Palestinian terrorists are trying to slaughter Israeli civilians. Abetting them are Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza. As Rachel Huebner noted in the Harvard Crimson (“Deafening Silence,” Oct. 15), world leaders have been slow to condemn the attacks. Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 offered that Palestinian “frustration” at more Israeli settlements is to blame. John Kirby, spokesman for the State Department, said Israel was not observing “the status quo” in holy places in Jerusalem, and that “both sides” should attempt to “de-escalate the tension.”
This kind of moral equivalency has become common in discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It may seem strange that stabbing unarmed civilians is dismissed as the result of “frustration” and that both sides are called upon to de-escalate when only one side’s leaders sponsor violence directly targeting civilians. At any rate, I’d like to review some of the moral arguments often made to justify or excuse Palestinian terrorism against Israel.
One argument is that Palestinians are simply resisting Israel. This is surely the case in some sense, but the targeted killing of innocent civilians is intrinsically wrong. One might reply by noting that Israel has killed thousands of Gazan civilians in the last several years, while very few Israelis have died. This response has the perverse effect of blaming a country for keeping its civilians safe while they are fired upon by rockets — rockets that, mind you, Hamas hides in mosques, hospitals and schools. It also erects a standard for war that no one but a pacifist would apply anywhere else. Every country has the right to self-defense. For a state whose sovereignty is constantly violated by rocket attacks, tunnels and terrorism, Israel is remarkably restrained. Would any country in the world tolerate what Israel tolerates without serious military action?
Another argument is that Palestinians are upset because of increased settlement building. This claim is based on a myth. As the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported, settlement construction has slowed under Benjamin Netanyahu when compared with his predecessors, even though the population in extant settlements has increased.
Since settlements are often cited as a point against Israel in the conflict, it’s useful to rehash some of the history behind them. What is known today as the West Bank is simply the territory circumscribed by the armistice line marking the extent of the Jordanian advance during the Israeli War for Independence of 1948–9. Jordan controlled the West Bank between 1949 and 1967, but its sovereignty was recognized by only England and Pakistan. Israel conquered the West Bank in pre-emptive defensive war of 1967 — Egypt and Syria planned a surprise attack that Israel thwarted by destroying their air forces — but did not annex the majority of it. Its international legal status is therefore, at most, dubious.
Opponents of settlements often cite Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that, “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies.” First, as Columbia’s David Phillips has pointed out, the beginning of Article 49 speaks of “forcible” transfers. The Israeli settlers haven’t been forcibly moved anywhere. Second, as legal theorist Julius Stone has pointed out, that particular article was written specifically in response to forcible Nazi population transfers. It would be, in Stone’s words, “an irony bordering on the absurd” if Article 49 were construed to require a Jewish state to make Judenrein land to which they would otherwise have access.
Finally, many claim that Palestinian terrorists are upset only about the occupation, not Israel’s existence, so all Israel needs to do is withdraw from the West Bank. A few things belie this assertion. Israel has in fact reduced its presence in Palestinian-populated territories over time. It began withdrawing from the West Bank in the 1990s, and withdrew completely from Gaza in 2005. It got the Second Intifada and more rocket attacks. Today, most Palestinians live on land controlled by either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. Besides, Arab hostility towards the Jewish state precedes the 1967 War. Before the Israeli War for Independence, Arab leaders the Middle East over rejected UN and British-sponsored partition plans for the land today known as Israel and the West Bank. The PA’s and Hamas’ problem is not with the occupation, but with the existence of the state running it.
The double standards of the United Nations and the State Department should not obscure the simple truth: leaders who encourage their citizens to kill innocent civilians want death, not peace. Supporters of a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one should condemn Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas as the extremists they are.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .