Alumnae Message
30 July
2014

Reflections from the West Bank on the Violence in Gaza and Israel: On the Empty Appeal to the right of Self Defense

Peter J. Miano

I arrived home late last night after a wonderful and heart wrenching visit to Israel and Palestine. Wonderful, because every visit to the Holy Lands of Israel and Palestine includes great joys of reunions with old friends, endless historical fascination and boundless fun. Heart wrenching, because our visit coincided with a severe spike in violence in Gaza. This time, I was blessed to have my two kids with me. Sam and Kate (20 & 17), never miss a chance to visit Israel and Palestine, but they had not ever visited under such circumstances.

We arrived in Palestine on Monday, 21 July, and immediately, I felt that something was wrong. It is not only that we arrived during the early stages of Israel's ground offensive in Gaza. The violence there in all its forms is wrong, whether it is perpetrated by Israel or the Palestinians. Media coverage insures saturation with shocking images and commentary. But most odd was the fact that contrary to what the media had conditioned us in advance to expect, we could detect almost no sign that anything was amiss anywhere we traveled. Outside of Gaza, where a captive, unarmed population is unable to escape a massive assault that has claimed over 1,250 lives so far, and except for a very few locations in Israel near Gaza, there is not the slightest hint on the ground that anything is amiss. Israeli beaches are still crowded. No one is canceling their travel plans. Israelis go to work, go to summer camps and go on vacation. Cafes in West Jerusalem are packed. Ben Yehuda Street and the mall in Jerusalem are bustling with shoppers. Israelis have adjusted to this spike in violence. Part of this is the effectiveness of Israel's "Iron Dome" missile defense system. Another part is that Israel's vulnerability is grossly exaggerated. Such exaggeration serves to support the canard, repeated at the highest levels of the U.S. government and elsewhere, that Israel has the right to defend itself.

Of all the banal bromides used to rationalize violence, where ever it occurs, none is more vapid than the appeal to self defense. It is not that this appeal is wrong. On the contrary, the right to self defense is one of the most universally recognized moral principles. That is why it is invoked so frequently in every conflict. The appeal to self defense takes no skill whatsoever and it certainly applies to Israel. The problem with the appeal to self defense is that anyone can claim it. Both sides of any conflict can claim the right to self defense and because both sides usually do, it is a formula for violence, giving moral dignity to any action committed under its guise. In the current conflict, Israel's appeal to the right to self defense is legitimate. The problem is that the Palestinians, even Hamas, can also claim that same right. Does the Palestinian population have no right to defend itself against military occupation?

When parties to a conflict invoke the right to self defense, they are able to see themselves as justified in committing the most heinous atrocities. It is a slippery slope, descending all too easily from the legitimate right to self defense to actions of unrestrained aggression. Today in Israel and Palestine, the appeal to self defense guarantees perpetuation of conflict.

As we traveled Israel and the West Bank, we experienced no heightened tension. All the checkpoints we passed through were remarkably casual. No one so much as asked to see an id as we traveled with no restrictions from the West Bank to Israel and back with no inhibition. We had dinner with an Israeli family from a settlement in the West Bank and they reported how little they had been effected by the conflict. This is a view that we heard from many Israelis.

Something is wrong either with the media picture presented to us or with our understanding of the way in which violence is perpetrated by one people against another or both. There is an insidious insanity resident in this episode of violence that evades any compassionate comprehension and can only be described as demonic. Today, Evil reigns not only in Gaza, but in the capitols of nations whose leaders somehow rationalize their complicity in the violence, evade moral responsibility and camouflage their evasions and rationalizations in diplomatic niceties and simplistic appeals to self defense.

In Gaza, on the other hand, concentrated, unrestrained violence rains down on the captive population who are targeted even as they attempt to flee. Where else in the world do we see the spectacle of a captive population unable to flee the crossfire of demonic violence? Meanwhile, world leaders, most pathetically President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, feign concern. They repeat the empty mantra that Israel has the right to defend itself, while supplying Israel with all the diplomatic cover it needs to continue "mowing the lawn." Yes, in Israel, the operation in Gaza is known as "mowing the lawn," as if over 1,250 lost lives amount to a routine, cosmetic procedure that will be repeated whenever it is necessary.

By all accounts 75% of the victims in Gaza are non combatants and 20% are children. Against whom is Israel defending itself? Children and civilians who themselves never even lifted a finger against Israel? When Palestinians launch rockets from Gaza, against whom are they retaliating? Those who perpetrate violence against them or innocent people who just want to get on with their lives?

The simplistic appeal to self defense in the current conflict is an obscenity against morality and an affront to intelligent discourse. It is precisely the sort of fevered logic that results in irredeemable suffering, because anyone can appeal to self defense to justify their own violence against others. It is the sort of twisted rationale that guarantees the perpetuation of the cycle of senseless violence. Yet this is the best we get from the American president.

All the while, even though it is the topic of discussion everywhere, the violence in Gaza hardly disturbs the flow of cappuccinos on Ben Yehuda Street.

 

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The problem with the appeal to self defense is that anyone can claim it. Both sides of any conflict can claim the right to self defense and because both sides usually do, it is a formula for violence, giving moral dignity to any action committed under its guise.