The fallacy of the colonial ‘right to self-defence’

Colonial powers have long demanded the ‘right to self-defence’ against the people they have colonised.

A man carries the body of a Palestinian child from Al-Hadidi family, who was killed in an Israeli air raid on Gaza, during their funeral on May 15, 2021 [Reuters/Suhaib Salem]

The violence convulsing the Middle East has produced heart-rending images and statistics. As I write this, at least 160 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians, including at least 41 children – the vast majority Palestinian – have been killed as the Israeli military carries out bombing raids in densely populated Gaza and armed Palestinian groups hurl rockets at Israeli cities. Meanwhile, inter-communal violence has broken out across Israel.

In response, Western governments, led by US President Joe Biden, have been quick to unequivocally condemn Palestinian groups for the rocket barrages, but have been much more circumspect about condemning Israel’s attack on Palestinian civilians.

Lukewarm expressions of “dismay” and “grave concern” at Palestinian deaths have been interspersed with declarations of “unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself”. They have also included appeals for “moral clarity”, implying that the actions of Palestinian groups, though causing  a tiny fraction of the death and destruction that Israeli bombardment has wreaked, were nonetheless much more objectionable.

While some progressive politicians – such as US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – have pointed out the hypocrisy of a blanket assertion of the Israeli right to self-defence, even they have balked at outright rejection of Israeli justifications.

Colonial occupiers have long claimed a “right” to defend themselves from the resistance of native communities, including by committing mass murder. The history of African colonisation is littered with the corpses and mass graves of those who dared to resist the militarily superior Europeans.

In her book, the British Gulag, historian Caroline Elkins describes a “murderous campaign” by the British in colonial Kenya following the 1950s Mau Mau peasant uprising, including the establishment of concentration camps for 1.5 million Kikuyu civilians and a brutal system of torture camps that may have claimed the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of those suspected to have pledged themselves to the rebellion.

The idea that imperial land grabbers have the right to terrorise, brutalise, torture and murder those whose land they steal under the rubric of “self-defence” flies in the face of UN General Assembly Resolution 37/43 of 1982 which recognised “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle”. That resolution specifically reaffirmed this right in the case of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus, today in Gaza, rather than seeking “moral clarity”, the West is using moral obfuscation to justify attacks on a refugee population by a colonial power that has evicted them from their land, blockades them in what is, in essence, an open-air prison, and then claims the right to do so in peace and quiet.

When Western media speaks of a “cycle of escalation”, it equates oppression to the resistance to oppression, presenting the violence as a conflict between two sides with equal claims to security and land. It ignores that the Palestinians are engaged in a struggle for national liberation against a decades-long illegal and immoral occupation, and the imposition of a regime of racial and ethnic discrimination which Human Rights Watch, in a report the media pointedly refuses to bring up, says fits the definition of the international crime of apartheid.

In interviews, Israeli spokespeople repeatedly stress the difficulty that Israel’s self-declared “most moral army in the world” has in finding and killing what are in essence Palestinian resistance leaders, who, they say, are hiding behind civilians.

The Western press is happy to accept that the leaders of Hamas and other groups are legitimate targets, and with it, the implication that while its tactics may be somewhat unsavoury, Israel is nonetheless waging a legitimate war. Uncritically accepting this framing makes Western media complicit in the delegitimisation of Palestinian resistance to colonial domination and dispossession by the Israeli state.

As Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, regurgitating the line that “Israel has a right to defend itself” without including the context of oppression simply excuses and legitimates even more oppression. But she should have gone further. If Western media, politicians and diplomats truly seek moral clarity, it behoves them to reject outright as gaslighting and bothsidesism, the outrageous proposition that colonial states such as Israel have a right to defend themselves from those they oppress.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.