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The U.S and Israel: Right to Self Defense

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During the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, 1,269 people were brutally murdered on Israeli soil. 

During the al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, 2,977 people were brutally murdered on U.S. soil. 

Utterly blindsided 

The shock of these two terrorist attacks was similar in the fact that they did not just cause immeasurable grief and suffering among Israelis and Americans, but that both nations and their people felt utterly blindsided.  

The image of a certain invulnerability that the people of both nations had of themselves was violently pulverized in the blink of an eye by the unpredicted lack of all humanity enacted by their attackers. 

People are not numbers: The value of human life cannot be captured by counting it. And yet, the scale of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel almost dwarfs the magnitude of September 11. 

If referenced by both countries’ populations at the time of the attacks, the October 7 attack on Israel would be the equivalent of 36,755 innocent victims murdered in the United States by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. 

In some ways Israel in 2023, and the United States in 2001, received heartfelt declarations of solidarity from decent nations all around the world. In both cases, the Israeli people, as had been Americans, were united in their determination to eliminate the threat that caused these killings with all their force. 

The response 

In both cases, international law justified the acts of self-defense that both countries launched following the attacks.  

In the United States’ case, an attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan who had harbored and helped al-Qaeda. In Israel’s case, an attack on the Hamas infrastructure that made October 7 feasible.  

Both actions were beyond reasonable doubt within the confines of international law. 

There were those in 2001, who rightly, if arguably, pointed out that the United States had failed for decades to execute a defensible foreign policy in the Middle East that would preserve the rights of all its inhabitants. 

And there are those today who, correctly, if arguably, accuse Israel of mishandling the rights of Palestinians for decades. 

Both positions have merit. However, under no circumstances may these policy failures and even the related human rights transgressions by these two nations serve as a fig leaf, a justification or a false moral equivalence to the terrorist attacks that ensued on September 11 and October 7.  

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind 

And hence, the worldwide support for U.S. and Israeli military remediation that immediately followed these events can never fall into the category of “an eye for an eye.” 

And yet, something went awfully wrong in the United States and Israel after their justified acts of retaliation and attempts of eradicating the sources of the attacks on them had begun. 

In part because both nations were frustrated with the lacking effectiveness of their retaliation, and in part because certain, well-established political actors in both countries decided to take advantage of the situation to pursue an altogether different agenda, both countries went off course.  

The United States after September 11 and Israel after October 7 gradually crossed the lines from globally supported self-defense to the gray areas of murky actions to outright violations of international law. 

Being held to account 

In both cases, the leaders of the two countries, George W. Bush of the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, appear to have given orders for, or had knowledge of, crimes against humanity.  

And, in both cases, they should be held responsible for their roles -notwithstanding the unjustifiable suffering of their own peoples that preceded these crimes.  

If found guilty by a court of law, the crimes committed against their own people should be considered during the sentencing phase against either leader. 

What about the International Criminal Court? 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) never sought an arrest warrant against George W. Bush accusing him of crimes against humanity.  

The United States does not recognize the ICC. The underlying Rome Statute has been ratified by 124 countries, including Germany, France and the United Kingdom – but excluding the United States, Russia and Israel among others. 

Nevertheless, the ICC may issue an arrest warrant against the leader of a country which is not a signatory to the Rome Statute. After all, it did so against Russia’s Vladimir Putin in March 2023. Russia is not a signatory. 

That the Court did not pursue George W. Bush, although he admitted in his autobiography that he authorized waterboarding during his presidency (at least by most scholars considered a war crime) may be explained by the fact that the United States has many friends and dependent nations and is the world’s only superpower. 

The case for Israel is very different in that regard. Hence, the ICC prosecutor is seeking an arrest warrant against Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials as well as the Hamas leadership, all for crimes against humanity. 

Many friends of Israel were quick to condemn the ICC prosecutor. Most of all, they feel that the ICC prosecutor applies a false equivalence to the terrorist attacks by Hamas and Israel’s right to defend itself.  

Going to the core of the issue 

This is, however, not at the core of the case. The accusations by the prosecutor are that the Israeli leadership systematically violated international law in its legally justified actions against its attackers. 

Just as in the case of George W. Bush presenting false evidence to the United Nations to get approval for an invasion of Iraq, which was not a party to the September 11 attacks, just as his approval of means of torture against prisoners of war, the alleged systemic starvation of the Palestinian civilian population via Netanyahu’s orders would be a war crime, if true. 

This is not a game of “who started this.” This is not about “fair and balanced” coverage of the conflict.  

Al-Qaeda committed crimes against humanity as did Hamas. But did George W. Bush as President of the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister of Israel commit war crimes in the process of their justified self-defense?  

The loss of 1,269 people during the attacks on Israel which would have been equivalent to an unimaginable loss of 36,755 souls on September 11 make this the greatest moral dilemma of the 21st century so far.