Doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself?
One has the right to self-defense if one is not oneself guilty of aggression. So, for example, the Soviet Union could not invoke self-defense when its occupation troops in Afghanistan were attacked by Afghan mujahideen. Instead, it ought to have withdrawn its troops. Likewise, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal and unjust and Israel can’t claim self-defense when Palestinians struggle by legitimate means to end the occupation. The proper Israeli response to such Palestinian actions is not self-defense, but full withdrawal from the occupied territories.
The situation with Lebanon is different; whereas in Palestine, Israel was engaged in an ongoing aggression, in Lebanon the Israeli violations of Lebanese rights prior to July 12, 2006, were far less substantial, and less immediate.
But even when a country’s own prior acts aren’t contributory causes of an attack, international law places various limitations on the right of self-defense to that attack.
One limitation is that the right of self-defense is meant to give nations the right to take measures to repel an armed attack until the UN Security Council can act to stop the aggression. If an enemy’s tanks are hurtling toward your capital city, any delay in responding would mean further losses and further harm. In the case of the Hezbollah raid across the Israeli border on July 12, 2006, the act of aggression took place and was over; it was not an ongoing aggression to which any delay in responding would have meant additional harm to Israel. Once the immediate danger is over, international law requires that victims of aggression bring their cases to the Security Council for action.
Of course, the Security Council is not always able to act. But the main obstacle to Security Council action has generally been the veto wielded by Washington on behalf of Israel.
A second requirement of international law is that acts taken in self-defense must be proportionate to the offense.
But, to quote Representative Jerrold L. Nadler of New York, ‘Since when should a response to aggression and murder be proportionate?’ Or, since when does the side which starts a war get to decide how it will be fought?
Wouldn’t we consider it disproportionate if the police bombed an apartment building in an effort to catch a murderer? Or to carpet bomb the area of a city which we thought (or knew) to be harboring the person or persons responsible for a murder? The requirement of proportionality makes good moral sense even when dealing with murderers.
Consider our reaction in an international case. India has been subject to many terrorist attacks. The latest train bombings in Mumbai may well be the work of home-grown terrorists radicalized by Hindu pogroms against Muslims. But probably some of the terrorist acts — like the assault on the Indian parliament in New Dehli in December 2001 — involved a Pakistani role. Should India have launched a major military assault on the jihadi training camps in Pakistan, not to mention a broader assault throughout Pakistan, killing numerous civilians and destroying the country’s infrastructure? Anyone concerned about world peace would surely have urged India to refrain from such an action. Starting a war that would lead to massive numbers of deaths in response to a far smaller-scale provocation would clearly have been disproportionate.
Consider another example. In June 2006, the Lebanese government announced that it had broken an Israeli-run assassination team operating within Lebanon. What would our reaction have been if the Lebanese government had responded to this Israeli aggression (assuming it was convincingly proved) by initiating air and missile strikes throughout Israel, killing hundreds of civilians, wrecking the civilian infrastructure, and driving more than a quarter of the population from their homes? Surely we would consider such a response by Beirut to be wholly disproportionate, even in the face of a clear provocation.
But can any country accept having rockets raining down on its citizens?
No country should have to suffer rockets raining down on its citizens. Nor should any country have to suffer far more lethal air raids and artillery shelling on its citizens, as Lebanon is suffering today. But in any event this Israeli war was not launched to stop Hezbollah rocket fire from Lebanon. That rocket fire was a response to the massive Israeli attack on Lebanon, including its power plants, its bridges and roads, its ports, its cities and villages.
Look at the timing. Here is the complete list of Katyusha and other rockets launched from Lebanon against civilian areas of Israel between May 2000, when Israel announced its w