Israel Has Every Right to Destroy Hamas

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For more than 50 years, the diplomacy surrounding major outbreaks of Israeli–Arab violence has followed a standard progression. The United Nations Security Council goes into emergency session, with most members calling for an immediate cease-fire. America uses its veto power to stave off Security Council action for a few days or weeks, buying Israel a bit of time to in­flict significant damage on its enemies. Then America decides that time’s up, and Israel — beholden to America’s moral and material support — is forced to suspend large-scale military operations. All sides declare victory and live to fight another day.

The bloody ritual was performed once again last month, and once again Israel’s principal assailant was Hamas, which brutally rules over 2 million Palestinians in a part of the “occupied territories” known as the Gaza Strip, which is be­tween Israel and Egypt, and which Israel stopped occupying in 2005. Hamas is an Islamist terrorist organization that is supported by Iran and totally devoted to Israel’s destruction; it has stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles for the purpose of terrorizing Israeli communities whenever the fancy strikes.

This time, the fancy struck over a mundane landlord–tenant dispute in East Jerusa­lem and Palestinian riots on the Temple Mount. Hamas used this as a pretext to unleash a new barrage of missile terrorism across Israel, reaching every major city with hundreds of missiles per day in its most expansive and destructive offensive yet. Even as Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome missile-defense system knocked most of those missiles out of the sky (at the lopsided cost of about $80,000 per intercept), millions of Israelis scrambled into bomb shelters, and scores were injured or killed. After eleven days of fighting, Israel caved in to American pressure and agreed to an Egyptian cease-fire proposal.

Israel has decided to tolerate Hamas’s existence for now, partly because the costs of truly defeating Hamas seem prohibitive, even if destroying it is entirely within Israel’s military capabilities. Hamas values a Palestinian life at about 1/1,000th of the value of an Israeli life, judging by the fact that it demanded the release of about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of a single Israeli soldier in 2011. It places even less value on the lives of Palestinian women and children; given that it systematically hides its rocket launchers among them, it’s clear that Hamas sees them principally as propaganda assets that are most valuable when they’re dead.

From inside schools and next to hospitals, Hamas barbarically launches indiscriminate missile attacks against Israel, a war crime against both Israel’s civilians and its own. Its strategy is to turn Israelis’ concern for human rights into a weakness. The strategy has worked. Israel cannot stomach risking as many Palestinian lives in order to preserve itself as Hamas would gladly sacrifice in order to destroy Israel. Golda Meir long ago said, “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us,” and so it has proved.

Apart from the question of prudence, and more important from the diplomatic point of view, is the question of rights. Simply put, Israel has the right to demand that Hamas surrender unconditionally or be destroyed. It has a right to use whatever level of force is necessary and proportional to that end, whether punitive or preventive. And the U.S. government should say so unambiguously.

The reflexive push for immediate cease-fires, which has become institutionalized in American foreign policy, only perpetuates the conflict in the Middle East. It has helped entrench the dangerous fallacy that Israel’s self-defense actions must be “proportional” to the attacks against it. And it takes no account of the strategic threat posed by missile terrorism.

Many legal authorities, particularly in Europe and at the United Nations, nowadays argue that force may be used in self-defense only to repulse an actual attack, and never for retaliatory or punitive reasons. A bit more in touch with reality, other authorities say that force may also be used to prevent an attack, but only if that attack is “imminent.”

A moment’s reflection should suffice for one to see the absurdity of these claims. The right of self-defense must include the right to remove immediate threats to a state’s security. The concept of “immediate threat” is broader than that of an “imminent attack.” It involves many situations in which an attack is not even theoretically imminent. For example, an adversary’s acquisition of a weapon against which there is no effective defense, such as a nuclear weapon, is an immediate threat, whether or not the adversary intends to use the weapons imminently or ever. Hence, President Kennedy was entirely justified in imposing a naval quarantine on Cuba (classified as a “threat or use of force” under the United Nations Charter) in response to the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles there. And even Barack Obama, in a speech to AIPAC, endorsed Israel’s de­struction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, though the reactor was not yet completed.

Apart from the question of when force may be used (jus ad bellum) is the question of how force may be used (jus in bello). For example, the long-standing consensus is that force used in self-defense must be “necessary and proportional.” But necessary and proportional to what? Many commentators appear to think that the requirement of proportionality in self-defense turns on the level of force being used against the victim. But that would be a preposterous rule, as it would in effect make it illegal to achieve decisive victory in a war started by somebody else. The best you could ever hope for would be a stalemate, which would reduce the potential penalty facing any would-be aggressor — the opposite of deterrence.

Under Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, it is a war crime to risk civilian casualties that would be excessive in relation to the “concrete and direct military advantage” to be gained by the attack. The United States has never ratified Protocol I, with good reason. It is wrong to suppose, as most commentators do, that the objective must be purely tactical, such as the destruction of a particular military installation. International law must also allow for objectives that are broadly strategic, such as the destruction of Hamas’s military capacity.

Wars usually end when one side loses the will to continue fighting. That usually happens when one side faces such overwhelming force that it loses hope for ultimate victory and accepts defeat. The modern developments in the law of war make such a scenario hard to imagine.

Indeed, those developments have something remarkable in common. They would have all but guaranteed the victory of the Confederacy in the Civil War. They would have made it even more difficult for democracies to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War — and would have made it virtually impossible for them to win it. And today, they prevent democracies from doing much of anything to stop the proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons in the hands of the world’s most dangerous people.

If the strategic objective is legitimate, then any level of force that is “necessary and proportional” to achieve that objective should be considered legitimate. That understanding corresponds to the law of war as it was always understood before the United Nations began making the world safe for aggressive dictatorships, state sponsors of terrorism, and nuclear proliferation.

Read the full article at National Review.