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On Proportionality (Part 1)

August 14, 2014

Critics of Israel’s military offensive against Hamas have decried—during Operation Protective Edge as well as previous rounds—what they see as the “disproportionate” Israeli response, even as they lament the unwarranted and unprovoked attacks by Hamas.  Even supporters of Israel wonder aloud whether the IDF acted “proportionately” or overreacted.  They correctly point out that Hamas’ rockets and attack tunnels do not constitute an existential threat to Israel, and that few Israelis were actually hurt by them.  In comparison, the extent of the destruction and devastation in Gaza, as well as the casualty figures, seem quite high.  To answer the question of whether Israel’s actions were “proportionate” or “disproportionate,” we must start by considering what the term actually means.

First, we should recognize that any asymmetric conflict, such as one between a developed state with modern military and a non-state or sub-state actor—or even the armed forces of a less-developed state—is “disproportionate” by its very nature.  That is, after all, what “asymmetric” means!  This is true of the American campaign against Al Qaeda, the struggle of Syria’s Assad (at least initially) against both liberal reformers and Islamic rebels, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the many revolutions and counterrevolutions of the 20th Century and earlier.  In any case where a weak state or non-state actor takes on or attacks a stronger state, it is inherently inviting (or at least risking) a disproportionate response, simply because of the power differential between the two sides to the conflict.

Second, we should ask what “proportionality” entails.  Does it mean a rough equivalence of goals?  Of tactics?  Of results?  Of casualties?

Hamas’ ultimate goal, repeated explicitly and in detail in its founding and foundational document, is the destruction of Israel.  The 1988 Hamas Covenant states right in its preamble that “Israel will exist until Islam obliterates it.”  Article Seven of the Covenant advocates to kill all the Jews, and Article Fifteen promotes raising “the banner of Jihad” over all of Palestine/Israel.  A proportionate goal would be for Israel to “obliterate” the Gaza Strip, or to aspire to killing all Palestinians (or Arabs or Muslims).  But of course Israel has no such goals; even the most extreme right-wing Israel supporters have not advocated demolishing Gaza or killing all Arabs.  So any disproportionality in goals favors Israel, from a moral perspective.

In its asymmetric warfare, Hamas has deployed a number of different weapons.  During the early 2000s “Second Intifada” terror war, Hamas perfected and implemented the strategy of suicide bombings—sending human bombs to explode on buses and in malls, in pizza parlors and nightclubs and supermarkets and cafés, at a university campus and even a Passover Seder.  A “proportionate” response might have been to blow up Palestinian buses, grocery stores, or restaurants; but of course Israel would never even consider such a response.

Since 2001, and especially after the Israeli pullout of 2005, Hamas’ preferred strategy has been to lob rockets and mortars at Israeli population centers—sometimes a sporadic trickle, at times of escalation by the hundreds.  They started as crude projectiles—Qassam rockets, sometimes referred to in the popular press as “homemade,” as though they were your mother’s brisket or apple pie.  By 2014, Hamas was launching sophisticated, Iranian-made, long-range Fajr-5 rockets that eventually could reach almost anywhere in Israel.  Even without any specific guidance mechanism beyond a simple aim and launch, Hamas targeted Israel’s international airport, nuclear reactor, and of course, major population centers including Jerusalem (Israel’s capital, and also holy to Muslims!), Tel Aviv (the business center), and all the way to Haifa in the north of the country.  (All of these, of course, are war crimes according to Article 5 of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and of 1907 and Article 51 of the 1977 Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention,  but that’s a topic for a different article.)

Would a “proportionate” response mean that for every Hamas rocket targeting an Israeli town, Israel would fire a rocket at a Palestinian town?  Perhaps those advocating for more “proportionality” want the response to a Hamas missile targeting an Israeli school for children with special needs in Rishon LeZion to be an Israeli missile targeting a Gaza school.  A rocket headed for a home in Ashdod would be met with an Israeli rocket to a Gaza apartment building.  Israel would counter a mortar to a preschool in Hod Hasharon with an attack on a daycare center in Gaza.  These responses, while “proportionate,” would be illegal and grossly immoral.   And of course, Israel would never consider such unconscionable and unfathomable measures, despite their apparent “proportionality.”

Ah, say the critics, but Israel has developed advanced early-detection radars, warning systems, bomb shelters, and an incredibly effective missile-defense interceptor, the Iron Dome, which helped minimize Israeli casualties from the indiscriminate rocket fire.  Indeed, Israel invested in reinforced rooms in every home and every public space; since the 1991 First Gulf War when Saddam Hussein retaliated for the U.S.-led invasion to liberate Kuwait by launching Scud missiles at Israel, Israeli building codes have required every new structure to include a “sealed room,” hardened to protect from bombings and impervious to chemical and biological weapons.  Earlier-built apartment buildings and public areas such as office buildings, schools, and shopping malls had reinforced bomb shelters.  So while Hamas invested in offensive technology like rockets and tunnels, Israelis bore the price of constructing expensive shelters to protect themselves from attack.  Is that unfair?  Of course it is.  But in which direction?

Iron Dome, with a reported interception rate of 80-90%, has been a game changer in the rocket war.  During the military operation, rather than living in their bomb shelters, Israeli civilians on the home front—those who were not called up for military reserve duty—were able to continue with their lives almost normally.  Hamas’ rocket attacks triggered citywide sirens and a scramble to the safe room or shelter, but the gratifying “boom” of the Iron Dome interception would quickly signal the all-clear.  How unfair, how disproportionate, that Israel had a way to defend its citizens from Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks….  Unfair indeed, both to Israelis and to the people of Gaza, that Israel had to invest in bomb shelters, while Hamas spent its resources on rockets and terror tunnels with which to attack Israel.

Finally, we come to the question of casualties.  One of my Facebook “friends” commented succinctly on July 17, “1:235,” keeping score of the number of dead Israelis and Palestinians reported by that point in Operation Protective Edge.  Disproportionate indeed!  More Israeli deaths would have made it a more “fair” or “proportionate” war, right?  It’s not fair; Hamas didn’t succeed in killing enough Jews!

Wrong.  In war, we don’t strive for equivalent numbers of casualties on each side.  If we have to fight at all—and in the civilized world, of course, we prefer other mechanisms for resolving our disputes—we hope for a quick and decisive victory by the Good Guys, with minimal “collateral damage” on either side.  (If you’re confused or ambivalent as to the identity of the Good Guys, you’re probably reading the wrong article.  Hamas is a designated terrorist organization, a murderous genocidal jihadi regime, oppressive to its own people and dedicated to killing Jews, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure to Palestinians.)  This isn’t the Brazil-Germany World Cup soccer game, in which viewers worldwide cringed at the imbalance, tilted against the home team.  In war, we don’t want balance; we want an end, not a more exciting spectacle for the fans in the bleachers!

Moreover, the number of casualties says absolutely nothing about the justness of the cause.  In World War II, six times as many Germans were killed as Americans, British, and French combined.  Does that make the Nazis morally superior to the Allies?  Of course it doesn’t.  Few were confused then, or are confused now, or argue that more American, British, and French casualties would have made the war more fair or “proportionate.”

So if proportionality does not mean equivalence in goals, tactics, results, or casualties, what does it mean?  As a former British Labour Party official (of all people) wrote in The Telegraph (of all places), perhaps Israel’s critics are really asking for it not to respond at all, to simply turn the other cheek to Hamas’ aggression and rockets?

Stay tuned for Part II of this series.


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