Israel and the Right to Self-Defence

In a meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Sunday 15th October, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi claimed that Israel’s reaction to the 7th October attack by Hamas has gone beyond the right to self-defence and turned into collective punishment for 2.3 million people in Gaza. He is one of many people who are claiming the same thing, putting pressure on Israel to stop fighting.

However, those claims are another indication that many people do not understand the internationally accepted right of nations to defend themselves against attack. Indeed, democratic nations consider the first duty of a government is to defend its citizens against attack.

The right to defend against attack includes the right to assure future security. Which means that Israel has the right to pursue the total defeat of Hamas – an organisation that exists with the sole purpose of destroying Israel and replacing it with an Islamic state. It is an extraordinary context – a nation state facing enemies who literally want to destroy it.

Many of Israel’s opponents also say much about proportionality when it comes to action by its defence forces. But what is proportionality? It is not a simple matter of the number of casualties suffered by both sides. Rather, it is action that is proportional to the threat that is faced. Given the threat of total destruction, that gives Israel very significant scope in its response to the threat from Hamas.

For those who would like to explore this in more detail, here is a discussion of the subject with two experts in the area of international law, organised by the Hague Initiative for International Cooperation (thinc):