Thursday, February 25, 2010

Richard Silverstein on the Goldstone Report

Richard Silverstein has been interviewed on the Seattle television program Moral Politics, on the Goldstone report. Richard has posted the video on his blog, and I strongly recommend it. Richard is not only wonderfully courageous in his comments on Israeli and "pro-Israel" American reactions to Goldstone, he is also highly articulate, indeed a commanding presence. For that reason, even though readers of his blog will be familiar with Richard's general position, it is well worth watching and listening to him.

I do have one small demurral--though it is more with the Goldstone report than with Richard's discussion of it, which perhaps inevitably focused on what the report said rather than what it didn't say. Probably out of an excess of political caution, the Goldstone report dealt only with Israel's methods of warfare, failing to challenge the argument--or premise--that its proclaimed cause--"self-defense"--was a just one. In my view, however understandable its probable reasoning, the report's failure to challenge that premise was its most important error.

Any discussion of Israeli policy and behavior towards the Palestinians should start from, and continually emphasize, the most important point, which often--incredibly--seems to be overlooked: for more than four decades Israel has been occupying, repressing, killing, starving, and in all other ways making Palestinian lives a misery. In those circumstances, it has no claim to be "defending itself" when it responds to desperate acts of Palestinian resistance--even those that really are "terrorist"--not by reconsidering its repression, but by intensifying it.

In western philosophy, we evaluate the morality of military attacks by first considering whether they have just cause, and it is only when they do that we then need to go on to consider whether the methods of warfare are also just. When there is no just cause, then no methods of warfare are justified, even those that scrupulously adhere to the principles of proportionality, discrimination, and noncombatant immunity. Israel, of course, violated all of those principles, but even if it hadn't its attack on Gaza would have been criminal.

If Israel ended the occupation but if Hamas or other attacks nonetheless continued, then it would have a clear right of self-defense. Until it does so, it's not just Palestinian civilians that it has no "right" to attack, it's any Palestinians.

8 comments:

Richard said...

I agree with you Jerry that the issue can be broken into 2 parts: first, is the basis of Israel's entire military and political policy toward the Palestinians sound? The answer of course is no. Hamas and other militant groups are resisting Occupation. As such, their attacks have as much legitimacy as any other guerilla group resisting invasion or Occupation by outside forces (& I include Israel pre-1948 in this category).

I think I would part ways though w. indiscriminate Qassam attacks on Israeli civilians, esp. those within the Green Line. Even as a form of resistance to the evil of the Occupation, I cannot justify this.

But in general Israel has only itself to blame for all of these attacks since it is the occupier and far more powerful than the Palestinians. As such, the violence is overwhelmingly caused by Israel.

In specific terms of the Gaza war, Israel certainly had no right to invade based even on the firing of Qassam rockets since Israel was the one which broke the ceasefire which Hamas had honored until the former bombed a border tunnel killing Hamas operatives. Once Israel broke the ceasefire, the rocket firing began. And this in turn led to the war.

I believe Israel either provoked the war through hitting the tunnel or else was looking for an opporunity to bloody Hamas' nose. It saw the rockets as that opportunity & took it.

But even if one accepts the premise that Israel needed to respond to the Qassams in some form, Operation Cast Lead was a typical & vastly out of proportion military response meant to punish all of Gaza, civilians & militants.

Jerome Slater said...

I think that the question of whether Hamas or other Palestinian attacks aimed at Israeli civilians are justified is different than whether Israel can claim it is only defending itself when it retaliates. One could certainly argue that deliberate attacks on civilians is never, ever justified--meaning morally acceptable--no matter what the circumstances. There are also counterarguments to this, though they are too complex to go into here.

Nonetheless, even accepting the premise, it doesn't follow that a military response can be justified on the grounds of self-defense, because other options would--morally speaking--have to be first considered. The first such option, as Richard points out, would have been for Israel to maintain the ceasefire and seek to negotiate with Hamas. More fundamentally, since the Israeli occupation is unjustifiable, it could "defend itself"--i.e. in all likelihood end attacks on its soil--simply by ending the occupation.

Consider this thought experiment. In 1956 the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution, a fully justifiable attempt by the Hungarian people to free themselves from Soviet occupation and tyranny. Suppose that the Hungarians, lacking any other means of responding to the Soviet invasion, had launched rockets at Russian towns, and that this precipitated an even more destructive Soviet retaliation. Would we regard this Soviet response as a legitimate act of self-defense?

Let me answer my own rhetorical question: not a chance. Rather, we would dismiss the argument as worthless, and point out that if the Soviets wanted to end the Hungarian attacks it should withdraw from Hungary.

This seems to me to be such an elementary and obvious point that it is quite astonishing that the Israeli self-defense argument is so rarely challenged. Indeed, so astonishing that it leads me to wonder whether I'm missing something here, or making a mistake of logic. If so, I would be grateful if readers could enlighten me.

