The right to self-defense

Joshua Zenilman | Class of 2013

In the first presidential debate, President Barack Obama described the mission of government: “The first role of the federal government is to keep the American people safe. That’s its most basic function.” Applying this logic to a situation where civilians of a democratic state are victims of repeated attacks by a terrorist organization, it is not just the right of the government to respond but its obligation. So when Israel performs its primary governmental duty to protect its citizens from Hamas terror, all while minimizing civilian casualties, its actions are both necessary and justified. The only precondition for retaliating against the terrorists is to adhere to a principal of proportionality or that any resulting civilian damage be proportional to the military objectives. Israel’s historical record of proportionality is exemplary, especially when considering that the Hamas government exploits its constituents as human shields for the sole purpose of limiting potential Israeli responses.

The Israeli government unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005, leaving behind an established agricultural network and hope for democracy, peace and prosperity. That dream was never realized as Hamas gained government control and forced out the remaining Fatah opposition. Instead of exploring avenues toward possible statehood and economic prosperity, it destroyed the previous infrastructure and focused its resources on launching rockets at innocent Israelis. Israel’s right to respond and combat these terrorist acts against its people is justified under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs.” Israel’s right of self-defense is guaranteed, restricted only by proportionality.

Unfortunately, proportionality and preventative measures still ultimately result in civilian casualties. All innocent bystanders’ deaths are tragedies that need to be minimized. Regrettably, Hamas doesn’t share this basic moral view. To it, the innocent residents of Gaza represent a public relations opportunity, and these civilians become human shields. This terrorist tactic that disregards human life is cowardly and despicable. Hamas’ weapons and missile launching sites can be found in schools, mosques and civilian homes. Hamas’ wartime leadership room in 2008 was in the basement of a hospital. This doesn’t happen by chance; it is a cold, calculated policy, evidenced by the words of Gaza’s interior minister, Fathi Hamad, who is a member of Hamas: “Death has become an industry…This is why they have formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly…We desire death like [Zionists] desire life.”

The use of human shields is a violation of international law. Because Gaza’s government won’t protect its own, Israel takes it upon itself to do so. The Israeli government warns of planned targeted airstrikes by dropping leaflets, making radio announcements, sending mass text messages and placing telephone calls. If the standard of proportionality is not met, planned strikes are called off. The result of such cautiousness is inspiring on a humanitarian level. To avoid civilian mortality, Israeli soldiers subject themselves to additional risks during combat. In applying this basic moral code, the Israeli Defense Force cedes a tactical military advantage to the terrorists.

To illustrate Israeli efficiency, take the recent Israeli airstrike that killed Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing and the man responsible for both missile attacks into Israel and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. The precision airstrike targeted only Jabari and his assistant—killing only Jabari and his assistant. Unlike Israel, Hamas has exhibited a blatant disregard for innocent human life by sending more than 12,000 rockets into residential areas of Israel. Israel seeks to minimize civilian casualties while Hamas’ sole purpose is to maximize the death of the innocent on both sides of the conflict.

Should Hamas stop bombing civilians, Israel would not have to defend itself. Should Hamas not use humans to shield its terrorist activities, fewer Palestinian civilians would perish from Israel’s targeted responses. Any loss of innocent human life regardless of age, sex, ethnicity or race is the greatest tragedy known to mankind, and by committing the double war crime of targeting civilians and using human shields, Hamas bears responsibility for the bloodshed.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.