The Palestinian Right to Self-Defense

A few weeks ago I was moved to compare the Palestinians in Gaza to the suffering Christ.  I was roundly chastised by Catholics for naively defending the Palestinians, but my intention was not to join the common chorus equating Hamas and Israeli violence.  I believe that the Palestinians have the right to protect themselves from unjust aggression while the Israelis have no right to compound their past and current crimes with further attacks.  I base my case on common moral teaching regarding self-defense against unjust attack.

Before getting into details, I want to make it perfectly clear that Hamas fires rockets which it knows will harm innocent civilians, including children, who bear no responsibility for Israeli aggression.  However, I don’t wish to use this fact to pretend that the two sides are equally guilty of war crimes.

The Catholic Catechism points the way, "Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility." – Catechism 2265. 

The Palestinians in the occupied territories are subject to the supreme authority of Israel, a state equivalent to slavery.  They have no right to vote in Israeli elections, so they have no political avenue to affect the policies that control their lives.  Those who care enough to read about the daily life of Palestinians know about the women who die in childbirth at the checkpoints, the destruction of Palestinian olive groves, and the theft of water supplies, all sanctioned by the Israeli government without the possibility of Palestinian redress.  The Israeli government has absolute power over a people that has no say whatever in how they are treated.

The Israelis could have given the Palestinian people their own land in 1948, as most of the world urged them to do.  In that case, had the Palestinian nation attacked them, they would have had the right to retaliate in self-defense.  But that isn’t what happened.  Instead, the Israelis decided to take the land on which Palestinians were living through a settlement policy that resembles nothing so much as the "settlement policy" used by the Americans regarding the Indian territories.  This amounts to raising a series of legal smokescreens to hide the actual policy which is to take all the native land and reduce the original inhabitants to cheap labor for Israeli-owned industries, then simply murder or exile the rest.  This policy can be easily traced in public statements by Israeli leaders from Moshe Dayan to the present, but we choose to blind ourselves to the obvious, which is particularly ironic considering the searing self-knowledge we have had to accept regarding our treatment of the American natives.

Given the growing settler movement which openly and blatantly disregards even of Israeli law to seize Palestinian land without compensation, the unstoppable strength of the Israeli right, the military protection and encouragement of outrages against Palestinians by settlers, including murder, what is the Palestinian to reasonably conclude?  The only rational conclusion is that they are faced with a mortal threat not simply to their existence as a people, but to their own lives and those of their families.  They have watched their land stolen outright, their orchards ruined, their wives and children murdered decade after decade by fanatics protected by the Israeli military, so what else can they believe?

They must conclude that Israel is an unjust aggressor who means to destroy them, whether quickly with F-16s or slowly through food and medicine blockades.  Therefore by any reasonable moral standard they have the right to self-defense.  Israel as the unjust aggressor does not share this right.  Israel’s only moral option in this situation is to cease its unjust attacks on those whose rights they have violated.  Until it does, it does not have the right to harm a hair on a Palestinian head, whether or not that Palestinian is firing rockets.  There is no moral equivalence.

Their situation is well-characterized by Michael Neumann in his recent article "Hamas and Gaza": "But suppose a bunch of thugs install themselves, with their families, all around your farm. They have taken most of your land and resources; they’re out for more. If this keeps up, you will starve, perhaps die. They are armed to the teeth and abundantly willing to use those arms. The only way you can defend yourself is to make them pay as heavy a price as possible for their siege and their constant encroachment on your living space. You’re critically low on food and medical supplies, and the thugs cut off those supplies whenever they please. What’s more, the only weapons available to you are indiscriminate, and will harm their families as well as the thugs themselves. You can use those weapons, even knowing they will kill innocents. You don’t have to let the thugs destroy you, thereby sacrificing your innocents (including yourself) to spare theirs. Since innocents are under mortal threat in either case, you needn’t prefer the attackers’ to your own."  "Hamas and Gaza", Jan. 13, 2009.

Precisely the language of the Catechism: "Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow." Catechism 2264.

Just as Jesus was dehumanized by the Roman authorities in Palestine, so today no one in power dares give the Palestinian a human face by attempting to see the situation from their viewpoint.  They have no power, therefore their viewpoint and their humanity are worthless.  This is the necessary conclusion if we deny them the right to defend themselves.  As a Christian, I can’t advise Palestinians to lay down their arms and submit to their own annihilation.


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