t going to work as a justification, the best justification available is going to be to try and argue that the civilian casualties in Gaza are part of a war and  in the context of war civilian casualties are just part of what happens. A common moral justification used for the civilian casualties of war is known as the doctrine of double effect. The doctrine of double affect states that there is a moral difference between foreseen but unintended consequences and intended consequences.

Applying this doctrine to the current situation we could say that the harms done to the citizens of Gaza are foreseen but unintended consequences of the war. The doctrine of double effect is not without its detractors and skeptics amongst the philosophical community but for the sake of argument let’s assume this is a legitimate philosophical distinction. So assuming it is true, can Israel use the argument that the civilian casualties are unintended consequences in the war against a terrorist organization.

The doctrine of double effect can only be invoked to justify morally good endeavors. Say removing a really terrible dictator from power. America’s actions in Europe to stop Hitler would be an example of this type of war.

Which brings us to the question of what exactly is the purpose of the Israel actions? What is the justification for its war? Now here is where we end up having to discuss the history of the situation. Israel’s military actions are necessitated due to expansion of its territory into areas previously help by the Palestinians, which is unjust. You cannot use the doctrine of double of effect to justify actions that are themselves unjust.

A parent could invoke the doctrine of double effect when punishing their child after he or she misbehaves with the justification being that the punishment is for the child’s benefit. The parent cannot however justify punishing the child when goal is not to benefit the child.

So, Israel’s action are not direct self-defense or as the justifiable and foreseen but unintended  consequences of a just war.

In an Orwellian twist if there is any action that could be justified as self-defense it is the Palestinian’s use of rockets against Israel. The Palestinians are the ones whose land has been occupied and whose basic civil rights have been violated. When you violate anther person’s rights you lose your right to not have violence used against you. And if either party could use the claim that civilian casualties are merely foreseen but not intended it is the Palestinians because they are the ones fighting a just war, a war against unjust oppression.

It is not Israel’s right to self-defense that anyone ought to be questioning, but rather what that right grants them moral privilege to do. And upon closer examination it becomes clear that military offensives against Gaza are immoral and do not constitute legitimate self-defense.

It is not surprising of course that Obama and Clinton would agree that Israel has a right to “defend itself” because if they questioned Israel’s use of violence they would be forced to question our own use of violence around the world in our global war against “terror.”



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