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What about the Palestinian right to self-defence?

Israel’s ‘right to self defence’ has been supported, recognised and repeated ad nauseam over the last few weeks. The incessant invoking of this ‘right’ is important for two reasons: one, because of how little thought normally goes into what it actually permits and prohibits; and two because of the notable absence of any backing of a Palestinian right to self defence.

At the very least, given the surface commitment to even-handedness by the likes of the Quartet, surely ‘both sides’ should have their right to self defence affirmed?

But of course, to suggest that the Palestinians have a right to self defence is problematic, because it threatens to show up the approach of the international community to Palestine/Israel for what it is: a duplicitous farce.

Since Israel called a temporary halt to its large scale attacks on the Gaza Strip, and Hamas opted for an uneasy truce, two issues have dominated the international community’s energies: reconstruction aid for Gaza and preventing arms smuggling by Palestinians inside the Strip. For the Israelis, meanwhile, the continued detention of the soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas is sufficient for a punitive blockade of the Gaza Strip to continue.

It is not hard to spot the hypocrisy and inconsistency in Western nations rushing to condemn and help prevent Palestinian arms smuggling, while simultaneously helping to arm and supply Israel’s state-of-the-art military. But the emphasis on arms smuggling actually points to a far bigger hypocrisy: the total denial of the Palestinian right to self defence.

That Palestinians are forbidden to defend themselves is obvious when one takes a look at Israel’s priorities (then faithfully repeated by the likes of the Quartet). For the Palestinians to hold prisoner a single Israeli soldier from an army that blockades and attacks the Gaza Strip is an outrage; but daily Israeli arrest raids are not even news, never mind the 11,000 Palestinian in Israeli jails.

Palestinian violent resistance is still ‘terrorism’ when directed against an occupying army that protects a network of colonial settlements. But it is important to remember that even when Palestinians launch attacks on Israeli civilians, this practice is not condemned as ‘disproportionate’ self defence – as when Israel hits Palestinian civilians – but as unjustifiable terror divorced from the ongoing Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Palestinian violence then, is always terrorism. Additionally, it is often framed as irrational, rooted in cultural-religious factors, or even practiced simply for its own sake. Israeli violence is retaliatory, defensive, while Israeli military operations are subjected to in-depth analysis about the aims and tactics. Criticism of Israeli violence, when it does emerge, is focused on the question of ‘proportionality’ or whether or not the operation is strategically wise (not whether it is legal or moral).

It could be claimed that part of this imbalance is a result of the privileging of state violence over and above that of non-state actors: but that has not been the case in other situations around the world. Peter Beamount pointed out how “it has been seen as unremarkable to support the rights of groups to turn to violence in order to pursue ambitions of statehood, seceding from regimes that they complain suppress both their human rights and desire for self-determination”, citing Kosovo and Darfur.

Not, however, in the case of the Palestinians. The equation that dominates the approach of the international community to Palestine/Israel is ensuring Israel’s ’security concerns’ while easing Palestinian frustration at the ‘restrictions’ of occupation. But what if the Palestinians’ ’security concerns’ were afforded at least equal significance? What if the Palestinians were assumed to have an untouchable ‘right to self defence’?

If the Palestinians could defend themselves, who could question the legitimacy of attacks on an occupying army that since 1967 has enforced a cruel colonial regime in the Occupied Territories? Or who could question the legitimacy of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip striking back at those who enforce the siege? After all, it was the Israeli Foreign Minister at the time, Abba Eban, who said of the blockades targeting his country in 1967, that:

To blockade, after all, is to attempt strangulation — and sovereign states are entitled not to have their state strangled. The blockade is by definition an act of war, imposed and enforced through violence. Never in history have a blockade and peace existed side by side.

Sometimes, Palestinian violent resistance is bemoaned by those who wish that the Palestinians would embrace nonviolent resistance en masse. The question is asked, ‘Where is the Palestinian Gandhi/Martin Luther King?’

In fact, the Palestinians have indeed long been practitioners of civil disobedience, from the Revolt in 1936, to the First Intifada in the late 1980s, and right up to the present day. Palestinians are, in fact, proud of their tradition of nonviolent resistance.

Tellingly, Israel has responded to nonviolent resistance with dismissive repression – after all, it’s the resistance itself that’s the problem, not its violent/nonviolent nature. Israel has deported those who led nonviolence movements, besieged and assaulted entire villages to – in the words of famous ‘dove’ Yitzhak Rabin – “teach them there is a price for refusing the laws of Israel”, and met nonviolent demonstrations with lethal force.

Contrary no doubt to what some will infer, this is not an argument for Palestinian violence. Rather, it is a case for abandoning the disingenuous moralising that characterises so much of the (often liberal) hand-wringing about the ‘cycle of violence’, while embracing an approach to Palestine/Israel that gives equal weight to both Palestinian and Israeli ‘rights’ to self defence.

Given that the Palestinians are stateless, occupied and struggling to realise self-determination and equal rights, legitimising their right to self defence would turn upside down the dominant approach to the conflict in the West, and open up the possibility of Israel being confronted in the serious manner that is long overdue.

Published in Liberal Conspiracy.

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