Sunday, April 01, 2018

Satyagraha at the Gaza Border

Israeli government officials blamed Hamas for "provoking" a conflict and said its response was justified due to the risk of a mass attempt to breach the border.

That response is a problem. Let me explain why.

Non-combatants attempting to cross a border may be a crime, but it isn't a crime that can justify the use of lethal force. Lethal force can only be justified in cases where the target poses an imminent threat to life. Yet even under the Israeli narrative, threats of that scale were only sporadic (two of the dead Palestinians are alleged to have opened fire at IDF soldiers -- that probably warrants a lethal response -- but that leaves up to 14 who didn't). In a simplicitor case of attempted unlawful border crossing, the only lawful remedy is arrest and trial -- not bullets.

The main apologia we're seeing on that score is the claim that some (not all) of the shot Palestinians were members of terrorist groups. Even if that turns out to be the case (and that hasn't been independently corroborated yet), it'd be less of an absolution of the IDF than apologists might believe. Put aside the general thorniness of whether someone who's a member of a terrorist organization can be treated as a "combatant" even when partaking in civilian (in this case, protest) activities. I'm skeptical, but we can even stipulate that they could be. The bigger issue is that the lawfulness of the use of deadly force has to be justified based on what was actually known, or reasonably should have been known, by the shooter at the time -- and there's no evidence that the IDF soldiers were aware of the identities (let alone affiliations) of the Palestinians they were firing at in the moment. For example: If I fired into a crowd in a city street, and it just so happened that the person struck by my bullets was a member of a terrorist group, my action would still be unlawful because I had no way of knowing that fact when I opened fire. Likewise, the affiliations of those killed by IDF bullets could not in themselves legalize the decision to open fire -- that can only be justified based on specific threats to life that were reasonably perceived at the time (of which simply approaching the border is not one).

The other argument I can imagine being made is that -- in the context of a mass march on the border -- "arrest and trial" isn't a feasible response. It'd be impossible to arrest them all; the only viable means of deterrence may well be the use of lethal force. But this is a rather dangerous and hypocritical position -- the same in form as the argument that suicide bombings are justifiable because the power imbalance between Israel and Palestine means the latter can't win a traditional military conflict. The laws of war and humanitarian international law in that case say that if you can't win a conflict without suicide bombings, then you don't win the conflict (as much as it might seem unjust). They likewise say that if you can't stop non-violent attempts to cross a border without resorting to lethal force, then you don't stop the attempts (as much as that might seem unjust). In either case, the rule of law quite properly does not contain an "unless you'd lose" exception.

And this really gets to the rub of the problem. Were these protests a perfect exemplar of non-violence? Almost certainly not. But it seems equally clear that the Israeli government (and many of its defenders) wouldn't accept the legitimacy of protests of this nature even if they were. They view it as a form of cheating, precisely because it likely would succeed but-for the use of violent force that can't actually be justified. But that's an untenable position. A protest or resistance strategy doesn't become illicit on the grounds that it does work, nor because it forces Israelis to do things they'd otherwise not want to do or puts them in a position they'd otherwise not like to be in. That's not, and cannot be, the standard for what conduct by Palestinians is acceptable (it obviously isn't the standard for what Israeli actions are justifiable vis-a-vis Palestinian actors). Palestinians are allowed to come up with ways to put pressure on Israelis, and massed civil disobedience falls into that category.

Indeed, this is in many ways the power of resistance strategies of this sort -- they are difficult to counter without resorting to violence that both appears to be and juridically is excessive and unjustified under the circumstances. This is why civil rights leaders placed young activists in the path of Bull Connor's firehoses, this is the efficacy of Gandhi's satyagraha. What violence there was on the Palestinian side was a sterling example of "worse than a crime, it was a blunder," because it allows dust to fly up around this basic point. But while I don't want to as far as to say this violence was a "distraction", I do think it must not occupy the entirety or even the majority of our attention, because the Israeli response -- almost by its own admission -- wasn't keyed into the sort of violence that could warrant resort to lethal force, and because the Israeli government has no answer to what it would do if the protests really did meet the platonic ideal of satyagraha.


Joe in Australia said...

Whether the illicit breach of a border is a crime or an attack depends on context. I think we can agree that any suggestion that Israel should have directed police to arrest the "protestors" is fanciful. Not only were the numbers too great, but it would be unreasonable to expect police to physically expose themselves to persons who may be suicide bombers or have other close-range weapons. The suggestion that Israel should just put up with border breaches is absurd: Gaza is effectively at war with Israel, and a breach of this sort would be perfect cover for infiltrators or even direct attacks.

Although the Gazan action seems designed to blur the lines between civil protest, criminal violence, and militarised attacks, it was an attack on Israel's borders sponsored (or even directed) by a hostile government. That doesn't necessarily mean a lethal response was warranted, but it does mean that Israel was justified in having regard to the military principles of necessity and proportionality rather than the "protestors''" civil rights.

PG said...

Also, I thought Israel was alleging that the protesters were trying not just to breach the border barrier, but to destroy it (including with the use of IEDs). Does Israel have no remedies against that?