“What a glorious day. Remember this moment,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entreated us emotionally at Monday’s ceremony transferring the American embassy to Jerusalem. And, as is required at such ceremonies, he saluted – to thunderous applause from the audience and members of the general public – “our brave soldiers [who] are protecting the borders of Israel as we speak today.”
But all of the excitement over the historic event didn’t stop the prime minister from talking at the same time about an existential threat. It’s worth clarifying if there is a connection between the picture that the prime minister and others seek to instill in our consciousness, and reconciling oneself with the deaths of more than 60 people on the Gazan border, including children, and the injury of thousands of others, including more than 1,100 by live fire, over the course of that one accursed day.
Israelis who have been worriedly following the events of recent weeks could have imagined that the reference was to concrete threats: infiltration of armed terrorists, abduction of soldiers or a terrorist attack on the Israeli side of the border. These are incidents that Israel has experienced in the past and that the security forces deal with on an ongoing basis. But for some leaders, it’s important to make it clear to the public that no such threat is currently in the offing. Instead we face a different, much deeper type of threat.
“The Hamas terrorist organization is declaring that its intention is to destroy Israel and is sending thousands to break through the border fence to carry out this goal,” the prime minister explained to Israelis on Monday, the same day that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called Hamas a regime of “endless bloodletting Nazi evil.” If that’s the case, Israel is facing nothing less than its own annihilation. As is well known, in the face of an existential threat, all means are permissible. Who would demand proportionality of a country fighting for its existence?
It’s important to note that Israel does indeed have the right to defend itself and to ensure the well-being of its citizens. At times such a defense also exacts a price in human life and again reminds us that war is a dirty business. Such dirt sticks even more so when we are fighting against an adversary that uses civilians as human shields and sends children to the front lines.
Every law student knows that self-defense is grounds for the use of force, but what exactly is the threat looming over Israel that can justify a price such as that reported by the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza? After all, at precisely the same time that it is “fighting for its life,” the country has been celebrating Netta Barzilai’s victory in the Eurovision song contest Saturday night, which will bring next year’s competition to Jerusalem – timed perfectly with a hug from Uncle Sam. Is there an existential threat?
We must not be confused. We’re not dealing here simply with exaggeration. In the context of the March of Return on the Israel-Gaza border, reference to concepts such as “danger of annihilation” requiring “defending the border” and “defending sovereignty” are broad, highly significant general concepts. They apply to threats to a country’s existence as an independent entity and that are qualitatively and not just quantitatively different from a concrete threat to a country’s citizens’ security.
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In the face of a concrete threat, the response must be proportional. It must be assessed for the harm that could be caused to both sides, and a decision must be made accordingly. An existential threat is an altogether different story, subject to different rules.
The lack of clarity regarding the threat Israel is currently facing, the deception regarding the significance of attempts to cross the border, and presenting the situation as an existential danger create public legitimacy for the use of unlimited force. And even if Israeli soldiers are making honest efforts to reduce harm to civilians in Gaza, and if concrete threats and corresponding open-fire orders have been spelled out to the security forces, Monday’s reported casualty figures prompt at least major concern that the political leaders’ sentiments are filtering down to the commanders on the ground.
The contradiction between throngs of people celebrating in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem while Israel’s leadership is speaking to us about an existential threat creates an impossible moral and legal situation, as well as a dangerous lack of clarity when it comes to the real threat we are facing.
Shafran Gittleman is a national security researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. Hostovsky Brandes is a senior lecturer in law at Ono Academic College.