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The Palestinians’ Right to Self-Defense

I’ve been wanting to write about Israel’s 2-week long attack on Gaza for days, but couldn’t put my thoughts together in the coherent, cogent way I knew was necessary. Chris Hedges has now helped me to do it in his July 24th Truthdig article with the above title. I reproduce an edited version of it here, with some additions of my own (hope Chris doesn’t mind the collaboration). Before you start reading, know that the best way to follow these events is Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” at democracy Also check out, which, like “Democracy Now,” has a podcast, and/or any of the books by Ali Abunimah, its founder…

“If Israel insists on using the weapons of industrial warfare against a helpless civilian population,” Hedges says, “that population has an inherent right to self-defense guaranteed by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The international community will have to either act to immediately halt Israeli attacks and lift the blockade of Gaza or acknowledge the right of the Palestinians to use weapons to defend themselves.

No nation, including any in the Muslim world, appears willing to intervene to protect the Palestinians. No world body, including the United Nations, appears willing or able to pressure Israel through sanctions to conform to the norms of international law. And the longer we in the world community fail to act, the worse the spiral of violence will become.

Israel doesn’t have the right to drop 1,000-pound iron fragmentation bombs on Gaza. It doesn’t have the right to pound Gaza with heavy artillery or with shells lobbed from gunboats. It doesn’t have the right to send in tanks or to target hospitals, schools, mosques, and Gaza’s water and electrical systems. It doesn’t have the right to displace over 100,000 people from their homes,” then attack them in UN shelters where they’ve tried to find sanctuary. The attack on Gaza and Israel’s 9-year blockade of its territory, preventing free import of food, safe drinking water, medicines, and building materials, are illegal. Also illegal under international law is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the continued building of Jewish settlements there, and the construction of walls around it. West Bank Palestinians are currently being shot at with live Israeli ammunition for protesting the attack on Gaza, killing at least one person, a 17-year-old boy, and seriously wounding many others.

Hedges continues: “Violence, even when employed in self-defense, is a curse, empowering the ruthless and punishing the innocent. But when forces bent on your annihilation attack you relentlessly, and when no one comes to your aid, you must aid yourself. So, the Palestinians in Gaza smuggle in light weapons through clandestine tunnels,” and people on the street support their use, despite massive civilian casualties from Israeli retaliation – because their lives are untenable under the Israeli blockade, and because they’re trying to preserve their dignity.

“The number of dead in Gaza resulting from the Israeli assault has topped 800, about 80% of them civilians. The number of wounded Palestinians is over 5,000 and a substantial fraction of these victims are children. At what point do the numbers of dead and wounded justify self-defense? 5,000? 10,000? 20,000? At what point do Palestinians have the elemental right to protect their families and their homes?

In the case of Nicaragua v. the United States, the International Court of Justice ruled that a state must endure an armed attack before it can resort to self-defense. The definition of an armed attack, in addition to being ‘action by regular armed forces across an international border,’ includes sending or sponsoring armed bands, mercenaries or irregulars that commit acts of force against another state. The court held that any state under attack must first request outside assistance before undertaking armed self-defense. According to U.N. Charter Article 51, a state’s right to self-defense ends when the Security Council meets the terms of the article by ‘taking the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.’ The failure of the international community to respond has left the Palestinians with no choice. The United States, since Israel’s establishment in 1948, has vetoed in the U.N. Security Council more than 40 resolutions that sought to curb Israel’s lust for occupation and violence against the Palestinians. And it has ignored the few successful resolutions aimed at safeguarding Palestinian rights, such as Security Council Resolution 465, passed in 1980.

Resolution 465 stated that the ‘Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 is applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.’ The resolution went on to warn Israel that ‘all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.’

Israel, as an occupying power, is in direct violation of Article III of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. This convention lays out the minimum standards for the protection of civilians in a conflict that is not international in scope. Article 3(1) states that those who take no active role in hostilities must be treated humanely, without discrimination, regardless of racial, social, religious or economic distinctions. The article prohibits certain acts commonly carried out against noncombatants in regions of armed conflict, including murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture. It prohibits the taking of hostages as well as sentences given without adequate due process of law. Article 3(2) mandates care for the sick and wounded.

Israel has not only violated the tenets of Article III but has amply fulfilled the conditions of an aggressor state as defined by Article 51. But for Israel, as for the United States, international law holds little importance. The U.S. ignored the verdict of the international court in Nicaragua v. United States and, along with Israel, does not accept the jurisdiction of the tribunal. It doesn’t matter how many Palestinians are killed or wounded, how many Palestinian homes are demolished, how dire the poverty becomes in Gaza or the West Bank, how many years Gaza is under a blockade, or how many settlements go up on Palestinian territory. Israel, with U.S. protection, can act with impunity.” (The U.S. Senate voted unanimously a few days ago to support Israel’s attack on Gaza, an attack prompted by the formation of a unity government between Gaza’s governing entity, Hamas, and the West Bank government of Mahmoud Abbas.)

“The unanimous U.S. Senate vote in support of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the media’s slavish parroting of Israeli propaganda and the Obama administration’s mindless repetition of pro-Israeli clichés have turned us into cheerleaders for Israeli war crimes. We fund and abet these crimes with $3.1 billion a year in military aid to Israel. We are responsible for the slaughter. No one in the establishment, including our most liberal senator, Bernie Sanders, dares defy the Israel lobby. We shouldn’t wonder why the Palestinians carry out armed resistance.

The Palestinians will reject, as long as possible, any ceasefire that does not include a lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza.” (Israel has violated the conditions of all previous ceasefires.) “They know their fate rests in their own hands. The revolt in Gaza is an act of solidarity attempting to assert in the face of overwhelming odds and barbaric conditions the humanity and agency of the Palestinian people. There is little in life that Palestinians can choose, but they can choose how to die. And many Palestinians, especially young men trapped in overcrowded hovels where they have no work and little dignity, will risk immediate death to defy the slow, humiliating death of occupation.

I can’t blame them.”

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School, and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He is the author of many books, the most recent being Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.