When one country invades and occupies its neighbor, it is committing an international crime. Seizing territory by force is not legitimate, because nations have the right to self-determination, i.e., they get to decide who rules over them. If one country occupies another, the occupier’s violence is illegitimate and wrong. Some kinds of violent resistance by the occupied people, however, is not wrong, because countries are allowed to use force to try to liberate themselves from an occupation. Because the right of self-determination is so fundamental, and because we don’t want to live in a world where “might makes right” and countries can just seize neighboring territories with impunity, we have an obligation to support those who are trying to liberate themselves from an occupying power.
I don’t think anything I’ve just said is particularly controversial. It’s a common explanation given for why the U.S. has a moral obligation to send weapons to the government of Ukraine. If we don’t help the Ukrainians fend off Russian aggression, we are sanctioning the violation of the basic international order, and a world where aggression is not countered by force is a more dangerous world.
And yet: I can’t help wondering why the United States has sent more than $75 billion to Ukraine but not showed a similar interest in giving the people of Palestine weapons and support to liberate them from Israel’s ongoing occupation. Both of these are straightforward cases of illegitimate occupation of neighboring lands. But the United States actually arms Israel, the occupier, while in the case of Ukraine arming the occupied country.
Israel has launched a new violent attack on the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine. Beginning over the weekend, “hundreds of soldiers poured in and drone attacks and missiles damaged buildings and critical infrastructure.” Nearly a dozen Palestinians have already been killed, and Al Jazeera reports that Israeli soldiers have opened fire at journalists and in a hospital. (Israel has a long record of killing journalists with impunity and attacking hospitals.)
The refugee camp in Jenin is home to the “descendants of Palestinians dispossessed of their land and homes when the state of Israel was created in 1948,” meaning that these people already had to live difficult lives of exile because of Israel’s original act of ethnic cleansing. Now they’re being bombed.
Israel “has portrayed the camp as a den of ‘terrorists’ who threaten its security and, therefore, is justified in using deadly force.” Whenever Israel commits a new atrocity in the Occupied Territories, U.S. politicians on both sides are swift to lament the violence while affirming that Israel has a “right to defend itself.”
But discussion of Israel’s “right to self-defense” makes about as much sense as a discussion of Russia’s “right to self-defense” in the context of its occupation of Ukraine. Every aggressor has always portrayed its actions as purely defensive (the Emperor of Japan even claimed that Pearl Harbor was a defensive act). But if we are to evaluate when the use of force is legitimate, we have to understand how the conflict arose in the first place. An occupying power can’t claim that it’s merely “exercising the right to self-defense,” even if has been attacked violently by the people it’s occupying. We understand this clearly in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Are Russian troops there “defending themselves” against a Ukrainian “offense”? Well, yes, they are, in the sense that Ukraine is currently conducting offensive operations against dug-in Russian defenders. But to say that Russia is “just” defending itself would be a highly misleading account of the conflict that would leave out one of its most crucial facts: Russia is not supposed to be in Ukraine in the first place.
The same is true of Israel’s occupation, but this core fact is often left out of discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which contribute to making it appear a “complicated” territorial dispute when it is, in fact, quite simple. See, for instance, this BBC analysis of the “root of the violence,” which explains:
The roots of violence, despair and hatred between Palestinians and Israelis go much deeper than the latest violent confrontations. They thrive in the poison generated by a conflict over possession of the land that started more than a century ago. For a while, back in the 1990s, there were hopes that peace might come if an independent Palestinian state could be established alongside Israel, the so-called two-state solution. The attempt failed. Powerful Western countries, including the US, European Union members and the UK still insist that two states are the only possible solution. Their words are empty slogans. The last American attempt to try to make the idea work collapsed in 2014.
None of this is strictly factually false. But it’s propagandistic in its framing, just as it would be propagandistic to describe the Russia-Ukraine war as “a conflict over possession of the land” without mentioning that Russia invaded Ukraine. As Rashid Khalidi explains in a Current Affairs interview, Israel was born out of an explicitly colonial project that aimed to build an ethnically Jewish state in a land that was majority non-Jewish. This necessarily involved force and displacement, and many early Zionists admitted this. In 1905, Hillel Zeitlin wrote that Zionist plans for settlement “forget, mistakenly or maliciously … that Palestine belongs to others, and it is totally settled.” The same year, Yitzhak Epstein pointed out that the Zionist leaders had “overlooke[ed] a rather marginal ‘fact’—that in our beloved land there lives an entire people that has been dwelling therefor many centuries and has never considered leaving it.” Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, was blunt: Palestinians opposed Zionism, he said, because “they understand as well as we what is not good for them”:
“They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie…Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. … That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of ‘Palestine’ into the ‘Land of Israel.’”
Israel’s current government has made it quite clear that it has no interest in respecting even the small, scattered remnant of Palestinian territory. Having illegally occupied the West Bank since 1967, Israel continues to build more and more settlements in territory that does not rightfully belong to it, in the full knowledge that the international community is unwilling to do anything to stop it. In the case of Palestine, the idea of flooding the country with U.S. military equipment so the occupied population can violently resist the incursion on their territory is completely out of the boundaries of conceivable policies. Yet what excuse is there for not doing so, if we believe in aiding Ukraine militarily?
We need to understand something very basic in any discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict: Israel is the equivalent of Russia in this situation. All of its actions should be judged accordingly. Israel may plead self-defense against Palestinian violence, but ultimately Palestinians have a much greater right to use force than Israel does, because it’s their territory that has been taken from them. This does not mean that all Palestinian tactics are justified, and attacks on civilians should be universally condemned, whether it’s a Palestinian ramming people with a car or Israel massacring peaceful protesters. But when Israel says it has a right to defend itself from rockets sent across from Gaza, it’s leaving out the fact that the rockets are being directed at an occupier, just like Ukrainian drone strikes in Moscow. The use of indiscriminate force is not justified, but an occupying power cannot claim mere “self-defense” when those they oppress resist them with force.
All of the noble talk among U.S. politicians about protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty rings hollow to me, because if they believed in their stated values, they would have to support arming Palestinians. Nobody does, though, which suggests that our support for Ukraine isn’t really because we’re trying to protect the principle that occupations are illegitimate. The seemingly inconsistent stance taken toward Ukraine and Palestine is actually quite consistent, if we understand that the operative principle is “we help our geopolitical allies against our geopolitical adversaries.” Toward Russian aggression, we are opposed. Toward Saudi or Israeli (or our own) aggression, we feel differently. If Putin invades a sovereign country, we want him put on trial in the Hague. If George W. Bush invades a sovereign country, he receives friendly profiles in the Washington Post. Principle does not guide U.S. foreign policy. Perceived strategic interests do.
Of course, I’d like it if principle did guide foreign policy, and we did support all attempts at liberation and oppose all violations of international law. True consistency would mean that we should send heavy weaponry to the Palestinians and help them plan military actions against Israel, just as we do for Ukraine, but I think in that hypothetical we can see how an “arms over diplomacy” approach would fuel the cycle of violence rather than ending it. (This is why some are highly critical of our approach to assisting Ukraine, which de-emphasizes diplomacy.) We should stop arming Israel, and get consistent about enforcing international law. One reason much of the Global South hasn’t been too supportive of the U.S. stance on Ukraine is that they correctly see it as entirely hypocritical, and they do not believe us when we say that we are against violations of international law and the seizure of territory by force. My own preferred foreign policy would be to take a consistent stance against acts of imperial aggression and occupation, whether conducted by Russia, Israel, or the United States itself.