14 November 2007 - Israel/Palestine: Week 8 & 9
For the past two weeks, Harvard Law School’s seminar on legal issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has considered the question of Palestinian terror. Is it OK to kill Israeli soldiers? How about Israeli civilians? What’s an Israeli civilian, anyway? (Very killable, these Israelis.) Surely all these elite Harvard lawyers-to-be would have the legal insight and moral judgment to weigh these questions carefully.
We went around the class, canvassing opinions. On the question of whether a Palestinian guerilla fighter not wearing a uniform has the right to kill an Israeli soldier in the West Bank, 11 said yes and 4 said no. On the question of whether Palestinians can kill Israeli civilians, or whether violence against civilians is ever justified, 1 said yes and 6 said no, with 8 abstensions or “it depends” answers.
So two-thirds of the class think it’s OK for a soldier to be killed for no apparent reason other than his presence in the occupied territories, and a majority refuses to condemn violence against civilians. A majority. I brought my Qassam fragment to class today to argue against any “right” to kill, and perhaps I swayed a few “yes” votes over to the “depends” column but I don’t think I really changed anyone’s mind.
You have to be mad to believe there is a “right” to kill. Rights exist to protect human life. The only world in which a person who looks like a civilian has the “right” to kill a soldier is one in which the soldier also has the “right” to kill guerillas who look like civilians—and perhaps civilians who might be guerillas. The irony of my classmates’ position is it justifies the worst features of the Israeli occupation.
It’s also crazy to think the solution to Palestinian problems starts with the dead body of an Israeli soldier, or ferreting out illusory contradictions in international humanitarian law. In class today some pro-Palestinian activists tried to argue that the law against killing civilians applied a double-standard against Palestinians, and said that international law should not be read so strictly. Are you kidding me?
One thing I have learned from this class is that the Israeli case in human rights and international law is far stronger than I ever imagined. You just have to hear the campus’s most passionate advocates of the Palestinian cause attacking international law to understand that Israel has right as well as might on her side. Despite Professor Kennedy’s best efforts, that is what has emerged from this class.
Elsewhere on campus, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences debated a motion supporting “free speech” on campus—free anti-Israel speech, that is—based on the ridiculous claim that critics of Israel “tremble in fear” at Harvard. It’s a load of garbage, peddled by a visiting professor who knows zero about the Middle East. I handed out leaflets outside the meeting for a while. I’m sure the motion failed, but who knows?
When you can’t get a majority of the world’s brightest law students to condemn killing Israeli civilians, it’s not Israel’s critics who should live in fear.