WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Pentagon’s Air Force Department has argued that national liberation movements may be justified in resorting to force, an interpretation of international law that has been used by critics of Israel to support actions by Palestinian terrorists.
Heather Wilson’s 1988 book “International Law and the Use of Force by National Liberation Movements” argues that militant action is justified when used by liberation movements attempting to throw off the yoke of colonialism, while force should not be employed to suppress such movements.
“In this post-colonial world, the denial of self-determination is generally considered to be an evil of such magnitude that the use of force to secure it may be justified,” she wrote, and that “the use of force to deny the free exercise of a people’s right to self-determination is contrary to the principles of international law.”
Wilson, a former Republican House member from New Mexico in 1998-2009, was nominated by Trump in January to lead the Air Force department inside the Pentagon, but has yet to be confirmed.
She also served as director for European defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council during former president George H.W. Bush’s administration.
Though Wilson’s scholarly efforts, penned before she entered politics, did not mention the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute as an example of a liberation movement that would warrant the use of force, they have been used in the ongoing political debate about the conflict.
An example she does cite, for instance, was the Algerian struggle to gain independence from France, which led to a brutal war from 1954 to 1962 and is seen by some as the prototypical case of terror used to achieve diplomatic gains.
Pro-Palestinian activist and controversial academic Norman Finkelstein cited Wilson’s work at the height of the 2014 Israel-Hamas war to justify Hamas’s actions against Israel and accuse Israel of illegally pursuing its military campaign in that flareup.
In an article on the Jadaliyya website titled “HRW [Human Rights Watch] Whitewashes Israel, The Law Supports Hamas: Some Reflections on Israel’s Latest Massacre,” Finkelstein used Wilson’s book as evidence of Israeli malfeasance.
As the fighting was at an intense level that summer, Finkelstein argued Hamas was legally justified in its actions, and he included a footnote referencing Wilson’s book to back up that claim.
“International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination,” he said, “whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.”
The 50-day 2014 conflict began after three Israeli teenagers were abducted and murdered by Hamas terrorists. After Israel launched an offensive to arrest leaders of the Islamist group ruling Gaza, Hamas began firing thousands of rockets into Israeli civilian population centers.
According to Palestinian figures cited by the UN Human Rights Council, 1,462 civilians were killed out of a total of the 2,251 Gaza fatalities during the war. Israel, for its part, has said that up to half of those killed on the Palestinian side were combatants, and blamed the noncombatant death toll on Hamas for its strategy of deliberating placing rocket launches, tunnels and other military installations among civilians. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side of the conflict, most of them soldiers.
Finkelstein is not the only pro-Palestinian writer to cite Wilson. John Quigley, a professor of law at Ohio State University, also used her work in his book “The Case for Palestine: An International Law Perspective.”
Quigley’s book argues that doctrines of international law have been used to favor Israel and have been ignored for the Palestinians.
Wilson did not respond to several Times of Israel requests for comment.
Robert Jervis,the Adlai E. Stevenson professor of international affairs at Columbia University, told The Times of Israel that it was surprising someone with Wilson’s outlook on this issue would be embraced by the current US president.
“I find this an odd position for someone in the Trump administration,” he said.
‘Arguments don’t hold water’
Other experts said her thesis was too sweeping and should not apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I don’t think one can be so categorical,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told the Times of Israel in an email, referring to her general argument. “Nation-states do not welcome all internal liberation or independence movements or tolerate violence from them; we wouldn’t do so here.”
“Oppressed groups have a right to safety at a minimum, and there may sometimes be a judgment that they deserve separation or autonomy or independence as the only credible path to such safety,” he added. “But I’m uncomfortable with sweeping arguments about this issue and they clearly don’t hold water in terms of how the world actually treats various self-determination movements, or how the United States does so.”
Others were perplexed that Wilson made her central argument to justify the use of force by national liberation movements on legal grounds.
“There really is no rule of international law that would in any way deal with this issue,” Ambassador Richard Schifter told The Times of Israel. “What happens is that people will use force, and they can make a moral argument if they use force against an oppressive military establishment, that they have a moral right to go forward and use force against them, but there is no legal principle here.”
A longtime diplomat, Schifter has held roles including former assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations, US envoy to the UN’s Commission on Human Rights and UNESCO Committee on Conventions and Recommendations and deputy US representative to the UN Security Council.
“Just think about it,” he added. “Tibet is long-time oppressed by China. If Tibetans revolt, would they have a legal right to proceed? No, some people would say they have a moral right to do it.”
Shifter also insisted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be “an appropriate situation to apply such a formula to.”