The U.S. political class and those of the EU and the new "hope" and "change" leader of the United States, Barack Obama, justify Israel’s attack on Gaza as based on its "right of self-defense." There is, of course, the question of whether it is acceptable to defend yourself by a massive attack on a civilian population when this is not the only route to self defense—the Israelis could withdraw from an illegal occupation, they could stop starving the Gaza population, and they could abide by negotiated ceasefires (in this case, effectively and almost surely deliberately ended by their November 6 killing of six Gaza Palestinians). There is also the problem that the Israeli action violated the UN Charter. Article 51, the self-defense exception, requires immediate notification of the Security Council and, after any immediate attack is contained, giving over remedial action to the Security Council. There is also the problem that this "self-defense" operation was planned six months in advance and is widely believed in Israel to be linked to Israeli politics, with the two ruling parties seeking an improved standing—which they achieved—by military action.
Gaza after Israel’s Dec08-Jan09 attacks
A final problem is that the Israeli attack on Gaza involved major war crimes—in the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian facilities, weaponry employed, and refusal to permit medical aid and supplies to the victims (see the detailed "War on the Wounded: Human rights violations perpetrated against Palestinian medical personnel in the Gaza Strip," Palestine Centre for Human Rights, January 13). Not often discussed, also, is the extremely cowardly nature of the "war," not between two contending and competitive armed forces and not even between a David and Goliath, but between a well-armed Goliath and a small child David—the Goliath using advanced planes and explosives on a community without an air force or anti-aircraft defenses. The "war" was triply dishonorable: rooted partly in politics, cowardly, and criminal.
It is always interesting to see how the United States, Israel, and their allies and apologists regularly deny the Palestinians any right of self-defense, and always stop short at the point where Israelis are kidnapped or attacked in their "analyses" of causality. The previous day the Israelis might have kidnapped Palestinians or bombed Gaza or the West Bank, and the Israelis may have been dispossessing Palestinians by force in an illegal occupation for years, but these are never allowed as causes. As David Bromwich says, "We are offered an analogy: what would Americans do if rockets were fired from Canada or Cuba? The question has been repeated with docility by congressional leaders of both parties; but the rockets are assumed to come suddenly without cause. The choking of the Gaza Strip by land, sea, and air, the rejection by the US of the Palestinian Unity Government, the coup launched by Fatah and bankrolled by the US, which ended in the seizure of power by Hamas—all of this happened before the rockets fell from the sky. It is as if it belonged to a pre-historic time."
As a classic illustration of this "cut-it-short" method of apologetics for anything Israel does, Paul Berman, in discussing the problem of "terrorism" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his Terror and Liberalism, begins with "suicide bombers," who first came on the scene in 1993, after the end of the first intifada and after decades and thousands of home demolitions (of Palestinians only) and large-scale dispossessions. Nothing before is admitted as either terror or an explanation of the origin of suicide bombers. Admittedly Berman is crude, but this is standard practice.
So is simply lying about what drives your policy. Israel is a formidable military power backed by the greatest military power, and its kill ratio vis-à-vis the Palestinians has long been high—over 25 to 1 before the second intifada, falling to perhaps 3 or 4 to 1 in the second intifada, and rising to 100 to 1 in the recent "self-defense" attack on Gaza. The Israeli leadership has never been willing to make a peace settlement with the Palestinians because that would require agreeing to a Palestinian border when the Israeli objective has always been to keep dispossessing and seizing land, easier done under an occupation than after a negotiated settlement. In short, their "self-defense" is a sick joke. The Israelis attack continuously in both military and other modes. As former Knesset member Shulamit Aloni said recently, "People who are incarcerated in a detention camp have the right to respond." The only ones who need self-defense (and external help in "right to protect") are the Palestinians, but power and the Kafkaesque world we live in make them the aggressors, while the 100 to 1 killers are just "defending" themselves.
This argument was also used in advance of the Iraq invasion-occupation of 2003-2009. The Bush gang actually claimed that a crushed and disarmed Iraq posed a security threat to the United States, with Rice and Bush speaking of a possible mushroom cloud over New York that these war propagandists claimed to fear. (The New York Times has never quoted Rice’s statement made on July 29, 2001, just a short time before the "big threat" party line was firmed up, that: "We are able to keep his arms from him [Saddam Hussein]. His military forces have not been rebuilt.") We should also recall that Reagan could even pose the threat of a Sandinista march into Texas without eliciting loud laughter. And Guatemala in 1954 was an arm of Soviet aggression, in the NSC view ("increasingly an instrument of Soviet aggression in this hemisphere"). So "self-defense" is infinitely extensible, if you have a well-working propaganda system, as we do, and a cowardly and subservient EU and UN. The political class and pundits can apply "self-defense" to Israel in Gaza as well as Nicaragua and Guatemala in earlier years and Iraq (and Afghanistan) more recently. This is sick, but useful to aggressor states.
