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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The right of Israel to self-defence

'No socialist group in Britain is saying what needs to be said today about the crisis in the Middle East. All the groups on the organised Left are busy denouncing Israel for its "aggression" against Gaza and Lebanon. Many are expressing their solidarity with the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples. None are saying that Israel needs and deserves the support of the Left.'

Substitute 'liberal Christian' and 'Church' for 'socialist' and 'Left', and Eric Lee's post becomes one which I would be very happy to have written myself (see also his follow-up response to critics).

This is the point that can't be made to often:-

'Now image what happens if Hamas and Hizbollah win. They over-run the Jewish state, slaughtering and expelling its several million Jewish inhabitants. They create a reactionary theocratic dictatorship along the lines of their benefactor, Iran. No one benefits -- not the Jews, not the Arabs. This a result that only fascists could applaud.

'Some socialists are pacifists and oppose all wars. But most of us understand that sometimes a country has to fight. And sometimes two peoples go to war against each other, and we have to take sides. We look at the reasons behind the fighting and more important -- we look at the consequences of victory for one side or the other.'

The Israeli state is responsible for the security of its citizens. To deny this is to deny its legitimacy - which even Christian Aid officially do not do. Its exercise of this responsibility involves confronting organizations which do indeed deny its legitimacy and consider themselves justified in attacking it at any time in pursuit of its ultimate destruction. The issue is not just the kidnapping of a few soldiers, it is the attitudes and goals which motivate such actions. There is no basis for compromise with somebody who denies your right to exist. Whilst all states bear the same responsibility for their citizens, very few, if any, have to exercise it in anything like the same circumstances.

In these uniquely difficult circumstances, an important component of the Israeli government's responsibility is the need for wisdom in determining when restraint is called for, precisely because it best furthers the Israeli people's security. As Eric Lee notes, and many prefer to ignore, a great deal of restraint has indeed been exercised, but perhaps it has not been enough. It is vital that there is a debate both inside and outside Israel as to whether the Olmert administration has in fact acted wisely.

However, there should be no place in this debate for attitudes which blur or invert the moral responsibility for civilian casualties in Gaza and Lebanon. In achieving clarity on this, the first step is to acknowledge that Israel really, truly has suffered aggression. Once we have accepted that, three basic views on what Israel is or should be doing about it are available to us:-

1. Israel can and therefore should defend itself in ways that carry no risk of inflicting civilian casualties.

2. Israel has the right to defend itself even at the risk of inflicting civilian casualties.

3. Israel has no right to defend itself.

There is no fourth option. An illusion of a fourth position can, however, readily be created by not quite committing yourself to one of the three. Position 2 implies that you are prepared, in principle, to endorse the military actions which Israel is carrying out as I write - not very comfortable. Position 3 means you accept everything that Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, al Qaida and co. would do to a defenceless Israel - only comfortable for those incapable of imagining something they haven't seen on TV. Given the threat to Israel from armed organizations operating out of civilian population centres, the empirical plausibility of position 1 is not obvious. But if you decide that, because it would be nice if it were true, you will behave as if you believed it, you have given yourself the luxury of permanently occupying the moral high ground without ever having to dirty your hands with the choice between positions 2 and 3. This is a stance which seems irresistible to a certain kind of Christian. But, to make the point absolutely clear, it is morally dishonest.

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