The ‘Self-Defense’ Mantra Is a Green Light for War Crimes, by Daniel Larison

The devil is in the details trying to assess who’s at fault in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but both sides have the right to self-defense and neither side has the right to engage in wanton slaughter not arguably necessary for self-defense. From Daniel Larison at

Self-defense does not give a government license to commit war crimes at will.

Every time that the Israeli military carries out indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the occupied territories and kills Palestinian civilians, there is inevitably the rote response from American politicians and pundits that Israel has the “right to defend itself.” In almost all cases, this invocation of the right of self-defense is an all-purpose permission slip that gives any Israeli military action a stamp of approval. We heard this when Israeli snipers were gunning down and maiming unarmed protesters at the barrier between Gaza and Israel, and we have heard it every few years when the Israeli government uses its massive military superiority to bludgeon the imprisoned inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. What makes this all the more tedious is that no one actually disputes that Israel is permitted to defend itself. But self-defense does not give a government license to commit war crimes at will. Unfortunately, because the Israeli government knows that it can act with impunity and faces no practical consequences for its many violations of international law, the “self-defense” mantra serves as a green light for more needless killing of innocents.

The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, recently found himself flailing as he tried to hide behind the standard line in the face of persistent questioning from the journalists in the room. Price recited the usual lines about the right to self-defense, and then he was asked if the same applied to the Palestinians who were coming under attack from Israeli forces:

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I want to ask you about East Jerusalem, but let’s talk about what you said about the principle of self-defense. Does that in any way apply to the Palestinians? Do they have a right to self-defense? Do Palestinians have a right to self-defense?

MR PRICE: I’m – in – broadly speaking, Said, we believe in the concept of self-defense. We believe it applies to any state. I don’t think that —

QUESTION: All right. I —

MR PRICE: I certainly wouldn’t want my words to be construed as —

QUESTION: No, I understand. I want to ask on East Jerusalem. I don’t want to harp on this either. But the Israelis killed 13 people just now, including maybe five or six children. Do you condemn that? Do you condemn the killing of children?

MR PRICE: Said —

QUESTION: I’m asking: Do you condemn the killing of Palestinian children?

MR PRICE: Obviously – and these reports are just emerging. And I understand – I was just speaking to the team. I understand we don’t have independent confirmation of facts on the ground yet, so I’m very hesitant to get into reports that are just emerging.

Obviously, the deaths of civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinians, are something we would take very seriously.

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