Pillar of Defense and the Two-State Solution: Why the Offensive was Legitimate and Proportionate

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A month ago, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) launched Operation ʿAmúd ʿAnán, (anglicised as Operation Pillar of Defense), which aimed to disrupt both the organisational and offensive capacity of Hamas, the Islamist movement which governs the Gaza Strip. Lasting seven days, from the 14th to the 21st of November, the operation attracted widespread criticism, especially at a University level. On our own campus, solidarity protests were organised in support of Palestine, and a debate held on the issue by the University Debating Society, which was disrupted when one of the speakers was called an “absolute disgrace” and a “Zionist scumbag”.[1] [2] This narrative, which paints Israel always as an ‘evil empire’ and the Palestinians always as innocent, is problematic at best. Specifically, such a narrative strengthens Hamas, and makes the elusive two-state solution even harder to reach.

First, and importantly, I am in no way suggesting that Israel have never done wrong. Specifically, the recent expansion of settlements within the West Bank is utterly unjustifiable, and I welcome the summoning of the Israeli Ambassador to explain his government’s actions. [3] This expansion of settlements, specifically as retaliation to the recent Palestinian bid for upgraded UN status, also acts to move peace further out of reach, and I am happy to condemn this. Further, the use of white phosphorus within during Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) caused unnecessary civilian casualties and deaths, and may well constitute a war crime. [4]

But let us return to the recent operation. Since Cast Lead, the IDF has implemented new guidelines on the use of white phosphorous munitions, and there are no reports of unjustifiable use of these munitions within the most recent conflict.[5] At least then, Israel appears to no longer be acting disproportionately to the point of committing war crimes. We can however go further than this. The actions of the IDF within the current conflict paint a picture of an organisation endeavouring to avoid civilian casualties wherever possible, even if only out of selfish PR concerns. In addition to text messages and leaflet drops telling civilians there will be strikes in their area, the IDF have been seen to abort strikes when civilians are seen to be approaching the target area. Video footage of these aborted strikes is accessible on YouTube.[6]

Unlike written media which can easily be dismissed as biased, video footage such as this is far more difficult to successfully doctor. If we look again at the assassination of Ahmed Jabari which began the conflict, again the IDF have provided footage of the incident.[7] Within the video, we see a surgical strike of one vehicle, which causes very little collateral damage. The IDF clearly did not enter this conflict to mindlessly slaughter the Palestinian civilian population.

So, why do we have so many civilian deaths (approximately 100 according to the UN)? First, it is important to note that, in a conflict where over 1,500 strikes were launched on targets within Gaza, 160 total casualties is a staggeringly small number, especially within one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Much of the blame for these casualties must also lie with Hamas themselves. This is an organisation with a record of placing military and rocket launching sites within spitting distance of local schools, and placing high-ranking military commanders in houses filled with women and children. Whilst it is obviously distressing that any civilians died at all, and whilst I would prefer a world in which they did not, that isn’t the world in which we live. The rules on proportionality in war do not prohibit civilian casualties. Indeed, as Luis Moreno-Ocampo explains:

Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur.” [8]

In attacking rocket sites (often those which were actively engaged in launching rockets against Israel), the IDF were clearly pursuing a legitimate military objective. It is also clear that the IDF endeavoured, insofar as it was possible, to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, and within that, distinguished between civilian and military targets. Mistakes happen in war, and I cannot possibly claim that Israel have never killed civilians, but it is far from the wholesale slaughter of an innocent population that activists would have you believe. The strike was therefore likely proportionate.

Let us move to legitimacy. As one of the prime functions of the state is to protect its population, it is legitimate for any state to act in defence of their citizens. In a situation where rockets fly over the border every day, aimed at civilian populations within southern Israel, the IDF have a duty to take action to prevent these attacks. Further, those who focus on casualty figures are misguided. It is true that few Israelis have died, and that few rockets hit their target. But this is a matter of luck and poor design rather than intent. Hamas are clearly committed to a policy of harming Israeli civilians, and were they to possess more accurate missiles, far greater numbers of Israelis would die.

This is especially concerning given the recent acquisition of Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 missiles provided by Iran through Khartoum. [9] This also explains the Israeli blockade on Gaza. In a situation where the Hamas #2 refuses to stop importing weapons, there is little other Israel can do. [10] Even then, Israel has continually relaxed this blockade, and since June 2010, has allowed practically all non-military and non-dual use items into Gaza. Again then, we see a story of co-operation by Israel, and rejection of that co-operation by Hamas, a reversal of the usual narrative.

