Crying ‘Self-Defense’ To Cover Up War Crimes

Whenever the U.S. or one of its client states launches attacks on others or commits war crimes against a civilian population, they claim they are acting in self-defense. This takes a legitimate exception to the U.N. Charter’s prohibition on the use of force and twists it into a catch-all justification for criminal aggression and violations of the laws of war. While the right to self-defense is supposed to protect weaker nations against more powerful predatory states, the rhetoric of self-defense has been hijacked by the most interventionist governments. These governments have used this language to add a patina of legality to the latest war of choice or punitive military action.

When the US illegally invaded Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration asserted that this was a case of "anticipatory self-defense" on the absurd grounds that Iraq’s government might pose a dire threat to the US someday in the future. That is how a preventive war that blatantly violated the UN Charter was sold as "defense" to the American public, and to this day this war of aggression is still often referred to wrongly as a war of preemption. Soleimani’s illegal assassination was another instance when the US took aggressive action against a foreign military and initially claimed that it was done to prevent an "imminent attack." The Trump administration later dropped that false claim, but still maintained that the assassination was a defensive measure. The motto might as well be, "if we do it, it’s self-defense."

The Saudi coalition has tried to portray its aggressive war on Yemen as a defensive action when Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the ones that have been violating Yemen’s sovereignty every day for the last six years. The US has accepted this preposterous redefinition of aggression as defense throughout the war, and supporters of the war have routinely pointed to Yemeni retaliation for the bombing campaign as proof that the US needs to protect the Saudis from their neighbors. Claiming self-defense functions as a ready-made excuse for any military action that the US and its clients want to take, and it is also used to deflect criticism from their indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.

Then there is Israel, which routinely launches attacks on targets in other countries in the name of "defending" themselves and dresses up its bombing of civilians in Gaza as defensive in nature. Israel has launched hundreds of attacks on Iranian targets inside Syria in just the last four years. Israel was not being attacked during this period, nor was it in any danger of being attacked. Israel’s sponsorship of the attacks inside Iran against nuclear scientists and facilities is not seriously disputed. These aggressive actions are almost always spun as "defense" against an imaginary future Iranian bomb, but they are no more defensive or legal than the invasion of Iraq was.

While every state does have a right to defend itself against attack by another state, Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians under its rule is different in important ways that make the usual self-defense refrain ring hollow. Israel remains the occupying power over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Even though Israel withdrew from Gaza, it continues to control its access to the outside world and it has placed the territory under siege since 2007. An occupying power’s responsibilities include providing for the security and welfare of the people under its control, and it is obliged to protect civilians under its charge. Obviously, the Israeli government doesn’t accept or take its responsibilities as an occupying power seriously, and it treats the Palestinians that it rules over as colonial subjects to be suppressed whenever and however they see fit.

Maryam Jamshidi called attention to the colonial context of Israeli violence against Palestinians recently in an article for Boston Review: "In various ways, this long-standing war on Gaza has much in common with the colonial wars waged by European imperial powers in the nineteenth century – including Israel’s legal acrobatics to justify and legitimize its attack on Palestinians." Israel ignores international law when it comes to their treatment of the Palestinians under its control, and it claims the right to crack down on any resistance to its rule much as the colonial powers used to do. The Israeli government tries to have things both ways by taking advantage of the law to justify using force and then ignoring it when it requires them to fulfill their obligations to the occupied population.

Jamshidi continues: "Expanding on this position, legal scholar and human rights attorney Noura Erakat and others have shown, occupation law requires that occupying forces defend themselves through the use of traditional police powers. This police authority is "restricted to the least amount of force necessary to restore order and subdue violence." Though there are some situations where lethal violence can be used, it must be "a measure of last resort." And while even military force may be permitted in exceptional circumstances, it must be "circumscribed by concern for the civilian non-combatant population." As Erakat argues, Israel’s use of the far more expansive right of self-defense may protect its "colonial authority," but it comes at the "expense of the rights of civilian non-combatants" under occupation law."

No one can seriously claim that Israel’s 11-day bombing spree in Gaza earlier this month qualifies as the "least amount of force necessary." Israel’s campaign in Gaza killed more than 200 people, including the massacres of entire extended families killed in their homes, and it left more than 90,000 people displaced and homeless in the middle of a pandemic. The Israeli military committed many war crimes in its prosecution of this campaign, including the destruction of whole block towers to inflict collective punishment on the population, and it failed in its duty to protect civilian lives in the territory that it effectively occupies. If it were almost any other government in the world that had done this, the US would be denouncing them and threatening to make them a pariah.

Slaughtering defenseless people in a besieged prison territory is not self-defense, and we should reject arguments that claim otherwise. The policy implications for the U.S.-Israel relationship are clear. Our government needs to stop subsidizing and arming a government that launches such attacks against people living under occupation. The US should demand a lifting of the blockade on Gaza at once. And the next time that Israel starts bombing civilians in Gaza, our government should condemn their war crimes and penalize the officials responsible.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.