Palestine’s Right to Defend Itself

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

All eight members of the Kaware family were killed by Israeli forces on Wednesday when an Israeli missile struck their home in the Gaza strip, wounding 25 others in the process. Israeli officials described this as “an error” — the home was meant to be bombed without the family in it.

Recent statements from Israeli officials indicate that this is war, and that it will not end soon. Yet wars of “self-defense” against the Gaza strip to weaken Hamas — in 2008 and again in 2012 — have proven futile again and again. A quick comparison shows that Hamas has increased the range and accuracy of its missiles time and again — while attacks barely reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 2012, they have now struck as far north as Hadera, 73 miles north of Gaza. Israel has failed to reach its self-declared goal of weakening Hamas’ ability to strike within Israeli territory. Seemingly, then, the only lasting effects of air strikes are civilian casualties. As a recent Washington Post editorial argues, “The latest mini-war between Israel and the Hamas movement is as unwinnable for either side as previous rounds in 2009 and 2012.”

As usual, Washington’s response to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza has been little more than justification and support of Israel’s “right to defend itself,” as exemplified by the U.S. Administration’s stock condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks on Tuesday. What White House spokesman John Earnest failed to clarify, however, is whether Palestinians are also afforded the right to protection — and who exactly Washington is expecting to provide that protection.

If Israel has the right to defend itself by launching air strikes that have destroyed Palestinian homes and schools, then surely Palestinians have the right to protect themselves from the brutal and escalating Israeli violence, which has led to a death toll of more than 80 over the past few days alone, along with hundreds of injured civilians. Israel has long used illegal tactics of collective punishment in Gaza, effectively laying siege to an area home to 1.7 million people while periodically shelling homes and schools, to say nothing of Israeli activities in the West Bank.

The violent beating of Tariq Abukhdair, a U.S. citizen from Florida and a minor, by Israeli soldiers in uniform demonstrates that Washington cannot even protect its own citizens from IDF brutality, let alone the besieged Palestinians in Gaza. When this war ends, Israelis will return to their normal lives, yet Palestinians will go continue to face the brutality of occupation, the mounting terrorism of Israeli settlers, and the daily humiliation of roadblocks. Gazans will continue to live in the world’s largest open-air prison, the besieged Gaza strip.

Clearly, Israel is not defending itself. Rather, it is protecting its colonial project in the Palestine. Israel was offered a comprehensive peace agreement with full normalization in the Arab peace initiative in 2002 but did not even bother to respond to it. Most recently, the Israeli government chose holding more colonies in Palestine over Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts. So, yes this government defends only one thing and that is its colonial project.

Secretary Kerry knows very well that his time and energy invested in the peace process was undermined by the Netanyahu government’s expansion of it colonial activities in the Palestinian territories. For nine months of Washington-led negotiations, Israeli settlements have continued to grow more rapidly pace than at any other time in the past.

The Palestinians are guaranteed basic human rights of security and protection. Unfortunately, the U.S. and other Western powers have fought against Palestinian attempts to seek the protection of international law, particularly by joining the International Criminal Court. The White House also voted against Palestine joining the UN, unsurprisingly insisted on more negotiations instead — which inevitably failed. Even before, President Obama failed to act on the 2008 recommendations of his National Security Advisor, General James Jones, to send NATO troops in the West Bank in areas where Israel withdraws to provide security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

To forestall another war, and to prevent further brutality against civilians, Washington needs to take immediate measures to avoid the hypocrisy of legitimizing Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians under the guise of “self-defense.” First, it should refrain from the use of language which delegitimizes Palestinians’ right to security and protection. The White House’s language demonizes Palestinians by denying them a basic human need for security, while providing cover for the escalation of illegal Israeli collective punishment against them. Second, the U.S. should encourage legitimate Palestinian efforts to pursue their security and safety through the rule of law, and in particular the protection of the International Criminal Court. Third, given the enormous mistrust between the Israelis and Palestinians, the idea of international forces separating both parties on the premise of 1967 borders should again be considered.

As many U.S. officials have already recognized, it has become more and more difficult to justify the indefensible Israeli practices in the Palestinian territories, with even Secretary Kerry admitting that Israeli risks becoming an “apartheid state.” The White House should never be in a position to justify the killing of the eight unarmed members of the Kaware family as Israel’s “right to self-defense.”