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Op-Ed: Israel says attacks on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq in defense of Israel

Netanyahu’s statement

After Iraq accused Israel of an attack on a powerful Shi’te militia in the country, Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu said to his supporters in a Facebook post: “I am doing everything to defend our nation’s security from all directions: in the north facing Lebanon and Hezbollah, in Syria facing Iran and Hezbollah, unfortunately in Iraq as well facing Iran. We are surrounded by radical Islam led by Iran.”

The attacks on the PMF in Iraq

Often Israel will simply refuse to confirm attacks that appear to be by the Israelis. In the case of attacks on the Popular Mobililzation Forces(PMF) in Iraq, Israel had before this avoided directly admitting that it was responsible for the attacks. The US which already has bases in Iraq claimed that it had nothing to do with the attacks and confirmed the attacks were by the Israelis. Iraq was furious at the attacks and had been blaming the US and Israel.

The Pentagon took the surprising steps of not only confirming that Israel launched the attacks but condemned them: “The Pentagon statement said the attacks by external actors incited violence in Iraq. The Pentagon also said it supported the right of Iraq to exercise self-defense and protect their democracy. This last statement will no doubt annoy Israel as it bills itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.”

The Trump administration and the State Department take a quite contrasting view and support Israeli attacks: “It’s our position that if neighbors of Israel allow a malign third country that does not share a border with Israel to use their sovereign territory as holding ground for increasingly sophisticated dangerous weapons, the only purpose of which is to attack Israel, I think those governments, if they cannot curb or control those elements, are going to have to be prepared to be responsible for them,” a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters Thursday. “So be it Lebanon, be it Syria, be it Iraq — I think that has to be our very clear message to those governments.”

Notice that the US defense introduces the self-defense argument. However it never gives evidence that there is an imminent threat. Obviously it would take some time before the buildup of such weapons could become an imminent threat if they ever would. A number of PMF bases across Iraq have been hit by explosions there have been reports of drone sighting over the areas attacked. Since Israel has not admitted to the attacks it has not used the self-defense argument as a justification.


Over last weekend there were attacks on a Palestinian faction in the east of the country and on Sunday two drone attacks just south of Beirut targeting Hezbollah.

A recent article describes the Beirut attack: “Two drones were spotted flying over the Hezbollah-dominated suburb of Dahyeh in Beirut. Hezbollah, backed by Iran, said on Sunday that the first Israeli drone one crashed over a building housing Hezbollah’s media office, while a second drone exploded in midair, prompting the movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah to describe the incident as a “suicide mission”. The Israelis avoided sacrificing any of their forces in the suicide mission!

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
claimed the attack by two Israeli drones was a violation of the country’s sovereignty saying:”The new aggression … constitutes a threat to regional stability and an attempt to push the situation towards further tension.” Israel has made no comment yet on the raids. However if they do admit to the attacks they will probably claim that both Hezbollah and the Palestinian group are threats to Israel. Yet they seem not be imminent threats so the attacks would still be against international law.


Israel is thought to have been responsible for many strikes in Syria but only occasionally admits them. However, a recent attack has been acknowledged and the self-defense argument was used to defend it. As a recent article reports: “In a rare confirmation, Israel said it struck in Syria on Saturday to thwart a drone attack by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force. Syrian opposition activists reported three deaths in the attack. The Israeli army said the foiled attack entailed launching several drones at targets in northern Israel.”

A major in the Quds Force denied thy were hit but the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights claims two Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian were killed in the attack. There is no independent confirmation that the targets were about to launch an attack on northern Israel. In response to the constant Israeli attacks there could very well be eventually an attack on Israel in retaliation.

Self-defense attacks in international law

Wikipedia explains the imminent threat version of the self-defense argument: “The imminent threat is a standard criterion in international law, developed by Daniel Webster as he litigated the Caroline affair, described as being “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” The criteria are used in the international law justification of preemptive self-defense: self-defence without being physically attacked first (see Caroline test). This concept was introduced to compensate the strict, classical and inefficient[how?] definition of self-defence used by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which states that sovereign nations may fend off an armed attack until the Security Council has adopted measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.The Caroline affair has been used to establish the principle of “anticipatory self-defense” and is also now invoked frequently in the course of the dispute around preemptive strike (or preemption doctrine).”

Note that the imminent threat defense is not even allowed under the more strict “classical” view of self-defense which requires an actual attack to be invoked. However, the use of the imminent threat defense requires that the threat be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”. Israel’s attacks do not appear to meet the criteria for being a justified response to an imminent threat given these requirements. Israeli attacks seem to violate international law.

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