‘We believe,” said a statement from Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird earlier this week, after Hamas rejected an Egyptian call for a ceasefire that Israel accepted, “that Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself, from the continued campaign of terror being waged by Hamas.” Mr. Baird always returns to these themes: the moral bankruptcy of Hamas, its lack of concern for civilians or international law (on Thursday, the UN said it had found rockets hidden in one of its Gaza schools), its indiscriminate rocket launches that it hopes will cause civilian casualties, and above all Israel’s absolute right to defend itself.
The Foreign Minister is of course right about all of this – but only up to a point.
Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself. Who could argue otherwise? Mr. Baird is to be commended for saying it. But a right to self-defence is not a blank cheque. It is not a strategy. It is not a plan for how to conduct a war, or a road map on how to achieve peace. It’s a starting point for a discussion, not an end.
Hamas is never happier than when it is locked in combat with Israel. It is not interested in compromise or co-existence. Given that Hamas seeks war, and benefits from armed conflict and the death of innocent Palestinians, any Israeli government must ask itself to what extent some of its moves designed to defeat Hamas may, in the long run, be counterproductive. Israel has a right to self-defence; it also has an obligation to exercise that right prudently and in a way that furthers its long-term interests.
Hamas would like to be the representative of the Palestinian people. It is not. Recent polls suggest that it isn’t particularly popular, even in Gaza, which it has run through the barrel of a gun for nearly a decade. The recognized government is Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. Mr. Abbas is not waging war against Israel; he is someone the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu can be talking to, and should be trying to reach a comprehensive peace with. Instead, a continued settlements policy and a refusal to talk seriously has diminished Mr. Abbas.
Israel has now launched a ground operation into Gaza, this after armed Hamas men tried to infiltrate Isreal through tunnels and rockets continued to fly. Israel can legitimately claim self-defence. But at the same time, an Israeli incursion into Gaza is as strongly desired by Hamas as it is feared by Mr. Abbas, who has repeatedly urged Hamas to accept a ceasefire.
In the manner, time and place that Israel exercises self-defence, is it setting itself up for an eventual accommodation with a future Palestinian state? Is it strengthening allies and weakening adversaries? Or is it setting the stage for ever more self-defence?