In the weeks of protests in London against the Israeli war on Hamas, thousands have chanted “Ceasefire!” The organizers of the march, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have proclaimed their motive in a press release: “Israel has waged a cruel and relentless war on Gaza that has taken thousands of innocent, civilian lives by design.”
Some of the protesters would condemn the Hamas attacks that precipitated this war, claiming to recognize Israel’s right to self-defense. But they would also join many world leaders, including the United Nations and President Biden, in claiming that this right must be “balanced” with an imperative to protect civilians.
It is apparently lost on these protesters that free dissent would not have been possible if concern for innocent deaths had always guided the decisions of free nations retaliating in wars of self-defense. Western Europe is free today because the Allies were able to bring the Nazi regime fully to heel, in part by killing over six hundred thousand German civilians in strategic bombings (three times as many who died from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
The Allies acted on an important truth: that the right to self-defense is unconditional. Israel and its allies need to embrace the same truth.
The Allies knew that the freedom of Western Europe was threatened by the Nazis. They knew that to prevent a third war launched by Germany in one century, they needed to completely eradicate and humiliate the Nazi regime. There can be no civilized “rules of war” for defeating such an aggressor — certainly none that constrain the right to defend civilization. War is always begun by aggressors who break the rules of civilization and who bear responsibility for all of the suffering it entails.
Israel, which has been the victim of relentless Arab or Palestinian aggression since its founding, should unapologetically exercise its unconditional right of self-defense as well. Hamas has pledged to destroy Israel, and the events of October 7 displayed its unwavering willingness to keep its promise. To defend itself, Israel, like the Allies, needs to completely eradicate its enemy, even if it unavoidably means the death of innocent civilians.'The Allies acted on an important truth: that the right to self-defense is unconditional. Israel and its allies need to embrace the same truth.' Click To Tweet
The Allies knew that aggressive enemy regimes rely on civilian support in one form or another. In World War II the Nazis relied on the material support of civilians who worked in industries that fed the German war machine, and these needed to be targeted to stop that machine. The Nazis also relied on the moral support of the many German civilians who approved of the regime (a plurality of Germans voted for the Nazi Party in 1932). Breaking their will to fight was properly part of the Allied strategy.
In Gaza, civilians play a different role than they did in the Nazi war machine, but it is still destructive. Hamas relies on its civilians materially, using them as perpetual victims in need of foreign aid, aid which it transforms into a military threat (for example, by turning EU-funded water pipelines into rockets). And it notoriously uses civilians as human shields (whether by taking Israeli hostages overtly for that purpose, or by placing rocket launchers in dense urban areas). Civilian moral support for Hamas is also widespread (recall that Hamas too won power in Gaza through a free election in 2006). Israel needs unimpeded military discretion to eliminate every threat Hamas poses to its existence.
Of course not every civilian in a hostile country willingly supports its aggression. This is particularly true of children and dissidents, and they should be spared when doing so doesn’t sacrifice military objectives. But doing so can sacrifice these objectives. To have foregone the Allied invasion of France for fear that French Resistance fighters could be harmed by friendly fire would have allowed the Nazis to remain in power. The Free French themselves knew this. Their Navy under Admiral Robert Jaujard even helped to bombard Normandy on D-Day. They saw this risk as necessary to repel the Nazis and exercise their right to self-defense. If they thought of this as “necessary evil,” the proper attitude was to see the evil as the responsibility of the aggressors.
Any children or dissidents in Gaza are in the same position as those French resistance fighters. Gaza has often been compared to an “open air prison.” The prison was of Hamas’s own making. Hamas has made hostages of any true innocents in Gaza. Israel may have built the border fence, but it did so after being repeatedly attacked by Hamas militants even after foolishly withdrawing its forces from Gaza in 2005. When a veritable hostage is placed in a dangerous situation, the fault — and full moral responsibility for any harm — is with the hostage-taker.
The right to self-defense is an unconditional right, not a permission doled out only under comfortable conditions. It is an immediate implication of the right to life. If your life is yours by right, your claim to it is not compromised by the fact that someone threatening to kill you has also taken a hostage who might be hurt in your attempt to defend yourself. There is no earthly reason for thinking the hostage deserves to live but you and those you are defending do not.
It might not seem like the right to self-defense gives one license to do everything necessary to eliminate a threat, because in a domestic peacetime situation, the victim of aggression can use only the force necessary to protect himself in the moment. A mugging victim rightly isn’t permitted to act as a vigilante and hunt down and kill the mugger. He lives in a free country with a government that has been delegated the job of securing individual rights, peace, and justice. Between nations, there is no higher court of appeal and to do the job they’ve been delegated, free nations must act as judge, jury, and executioner of foreign threats.
The protesters opposed to Israel’s war don’t have any new ideas. The same arguments were offered even against Britain’s war against the Nazis. They were made by the British Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in 1939, who also began her argument by calling the Nazi invasion of Poland evil, but who argued that even self-defense did not justify killing innocent civilians. It was to Britain’s great fortune that these arguments were ignored. Anscombe’s pacifist arguments ignored basic facts about the nature of moral responsibility and in effect repudiated the right to self-defense and with it, the right to life.
Yet today the right to self-defense is repudiated in evasion of full knowledge of the consequences. Israel has bowed to versions of these arguments for years, restraining itself from eliminating the Hamas threat for fear of killing innocents. This is what allowed Hamas to fester and rebuild to the point where October 7 was possible.
Britain once had the clarity to see past this sophistry, and this is why it is free today. To live free by virtue of the moral clarity of the past while working to undermine it, as the protesters do now, is the height of folly, even depravity. Clearer thinkers must have the courage to stand up and affirm the unconditional right to self-defense.