This article was part of a roundtable series that was originally published in June 2019 by the Beirut School of Critical Studies working group in the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. It has been republished by Security in Context in October 2023. For access to all the roundtable articles, please visit this link:

By David Palumbo-Liu

The saying goes, ‘with power comes responsibility.’ The original form of this thought is said to be a decree issued by the French National Convention on May 8, 1793: ‘une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir’ (‘great responsibility follows inseparably from great power’).[1] Clearly the spirit of the democratic revolutions linked together power and responsibility in a way radically different from noblesse oblige—the obligation of the privileged to act with generosity toward the less privileged. The revolutionaries wanted rulers in a liberal democracy to be held accountable to the citizens and established institutions and laws to solidify and disambiguate that relationship. Of course, those in power have proven over and over again their capacity to obfuscate that relationship and avoid the law.

In terms of the Palestinian case, the importance of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is that it not only charges the state to protect all under its power—it also charges international bodies with the responsibility to act on behalf of those peoples if those who are supposed to protect them fail in their duties. Kiyo Akasaka, the UN Secretary General for Communication and Public Information, has said that ‘the idea of R2P is not new with respect to states securing their people, but new in that the international community can intervene to protect civilans.’[2] A state’s inhabitants are to be protected against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.[3] There is well-documented evidence that Israel has been engaged in at least the majority, if not all, of the above with regard to the Palestinians. This is attested to in a recent article in The Guardian:

The independent Commission of Inquiry, set up last year by the UN’s human rights council, said Israeli forces killed 189 people and shot more than 6,100 others with live ammunition near the fence that divides the two territories.

The panel said in a statement that it had found “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognisable as such”.

Thirty-five of those killed were children, three were clearly identifiable paramedics and two were clearly marked journalists, the report said.

Israel dismissed the report as “hostile, mendacious and slanted”.

Despite Israel’s denials, an interview with an Israeli general confirmed that soldiers were indeed ordered to shoot at even children.[4]

According to Noura Erakat, ‘the responsibility to protect is premised on the idea that sovereignty exists in duality with a responsibility to protect the state’s inhabitants. Failure to do so diminishes the sovereign right to territorial integrity and freedom from intervention. Israel’s failure towards Palestinians can theoretically trigger the doctrine. It also triggers a number of international obligations.’ [5]  

Israel has shown that it is unwilling to act as protector of those groups it has placed under its rule, which is after all its clear obligation under international law and conventions. For example, the International Red Cross has plainly stated: ‘As the Occupying Power in the West Bank, Israel is bound by the International Humanitarian Law. It has a duty to ensure the protection, security, and welfare of the people living under occupation and to guarantee that they can live as normal a life as possible, in accordance with their own laws, culture, and traditions.’

In fact, Israel goes in exactly the opposite direction—it acts as their oppressor and antagonist.  This goes exactly against the spirit of R2P and the explicitly democratic spirit of the notion that ‘great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.’ But of much greater significance is the fact that Israel’s actions stand in defiance of actually binding international human rights law and international laws of war, as Israel is the sovereign and occupying power under which Palestinians live and therefore subject to these laws. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent bargain with the ultra-right Jewish Power party (Otzma Yehudit), and its historical commitment to violence and mayhem, shows just how sharply the situation is likely to deteriorate.

Israel has made it abundantly clear that it considers itself a Jewish state, not a democratic one. Thus, it is not susceptible to appeals to grant Palestinians and other non-Jews equal rights, let alone protection. And it has enlisted other supposed democracies, most notably the United States, to act as its diplomatic shield against international intervention.

Among its many tactics is to argue that its first priority is the security of its Jewish citizens, often to the detriment of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians, and to emphasize time and again that a state of exception persists—even actual laws and human rights protocols can be swept aside in the face of terrorist attacks and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Israel has amplified the threat of rockets fired by Hamas and downplayed the radical incommensurateness between Israeli and Palestinian forces. According to a UK study, Israel has argued that Palestinians as a category are filled with potential terrorists.  

The notion that Israel would ever honor the doctrine of R2P is ludicrous, and it proves so more each passing day. Israel is such a failed democracy that no opposition is in the position to effectively act as a voice of conscience. The Palestinian Authority has also shown time and again that it is a source of persecution and exploitation of its own people. Lastly, the UN and the international community at large have proven incapable of imposing any sanctions on Israel, largely because of the still strong US support for Israel.  

The idea of R2P is thus bankrupt in the face of the political realities of Palestine—not only is Israel unwilling to protect all of those under its authority, but other nations are unwilling to intercede on behalf of those oppressed peoples to assure that Israel complies with both the spirit of R2P and international law. Where there is no will to enforce R2P, it is simply a dead letter at best and an obstacle to justice at worse. The only source of hope lies in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, with its efforts to bring Israel in line with international human rights doctrine and its tremendous success in raising consciousness within the world community.  It is in civil society that there is growing opposition to Israel, and this is pressing some members of liberal political parties to re-assess their support of Israel. Indeed, those who are upholding the principles and ideals of democracy and taking on the responsibility to protect the Palestinians are those who derive their power from solidarity within the civil sphere.

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Jacobin, Al Jazeera, and other venues.  He is currently working on a book on political voice for Haymarket Press.        


[1] Collection Générale des Décrets Rendus par la Convention Nationale (Paris: Chez Baudouin, Imprimeur de la Convention Nationale, 1793): 72.

[2] Ibid.,

[3] UN Regional Information Center for Western Europe:

[4] ‘Snipers ordered to shoot children, Israeli general confirms.’

[5] Personal communication.

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Oct 30, 2023
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