If Israel Has the Right to Use
in Self-Defense, So Do Its Neighbours
Amad Samih Khalidi
July 18, 2006
Much has been made in recent days - at the G8 summit and elsewhere
- of Israel's right to retaliate against the capture of its soldiers,
or attacks on its troops on its own sovereign territory. Some, such
as those in the US administration, seem to believe that Israel has
an unqualified licence to hit back at its enemies no matter what
the cost. And even those willing to recognise that there may be
a problem tend to couch it in terms of Israel's "disproportionate
use of force" rather than its basic right to take military
But what is at stake here is not proportionality or the issue of
self-defence, but symmetry and equivalence. Israel is staking a
claim to the exclusive use of force as an instrument of policy and
punishment, and is seeking to deny any opposing state or non-state
actor a similar right. It is also largely succeeding in portraying
its own "right to self-defence" as beyond question, while
denying anyone else the same. And the international community is
effectively endorsing Israel's stance on both counts.
From an Arab point of view this cannot be right. There is no reason
in the world why Israel should be able to enter Arab sovereign soil
to occupy, destroy, kidnap and eliminate its perceived foes - repeatedly,
with impunity and without restraint - while the Arab side cannot
do the same. And if the Arab states are unable or unwilling to do
so then the job should fall to those who can.
It is important to bear in mind that in both the case of the Hamas
raid that led to the invasion of Gaza and the Hizbullah attack that
led to the assault on Lebanon it was Israel's regular armed forces,
not its civilians, that were targeted. It is hard to see how this
can be filed under the rubric of "terrorism", rather than
a straightforward tactical defeat for Israel's much-vaunted military
machine; one that Israel seems loth to acknowledge.
Some of this has to do with the paradox of power: the stronger
the Israeli army becomes, the more susceptible and vulnerable it
becomes to even a minor setback. The loss of even one tank, the
capture of one soldier or damage done to one warship has a negative-multiplier
effect: Israel's "deterrent" power is dented out of all
proportion to the act itself. Israel's retaliation is thus partly
a matter of restoring its deterrence, partly sheer vengeance, and
partly an attempt to compel its adversaries to do its bidding.
But there is also something else at work: Israel's fear of acknowledging
any form of equivalence between the two sides. And it is precisely
this that seems to provide the moral and psychological underpinning
for Israel's ongoing assault in both Gaza and Lebanon - the sense
that it may have met its match in audacity, tactical ingenuity and
"clean" military action from an adversary who may even
have learned a thing or two from Israel itself, and may be capable
of learning even more in the future.
There has of course been nothing "clean" about Israeli
military action throughout the many decades of conflict in Palestine
and Lebanon. Israel's wanton disregard for civilian life during
the past few days is neither new nor out of character. For those
complaining about violations of Israeli sovereignty by Hizbullah
or Hamas, it may be useful to recall the tens of thousands of Israeli
violations of Lebanese sovereignty since the late 60s, the massive
air raids of the mid-70s and early 80s, the 1978 and 1982 invasions
and occupation of the capital Beirut, the hundreds of thousands
of refugees, the 28-year-old buffer zone and proxy force set up
in southern Lebanon, the assassinations, car bombs, and massacres,
and finally the continuing violations of Lebanese soil, airspace
and territorial waters and the detention of Lebanese prisoners even
after Israel's withdrawal in 2000.
It is unnecessary here to recount the full range of Israel's violations
of Palestinian "sovereignty", not least of which is its
recent refusal to accept the sovereign electoral choice of the Palestinian
people. Israel's extraterritorial, extrajudicial execution of Palestinian
leaders and activists began in the early 70s and has not ceased
since. But for those seeking further enlightenment about Hamas's
recent action, the fact is that some 650,000 acts of imprisonment
have taken place since the occupation began in 1967, and that 9,000
Palestinians are currently in Israel's jails, including some 50
old-timers incarcerated before and despite the 1993 Oslo accords,
and many others whom Israel refuses to release on the grounds that
they have "blood on their hands", as if only one side
in this conflict was culpable, or the value of one kind of human
blood was superior to another.
If there ever was a case for establishing some form of mutually
acknowledged parity regarding the ground rules of the conflict,
Hamas and Hizbullah have a good one to make. And if there ever was
a case for demonstrating that what is good on one side of the border
should also good on the other, Hamas and Hizbullah's logic has strong
appeal to Arab and Muslim public opinion - regardless of what the
supine Arab state system may say.
Indeed as George Bush and other western leaders splutter on about
freedom, democracy, and Israel's right to defend itself, Tony Blair's
repeated claim that events in the region should not be linked to
terrible events elsewhere is looking increasingly fatuous.
The slowly expanding war in Afghanistan, the devastation of Iraq,
the death and destruction in Gaza and the bombing of Beirut are
all providing a slow but sure drip feed for those who believe that
the west is incapable of taking a balanced moral stance, and is
directly or indirectly complicit in a design meant to break Arab
and Muslim will and subjugate it to untrammelled Israeli force.
Contrary to what Blair seems to believe, the use of force is unlikely
to breed western style-liberalism and moderation. What is at issue
here is not democracy but the right to resist Israeli arrogance
and be treated on a par with it in every respect, including the
use of force. If Israel has the right to "defend itself"
then so has everyone else.
Furthermore, there is nothing in the history of the region to suggest
that Israel's destruction of mass popular movements such as Hamas
or Hizbullah (even if this were possible) would drive their successors
closer to western-style democracy, and every reason to believe the
opposite. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did away with the
PLO and produced Hizbullah instead, the incarceration and elimination
of Arafat only served to strengthen Hamas, and the wars in Afghanistan,
the Gulf and Iraq gave birth to Bin Ladenist terrorism and extended
its reach and appeal. And we should not be surprised if the summer
of 2006 produces more of the same.
However Israel's latest adventure ends, it will not produce greater
sympathy and understanding between west and east, or a downturn
in extremism. Indeed the most likely outcome is that a new wave
of virulent and possibly unconventional anti-western terrorism may
well crash against this and other shores. We will all - Israelis,
Arabs and westerners - suffer as a result.
Ahmad Khalidi is a senior associate member of St Antony's College,
Oxford, a former Palestinian negotiator and the co-author, with
Hussein Agha, of A Framework for a Palestinian National Security
Doctrine (Chatham House, 2006) email@example.com
Source: The Guardian
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