Israel and its US supporters defend Israel's recent attack on Gaza as self-defense. For a number of years, rockets have been regularly fired from Gaza into Southern Israel. There were not many casualties but the population of Israel was seriously frightened by the continued attacks.
During the Israeli incursion into the Gaza strip newspapers report less than fifteen Israeli and more than 1200 Palestinian casualties. Israeli bombing caused major property damage of more than $2 billion in the Gaza strip—already one of the most impoverished areas in the world.
Is all this violence, death and destruction justifiable as self-defense?
National self-defense is usually thought of as similar to that of individuals. Many people believe that if someone barges into your house and threatens the well-being of your family, you may, if necessary, kill him. But would you also be justified killing his entire family and burning down his house? Would it be an act of self-defense if you killed eighty people in response to one person invading your house? Surely that would be overreacting in a big way.
So it may well seem that the Israelis overreacted.
But that is not the end of the matter. Self-defense involves not only reactions to actual attacks but also looking toward the future and trying to prevent future threats. Individuals may build a fence around their house. They may move into a gated community where no one can enter without showing credentials to armed guards. They may even have an alarm installed in their house that summons the police of private security guards as soon as there is a sign of an unwanted intrusion. If even that does not seem to be sufficiently secure, they can hire armed security guards and surround themselves with burly men who would defend them when necessary.
Nations cannot look to an international police force—private or public—to keep them safe. They must make themselves secure for the future by making alliances with other nations or by neutralizing threats by their own military efforts. But even here, of course, nations may use excessive force. In 1983, for instance, President Reagan ordered an invasion of the Carribean island nation of Grenada—an island the size of Martha's Vineyard-- because of a coup by a hardline Communist group allied with the Soviet Union. One may doubt that any government of that tiny nation was a sufficient threat to the US to justify a military invasion. The seriousness of a threat determines what sorts of reactions are appropriate. A communist coup in Grenada could not justify a military invasion.
Nations that are strong and feel relatively secure in the world will be reluctant to use disproportionate violence against potential threats. Confident that they will be able to defend themselves they do not see every threat as potentially fatal to their nation's life. After centuries of cruel persecution of Jews culminating in the Holocaust, the Isrealis are inclined to see every threat as possibly fatal. A member of the Israeli peace movement put it as follows: “It is impossible to understand the viciousness of this war without taking into account the historical background: the feeling of victimhood after all that has been done to the Jews throughout the ages, and the conviction that after the Holocaust, we have the right to do anything, absolutely anything, to defend ourselves, without any inhibitions due to law or morality.” The victims of violence are likely to overreact to any new threat of violence. For centuries the Jews, not having had their own state, were unable to defend themselves. Now there is the Israeli state to offer protection and it will react viciously to any threat because Jews are victims of past violence.
That may explain the disproportionate response of Israel to the rockets from Gaza. But it also suggests that this excessive violence will be counterproductive. The Palestinians draw the same lesson from the violence wreaked on them that the State of Israel drew from the Holocaust: “we have the right to do anything, absolutely anything, to defend ourselves, without any inhibitions due to law or morality.”
Violence will only perpetuate itself. It is foolish to believe that wars will bring peace. The survivors of violence learn that anything is permitted in the cause of self-defense. Wherever possible they will use as much violence as they can. The Israelis do not use violence, moreover, against Germany that killed millions of Jews but against the Palestinians. Who will be their victim?