The Palestinian right to self-defense
By Ali Abunimah
The Electronic Intifada
8 June 2004
Does UN Secretary General Kofi Annan think that Palestinians have a
right to defend themselves against the kinds of violent attacks and
destruction Israel is carrying out in Rafah refugee camp? This is a
straightforward question, but despite my best efforts, it is impossible
to get a straightforward answer.
Annan recently termed Israel's massive lethal campaign of house
destruction in Gaza "acts of collective punishment" and "grave
violations of international law." Israeli tactics included bulldozing
homes with their residents inside or fleeing only moments before. It
ought to follow that any person or group of people subjected to an
illegal, life-threatening attacks have an inherent right to
self-defence using force if necessary. Every legal system in the world
recognizes this, including international law.
Annan has often been very explicit in affirming this when it comes to
Israel. Most recently, in a communique following the May 4 meeting of
the "Quartet," Annan stated, "While recognizing Israel's legitimate
right to self-defence in the face of terrorist attacks against its
citizens, within the parameters of international humanitarian law, we
call on the Government of Israel to exert maximum efforts to avoid
This concept underlies all of Annan's statements about Israeli actions:
the Secretary-General will often criticize Israel for using "excessive
force," but almost never questions Israel's inherent right to achieve
its goals through the use of violence. Since Israel always describes
its actions as "self-defence," this is effectively carte blanche. But
when it comes to Palestinians, I could not find a single statement from
Annan positively affirming their right to self-defence against Israeli
aggression. By contrast, Annan has made countless statements
critcizing, condemning and calling for a halt to Palestinian acts of
violence, even when they are directed at Israeli military targets
within occupied territory.
I decided I wanted clarity, so I called up Annan's office and got a
call back from Associate Spokesman Stephane Dujarric. I asked Mr.
Dujarric why the Secretary General never affirms the Palestinian right
to self-defense. Dujarric said he thought that Annan had publicly made
such statements and promised to find them for me. I reiterated my query
to Dujarric by email, in these terms:
"The Secretary-General has affirmed on several occasions that Israel
has a right to defend itself with force, provided it observes
international law when doing so. Does the Secretary-General believe
that Palestinians also have a right to defend themselves using force,
especially against the kinds of grave breaches of international law
being carried out by Israel in Rafah as I write, and which the
Secretary-General has specifically condemned?"
I also asked, "Other than issuing statements, what concrete steps has
the SG taken, or will he take to end Israel's attack on Palestinian
refugee camps in the occupied Gaza Strip? When will he report to the
Security Council as is his Charter duty?"
It took almost two weeks for Mr. Dujarric to email his response. He
wasn't able to reference any previous statements by Annan matching
Israel's "right to self-defence" with a similar Palestinian right. But
Dujarric offered this formula: "International law defines the
parameters within which acts of resistance and the responsibilities of
the occupying power take place and it's clear, from international law,
that action from both sides should spare civilians."
What this statement indicates is that the UN Secretary-General is fully
aware that Palestinians have an inherent right to resist occupation
using force, provided they do not target civilians, but neither he nor
his staff are willing to state that in any direct way.
Dujarric was defensive about my second question too, responding, "You
accuse [Annan] of doing nothing 'practical.' The Secretary-General's
daily concern is focused on finding a political solution to this
conflict. In order for that to happen there must be a cessation of
violence, thus his repeated calls for this to happen. More importantly,
the Secretary-General is, by definition, a diplomat. His practical
activities are in the diplomatic field. Although they may appear as
'just words,' they remain 'practical.'"
Dujarric added, "The Secretary-General was the catalyst in the
formation of the Quartet which is recognized by both parties as being
representative of the international community's efforts in the peace
But this answer only amplifies the perceived criticism in my question:
the so-called Quartet, made up of US, EU, UN and Russian
representatives was inspired by the United States and invented for the
sole purpose of sidelining the UN Security Council and General
Assembly, while giving the "peace process" a veneer of international
legitimacy and participation. Israel recognized the Quartet (though not
without a lot of conditions) because it knows that the body is a fig
leaf for American control of the process. The Palestinian Authority
accepted the Quartet because it is feeble and has no alternative.
The reality is that the US has called all the shots and the Quartet has
been a total failure. Its continued existence serves no other purpose
than to provide a cover for its members' unwillingness to confront
Israel and hold it accountable for its flagrant violations of
Despite launching the Quartet's "road map" with much fanfare a year
ago, the US abandoned the plan and replaced it with Sharon's rapidly
vanishing scheme for Gaza withdrawal. Annan's recent efforts have
focussed on trying to square the road map with Sharon's plan, even
though Sharon's stated goal -- keeping most of the West Bank --
fundamentally contradicts it. The road map was worth a try, but when a
policy has failed totally, and it is clear that a voluntary process
will not work, there is no use persisting in it, let alone trumpeting
it as an achievement.
Rather than persisting in failure and dressing it as a restless search
for peace as Annan seems determined to do, he would be much more useful
if he used his position to speak the truth. In pursuit of that, I wrote
Mr. Dujarric that his responses to me had deftly avoided a direct
answer to my original question. I have yet to hear back.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article
first appeared in The Jordan Times on 8 June 2004.
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