Defending Israel: A How-To Guide

Today’s op-ed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board offers a fairly comprehensive list of the talking points which are de rigueur in defending Israel’s attack on civilian ships in international water.

1.) Mention the Gaza war in 2008 as an example of what happens when weapons get into Gaza.

Example from the WSJ:

Since [Hamas seized power in 2007], both Israel and Egypt have imposed a partial blockade on the Strip, mainly to prevent Hamas from arming itself with the kinds of weapons it used to spark a war with Israel in December 2008.

It’s interesting that Israel should bring up the Gaza war as an example of Hamas viciousness.  This was a war where between 1,166 and 1,417 Palestinians were killed and 13 Israelis died.  It’s hard to argue that Israel’s response to Hamas’s “spark” was proportional but we’ll talk about proportionality later.

2.) Emphasize that food, water and other necessary supplies enter Gaza on a daily basis through Israeli checkpoints.

Example from the WSJ:

Food, medicine and electricity continue to flow to Gaza.

World Health Organization reports have found that Israel is blocking vital medical supplies from entering Gaza and that building a well-functioning health care system is impossible without the regular delivery of supplies. Furthermore, mortality rates are 30-percent higher in Gaza than in Palestinian populations in the West Bank and chronic malnutrition is now over 10-percent. As to electricity, the UN’s Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on May 9th that:

“(A)lmost all of the 1.4 million Palestinians residing in the Gaza Strip, with the exception of those who live in the Rafah area, must cope with scheduled electricity cuts of 8-12 hours daily, compared to 6-8 hours prior to January 2010.

These power cuts exacerbate the already difficult living conditions in Gaza and disrupt almost all aspects of daily life, including household chores, health services, education and water and sanitation services.”

3.) Claim that the international community is biased against Israel, denies Israel its sovereign right to defend itself and constantly complains about Israel’s “disproportional” use of force.  If possible, belittle the concept of proportionality.

Example from the WSJ:

The Gaza war also elicited international protests against Israel, which time and again is told what it can do in its own self-defense, with its critics deeming nearly every effective military action “disproportionate”.

It is true that Israel is frequently accused of using disproportionate force.  From the wildly disproportionate death toll in the Gaza war to the killing of nine human rights activists this weekend, there is no shortage of Israeli disproportionality.

But none of that matters if you argue that disproportionality works and that discussions about “proportionality” are a waste of time.

Editorial writers and bloggers have been busy dusting off the argument that a disproportionate response is the only way to deal with terrorists that threaten our western values.

(I blogged earlier today about Michael Rubin’s defense of Israel’s disproportional use of force.)

4.) Insist that the IDF was just defending itself against an armed, bloodthirsty mob.

Example from the WSJ:

It was only after the humanitarians aboard the ship assaulted the commandos with clubs and knives that the Israelis used live fire. If the Internet videos of the commandos being viciously attacked as they descended from a helicopter are accurate, they were acting to defend themselves.

This characterization of events totally ignores the context in which the raid and the shooting of nine flotilla members occurred.

The IDF commandos had to fly seventy miles offshore, into international waters, before rappelling onto a Turkish- flagged passenger ship.  Then, when not greeted with open arms, they shot nine people dead.  An ambush would suggest that the Israelis were tricked into boarding the ships. No account of the events from either flotilla members or the IDF suggests that this was the case.  Israel attacked a ship sailing in international waters. At what point did those aboard the vessel forfeit their own right of self-defense?

Craig Murray, a human rights activist and former British ambassador to Uzbekistan writes:

A word on the legal position, which is very plain. To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.

Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody’s territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.

There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.

Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.

Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorized Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.

In brief, if Israel and Turkey are not at war, then it is Turkish law which is applicable to what happened on the ship. It is for Turkey, not Israel, to carry out any inquiry or investigation into events and to initiate any prosecutions. Israel is obliged to hand over indicted personnel for prosecution.

5.) Set the stage for future conflicts which will derail the peace process.

Example from the WSJ:

We suppose Israel could have allowed the flotilla to pass to avoid the political fallout it is now enduring.  Had it done so, however, it would have merely created a channel through which Hamas could be supplied with ever-more advanced weaponry (much of it courtesy of Iran) thus setting the stage for an even bloodier war in Gaza.

Israel knows exactly what risk it runs when it commits provocative acts such as the recent raid on the flotilla.  Editorial writers and sympathetic journalists dutifully repeat the message that the Palestinian response to Israel “defending itself” could lead to a “new Intifada”.  What better way to derail peace talks than to provoke violence before the parties have even gotten to the table?

The pressure is on Netanyahu to cease settlement expansion and make a meaningful attempt to negotiate borders and security arrangements with Hamas.  Pressure from the White House might be difficult to completely ignore, but, with a loyal group of sympathetic journalists and bloggers, Netanyahu can try to drown out the voices of his international critics.  That’s as long as his friends in the media stick to their talking points.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Bravo! I would have omitted Murray’s statement, however, because the issues are not as clear-cut as he claims.

    Clifton contra the WSJ. Clearly a battle of David and Goliath. May the result be the same!

    Another ship is heading toward Gaza, the “Rachel Corrie.” This American woman, murdered by the Israelis, is as unlamented by the WSJ crowd as the 35 American sailors murdered on the “Liberty” in 1967. Outrageous.

  2. In today’s UK newspaper the Guardian, there is a photo of the display of weapons found by the Israelis – a monkey wrench and some rods and sticks, spanners, hammers, chains, a screwdriver, a collection of kitchen knives, a pile of CDs (yes, compact discs!) and a keffiyah. Who needs F-35s, or Virginia-class submarines whe you got this kinda hardware!

  3. I don’t understand why there isn’t more opposition to this claim that Hamas “seized power” when they won a free and fair election. It was Fatah, backed by Israel and the US, who seized power in the West Bank after the election. Why do journalists let Israel get away with this kind of statement?

  4. And it wasn’t Hamas that sparked the 2008 Gaza Slaughter (it wasn’t a war in any real sense). It was Israel that broke the ceasefire, quite deliberately.

  5. There is a simple and obvious reason for America and the West to support Israel. It is the same reason that explains the cavalier behavior of Israel. But it is one that is never mentioned although it is widely known among world leaders.

    Israel holds the Ace of Trumps, given to it many years ago by certain European nations (particularly France and Britain). It can, at a moment of its choice, render the world into a nuclear desert.

    That is the terrible truth that all nations have to face.
    That is the truth that limited the help to Arab nations from the Soviet Union.
    That is the truth that limits action by the United States.

    Europe bears a terrible responsibility for Israel. That is why it says nothing against Israel.
    That is what binds the United States so closely to Israel, because it knows full well the power wielded by that despicable land.
    Perhaps that is why the United States is so keen to develop an effective missile defense – not against potential enemies such as China or Russia, but against friends who have their fingers on the nuclear button.

    No one dares speak of this. The conspiracy of nuclear ambiguity is feverishly adhered to by all major nations, most of which know the truth.

    Never again will Israel suffer at the hands of other nations. Instead, it holds them in thrall, with the power of life and death on this small planet of ours.

    This explains the arrogance of Israel and the servile way that the United States and its European allies fall into line. They dare not risk offending Israel because of this terrible power and, more importantly, the evil madness to use it.

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