The aggressor and terrorist states naturally have the right to unlimited armaments, whereas their victims have no right to arms at all. In 1954 there was a big uproar in the United States on hearing that a shipload of small arms was on its way from a Soviet bloc state to Guatemala, the latter virtually disarmed as a result of a U.S.-organized arms boycott and about to be invaded from Nicaragua by a U.S.-organized mercenary army. But with no right of self-defense, as the U.S. had declared it a menace, Guatemala’s arms purchase was condemned as a national security threat to the pitiful giant north of Central America (the small countries in Guatemala’s vicinity were not frightened, except at U.S. hysteria and bullying).
Similarly, Hamas is not permitted to arm, given its retail terrorism and threat to Israeli wholesale terrorism and Israel’s right to dispossess, recognized by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and all the "enlightened states." Thus any more or less durable ceasefire in Gaza will be conditioned on effective controls over the "tunnels" and other routes through which Hamas might be able to arm and defend itself and its civilian population—inherently illicit as this group and its civilians have no right of self-defense.
Jan. 10 Boston protest—photo by Ellen Shub
The Palestinians also have no right to democratic representation in any future negotiations. If they vote for Hamas in a democratic election, as they did in January 2006, this is not acceptable to Israel, the United States, and the EU, who supported Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas. This support rested on the fact that Abbas posed no challenge to Israel’s dispossession policies, which led to his rejection by the Palestinian people. There followed the intense demonization of Hamas, collective punishment of Gaza civilians for their irresponsible choice, and ultimately the Israeli devastation and slaughter in Gaza. The West gave active support to the slaughter and, while top UN officer Ki-Moon called for allowing Gaza Palestinians access to humanitarian goods, he also demanded that Palestinians meet the "challenge of reconciliation" and "work to achieve a unified government under the leadership of President Abbas within the framework of the legitimate Palestinian authority." Here is the UN-head, following the U.S.-Israel party line in declaring the Hamas electoral victory unacceptable and insisting on the now even more thoroughly discredited Israeli-puppet Abbas as the man required to lead a united Palestine. A Palestine united under Abbas will not be armed and a threat to Israel or the United States, it will only threaten Palestinians.
On the other side, given the constant dire "security" threats they face from Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Grenada, Iraq, Iran, and Hamas, etc., the United States and Israel not only have the right to build, receive, sell, and use arms without limit. They can also use illegal and illicit arms and test them out on their targets without penalty. The United States and Israel both have nuclear arms. The former is in violation of its NPT commitment to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons; Israel has acquired them outside the NPT regulatory system. Both have used cluster bombs, napalm, phosphorus bombs, and depleted uranium lavishly in their recent wars. Palestinian doctors report wounds that are inexplicably severe and suggest new types of anti-civilian weaponry being tested in Gaza.
In one description: "Medics working in the Gaza Strip have condemned Israel’s use of suspected ‘new weapons’ that inflict horrific injuries they say most surgeons will not have seen before. Dr. Jan Brommundt, a German doctor working for Medecins du Monde in the south Gazan city of Khan Younis, described the injuries he had seen as ‘absolutely gruesome.’ Speaking to Al Jazeera, Brommundt said surgeons reported many cases where casualties had lost both legs rather than one, prompting suspicions that the Israelis were using some form of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME). When detonated, a DIME device expels a blade of charged tungsten dust that burns and destroys everything within a four metre radius. Brommundt also described widespread but previously unseen abdominal injuries that appear minor at first but degenerate within hours causing multi-organ failure" ("Outcry over weapons used in Gaza," Al-Jazeera.net, January 19, 2009; Erin Cunningham, "Mideast: Alarm Spreads Over Use of New Lethal Weapons," IPS News, January 22).
The Israelis have admitted using white phosphorus bombs in Gaza, which are in violation of international law when used against civilians and in areas where their impact on civilians will be inevitable and severe (as in Gaza). The UN has charged that Israel used such bombs against a school flooded with refugees and a UN compound. Even Mark Garlasco (a former Pentagon target selector) of Human Rights Watch claims that Israel is using this weapon in violation of international law.
Depleted uranium use is also a form of nuclear warfare, with severe long-term effects on target populations and on military personnel as well. The mainstream media rarely mention the now regular use of this murderous and illegal weaponry, or the meaning and significance of the U.S. and Israeli refusal to support international treaties on land mines or cluster bombs.
One can easily understand why the Israelis have barred journalists and human rights officials and workers from Gaza and why the United States has steadily increased its controls over the media in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. But it is sad to see the extent to which the media accommodate to these limits and in effect serve illegal and sometimes genocidal processes.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, media analyst, and professor emeritus of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.