Second, and finally then, the two-state solution. It is clear that, if we are ever to get a workable two state solution to this problem, Hamas need to go. An agreement to live side by side in peace can never work with them in the picture, committed as they are to the destruction of the Israeli state. On the other side, the radical right wing components of the Knesset will never be willing to negotiate with those they see as terrorists, and instead counter with equally unhelpful rhetoric about the destruction of Palestine. Co-operative efforts are more likely to succeed under Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and it is in this context I welcome the recent upgrade of Palestinian status at the UN. If Hamas are to lose power and influence, they cannot be seen to be gaining concessions through violence. Palestinians are not stupid. When, at the end of this conflict, they see that the actions of Hamas have brought nothing but death and retaliation, and the actions of Abbas and Fatah have brought them a step closer to statehood, the ICC, the ICJ and everything else they desire, the choice is clear. In this case, those who truly want a lasting peace should support the war, and devote political capital instead to supporting Abbas.

Article by Ben Douglass

Further Reading:

[1] Forge Press, Gaza solidarity protest in city centre, Accessible at: [http://forgetoday.com/news/gaza-solidarity-protest-in-city-centre/]

 [2] Forge Press, Uni debate heckled by Pro-Palestine activists,Accessible at: [http://forgetoday.com/news/uni-debate-heckled-by-pro-palestine-activists/]

[3] The Telegraph, Britain summons Israeli Ambassador in protest over settlements, Accessible at: [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/9718227/Britain-summons-Israeli-ambassador-in-protest-over-settlements.html]

[4] Human Rights Watch, Israel: White Phosphorous use evidence of War Crimes, Accessible at: [http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/03/25/israel-white-phosphorus-use-evidence-war-crimes]

[5] BBC News, Israel to restrict white phosphorous use in future wars, Accessible at: [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-10711086]

[6] Algemeiner, Israeli Air Force Delays Striking Terror Target to Protect Civilians, Accessible at: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtGjRVxa55w&feature=player_embedded] and Algemeiner, IAF Halts Mission to Save Civilians in Operation “Pillar of Defense”, Accessible at: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHvKB0fUSaU&feature=player_embedded]

[7] Israel Defence Forces, IDF Pinpoint Strike on Ahmed Jabari, Head of Hamas Military Wing, Accessible at: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6U2ZQ0EhN4]

[8] Luis Moreno-Ocampo, OTP letter to senders in Iraq¸ Accessible at: [http://www2.icc-cpi.int/NR/rdonlyres/F596D08D-D810-43A2-99BB-B899B9C5BCD2/277422/OTP_letter_to_senders_re_Iraq_9_February_2006.pdf] Page 5.

[9] The Guardian, Fajr-5 missile gives Palestinians rare if short-lived advantage, Accessible at: [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/16/fajr5-missile-gaza-israel-iran]

[10] Politico, Hamas No. 2 rejects Gaza arms halt, Accessible at: [http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/84187.html?hp=l8]
  • Sam Rae

    You gloss over and forgive the Israeli government and military a lot of things, but forgive Palestine and the Gazan citizens living under occupation nothing?

    “This narrative, which paints Israel always as an ‘evil empire’ and the Palestinians always as innocent, is problematic at best. Specifically, such a narrative strengthens Hamas, and makes the elusive two-state solution even harder to reach.”

    Well, yes. But articles like this, where you justify the Israeli response to the Palestinian response to the Israeli response yada yada yada removed from the contexts of both history and ongoing injustices do nothing but strengthen Israel and implicitly justify further atrocities. You invite the Israeli ambassador to /explain himself/ over expansion of settlements and white phosphorous – and then invite Hamas to disarm or /die/? Both are in the wrong obviously, fair enough, but does this not seem unbalanced to you?

    Attitudes like the one in this article, too keen to achieve an artificial peace via caving in to the demands of one side, make a two-state solution as equally difficult as the narrative your article criticises does. The state of Israel’s ideology frames the terms of the debate here, and as such any forward movement must originate in a thorough deconstruction of /both/ that ideology and the counter-ideologies that resist it – to do otherwise is to strengthen both, and prolong the suffering of innocents on both sides

  • James

    A very well written and balanced article about the Israel/Palestine question, well researched and informative.