Dershowitz versus Gaza

Alan Dershowitz routinely defends immoral behaviour by the Israeli army by vilifying civilians killed by Israel.

Dershowitz assails Hamas while remaining "absolutely silent about Israel's established habit of civilian slaughter" [AFP]

In his latest delusional rant at Ha’aretz, entitled “Israel’s right to self-defence against Hamas“, Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz writes: 

“As Hamas continues to target Israeli civilians in their homes, Israel continues to target terrorist leaders and other legitimate military targets. Hamas has now succeeded in killing a family of three in their home. Targeting civilians, such as that family, is a calculated Hamas policy designed to sow terror among the Israeli population.” 

Never mind that the Israeli army has now succeeded in killing a family of nine in their Gaza home, in addition to scores of other civilians over the past days, and that media buildings don’t qualify as legitimate military targets. Israel’s fatality count has meanwhile risen from three to five. 

Undeterred, Dershowitz proceeds to hyperventilate over the Egyptian government’s alleged hypocrisy in “condemn[ing] Israel while remaining relatively silent about Hamas”, and failing to comprehend that “[t]here is absolutely no comparison between the murderous war crimes being committed by Hamas and the lawful targeting of terrorists by the Israeli military”. 

Lest anyone assume that law professors at leading US educational institutions are required to abide by their own logic, Dershowitz assails Hamas while remaining absolutely silent about Israel’s established habit of civilian slaughter. 

The continuum of civilianality 

During the Israeli assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, a 34-day affair that resulted in 1,200 deaths – primarily civilian – in the targeted country, Dershowitz used his legal expertise to exonerate the Jewish state for its seemingly immoral behaviour. 

In a July 2006 dispatch for the Los Angeles Times, Dershowitz offered a handy conceptual tool called the “continuum of civilianality” to explain why it was that so many purported “civilians” were perishing. 

The answer, quite simply, was that some civilians just aren’t that civilian-like. 

Declaring the very term civilian to be “increasingly meaningless”, Dershowitz posits a far more precise taxonomy according to which two-year-olds fall on the “more innocent” side of the continuum, while south Lebanese residents who remain in south Lebanon in defiance of Israeli orders to evacuate are “complicit”. 

Dershowitz’s cautionary addendum – “Nor can women and children always be counted as civilians, as some organisations do” – is perhaps useful in explaining such events as the elimination in south Lebanon of 23 persons, most of them children, whose efforts to comply with evacuation orders were thwarted by the Israeli Apache helicopter that fired on their pickup truck at close range. 

Are there civilians in Gaza? 

In Dershowitz’s vision, “the line between Israeli soldiers and civilians is relatively clear”, meaning that Israeli civilianality is exempt from the continuum despite the small matters of the universal military draft in Israel and overwhelming civilian support for the military devastation of neighbouring Arab populations. 

It appears from Dershowitz’s recent Ha’aretz essay that civilian-ness in Gaza, on the other hand, is an ever more remote option. After inventing the factoid that Israelis are “outraged” by supposedly occasional incidents of disproportionate civilian casualties inflicted by the Israeli army in enemy lands, our scholar decrees: “This contrasts sharply with the population of Gaza, much of which applauds and celebrates every time an Israeli child is killed by a Hamas rocket.” 

To Dershowitz’s horror, certain media outlets are endeavouring to obscure the reality of Israel’s conscientious bombing campaigns, and “insist on describing the recent events in Gaza as ‘a cycle of violence'” without specifying that Hamas only commits war crimes and Israel only commits “lawful actions”. 

From a linguistic point of view, it would seem that cyclical violence might aptly characterise a situation involving repeated military assaults on the Palestinian coastal enclave. Objecting that “[i]t would be as if the media described lawful police efforts to stop illegal drug-related murders as a ‘cycle of violence'”, Dershowitz refrains from citing any historical instances in which police have deterred drug-induced homicide by pulverising apartment buildings. 

Israel, global policeman 

The police resurface in Dershowitz’s rehabilitation of the practice of targeting killing, which has been unfairly maligned by persons unnecessarily concerned with human rights: 

“There are some who argue, quite absurdly, that all targeted assassination is unlawful, since it constitutes ‘extrajudicial killing’. But all military deaths are extrajudicial killings, as are deaths caused in the civilian context by individual acts of self-defence or by the police shooting a dangerous fleeing felon.” 

Obviously, a state that casts mass murder as self-defence should not be promoted to the role of police or permitted to arbitrarily inflict its own self-serving version of justice in contravention of international law. 

As for what level of civilianality should be assigned to representatives of prestigious academic institutions who shamelessly provide legal veneers for collective punishment, it is instructive to glance at the short bio appearing at the end of Dershowitz’s Ha’aretz article, which tells us that its author, “the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practising criminal and constitutional lawyer”. 

If “practising criminal” is interpreted as his primary profession, the article can be said to contain exactly one fact. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.