Juan said...

I agree with Richard and Jerome on these matters. I would like to add the observation by Norman Finkelstein (and probably,others) that Israel was not viewed as particularly important until after the 1967 war. Then, Israel's potential strategic value as a military power in the Middle East became apparent with its lobsided victory. I suggest that the U.S. since then has essentially given Israel license in the Territories in the misguided belief that the harm thus done to Palestinian interests would be vastly outweighed by Israel's "threat value" and use as a staging base for military action against unfriendly middle eastern states (some of which contain huge oil reserves). The invasion of Iraq resulted--in part--from the coinciding of the U.S. desire to avoid a catastrophic oil embargo or price increase and the Israeli wish to end Iraqi support for Palestinian resistance to occupation. [I am waiting for Seymour Hersh (or someone like him) to expose the extent of U.S. collusion in the Palestinian oppression.]

Harlan said...

The findings of the 2004 ICJ Advisory Opinion were affirmed and endorsed by a subsequent General Assembly resolution. As a subordinate organ, the UN Fact Finding Mission was in no position to challenge the positions of the primary political and judicial UN organs. In fact, the Goldstone report incorporated, by reference, the conclusions of the Advisory Opinion in the portions pertaining to the on-going situation. The Court had already explained, in paras 138-142 of the majority opinion, that Israel cannot rely on a right of self-defense or on a state of necessity in order to preclude the wrongfulness of the regime it has imposed upon the inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Court noted that an occupying power cannot claim that the lawful inhabitants of the occupied territory constitute a "foreign" threat for the purposes of Article 51 of the UN Charter. It also explained that necessity may constitute a circumstance precluding wrongfulness under certain very limited circumstances, but Article 25 of the UN Declaration on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts bars a defense of necessity if the State has contributed to the situation of necessity.

Jerome Slater said...

An extremely helpful comment by Harlan, explaining that not just moral common sense but international law prohibits occupying powers from claiming it has a right to defend itself against acts of resistance by the peoples it occupies.

As is obvious, my knowledge of international law is quite limited, which is why I don't write about it. But I am particularly grateful for the contributions and comments by those who are knowledgable.

Alex said...

Let me get this straight: the argument that Israel was motivated by "self-defense" is invalid because the occupation continues in the West Bank, while rockets were being targeted at civilian settlements within Israel proper from Gaza, which had not been under Israeli occupation for over three years at that point?

Harlan said...

Alex when Egypt announced a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, Israel went to war within a few days. Israel has been blockading the Gaza strip for several years now.

In any event the Gaza Strip has always been the target of heavy bombardment from Israel. For example, in March of 2006 there were 49 reports of rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip. They were mostly small Qassam rockets. The BBC reported that, for the first time, a 120MM Katyusha rocket had been fired. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4855056.stm Haaretz carried a report from Amos Harel which said that the IDF had fired 5100 artillery shells into the Gaza Strip during the same period. The Israeli artillery ordinance is mostly 155MM, and the rules of engagement allow crews to fire within 100 meters of dwellings in built-up areas. Naturally there were a number of civilian casualties, mostly Palestinians.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip were designated as a single territorial unit under the terms of Oslo I, so the ICJ was actually performing a legal analysis of the status of the entire territory. For example, it determined that Israel was internationally responsible for ensuring human rights under the terms of the UN Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to describe a foreign occupation that destroyed or permanently crippled a subject population either in whole or in part. He said there was an inherent and constitutive relationship between genocide and settler-colonialism. The use of colonists by the occupying power to dispossess the indigenous inhabitants was an integral part of Lemkin's definition of the crime of genocide. By the way, Lemkin observed that the use of propaganda to rationalize the crime; appeal to popular beliefs and intolerance; sow discord (divide and rule); and to misrepresent or deceive others about what was really happening was an integral part of the process of genocide.

Grappler said...

There seems to be an assumption that the Israelis were subject to rocket attacks from Gaza in the lead up to their bombardment of that territory. This was indeed the case, but only because the Israeli government deliberately precipitated it.

In fact Hamas had declared a ceasefire that had been in place for 4 months prior to the Israeli attack killing several Hamas leaders on US presidential election day.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/05/israelandthepalestinians

I wonder why this received no attention in the US. And I wonder why it was so timed.

A few rockets were fired from Gaza during that 4 month period but they were by other groups more closely allied with PLO, over which Hamas had no control. It was generally accepted that the ceasefire was working.

Israel's part of the ceasefire deal - removal of the blockade - was never seriously implemented. It was remarkable, given the way in which Israel has kept democratically elected government of Gaza in such an impoverished state, that Hamas was so effective in maintaining the ceasefire.

As the Israeli government had intended, the Israeli attack brought to an end the ceasefire and Hamas was bound to restart the program of rocket attacks on Israel. Israel then had the excuse it needed.