As you may realize, the whole world seems to have turned against Israel in the past few days. In an effort to understand this, here’s a thesis I am advancing, and I offer it for discussion. First the thesis, and then a few words about it:
Jews have always been condemned for defending themselves, just as they are now. I suspect this comes from pervasive anti-Semitism that denies Jews the right to fight back when attacked or oppressed.
While an ancient idea, this began in earnest in 1948, when, after Israel was proclaimed a state, five Arab armies attacked it. While Europe and the U.S. did not condemn Israel defending itself, they imposed an arms embargo on both Arabs and Israelis. The problem was that the Arabs were amply supplied with weapons by other Arab countries, while the only country that supplied Israel with weapons in its defensive war was Czechoslovakia, as well as a few American Jews who smuggled weapons to Israel. Had the U.S. and Europe had its way then, Israel would have been obliterated.
You can see the condemnation of Israel defending itself against hundreds of Hamas rockets in several ways. First, in the Western media, which largely emphasizes Israel’s military response to the rocket attacks while downplaying the Hamas rocket attacks themselves. Here are two headlines from just now (no mention of Hamas rockets, etc.), and you can find others:
HuffPo (no mention that Gaza escalated its rocket attacks on Israel):
Some miscreant bloggers have even implied that Israel has no right to defend itself because, after all, the Hamas rockets are weak and ineffectual weapons that don’t kill many people. They are “psychological” rather than physical weapons. Tell that to the Israels who are both psychologically and physically dead! The battle, as one splenetic blogger claimed, was “asymmetrical.”
It is this issue of proportionality that bothers some. If Hamas fires 500 rockets at Israel, what right does Israel have to fight back with precision bombings that may kill more civilians than did the Hamas rockets (deliberately aimed at civilian targets)? (Note, too, that Israel’s interest is NOT in killing civilians, but that Hamas places its rockets in civilian areas, ensuring some civiliandeaths during reprisals.) The argument, so it seems, is that Israel should kill exactly as many Palestinians as Israelis killed by Hamas rockets.
But this argument for “proportional warfare” does not stipulate a military response that produces no more civilian deaths than suffered by the attacking countries. Here’s one explanation from the US. Marine Corps Association:
Finally, we get to proportionality. The principle of proportionality recognizes that some civilian life and property will be destroyed during armed conflict. Proportionality excuses collateral damage to civilian property or incidental civilian death or injury that occurs during an attack on a valid military objective, as long as the collateral damage or incidental civilian death is not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.14 Thus, proportionality begins with identifying the valid military objective and identifying any collateral damage or incidental loss of life foreseeable from the attack. The commander then weighs the foreseeable collateral damage or incidental loss of life against the expected military advantage to determine whether the collateral damage or incidental loss of life is excessive. As long as the collateral damage and incidental loss of life is not excessive compared to the military advantage, then the attack does not violate the principle of proportionality.15 If there is no collateral damage, then proportionality has no effect on the size or type of weapons used against the enemy.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo was the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court who investigated allegations of war crimes during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He published an open letter containing his findings; in a section titled “Allegations concerning War Crimes”, he elucidates this use of proportionality:
Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv)).
Article 8(2)(b)(iv) criminalizes:
Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;
Article 8(2)(b)(iv) draws on the principles in Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but restricts the criminal prohibition to cases that are “clearly” excessive. The application of Article 8(2)(b)(iv) requires, inter alia, an assessment of:
(a) the anticipated civilian damage or injury;
(b) the anticipated military advantage;
(c) and whether (a) was “clearly excessive” in relation to (b).
And from the New Atlantis:
This criticism reveals an important moral misunderstanding. In everyday usage, the word “proportional” implies numerical comparability, and that seems to be what most of Israel’s critics have in mind: the ethics of war, they suggest, requires something like a tit-for-tat response. So if the number of losses suffered by Hezbollah or Hamas greatly exceeds the number of casualties among the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), then Israel is morally and perhaps legally culpable for the “disproportionate” casualties.
But these critics seemed largely unaware that “proportionality” has a technical meaning connected to the ethics of war. The long tradition of just war theory distinguishes between the principles governing the justice of going to war (jus ad bellum) and those governing just conduct in warfare (jus in bello). There are two main jus in bello criteria. The criterion of discrimination prohibits direct and intentional attacks on noncombatants, although neither international law nor the just war tradition that has morally informed it requires that a legitimate military target must be spared from attack simply because its destruction may unintentionally injure or kill noncombatants or damage civilian property and infrastructure. International law and just war theory only insist that the anticipated collateral damage — the “merely foreseen” secondary effects — must be “proportionate” to the military advantage sought in attacking the legitimate military target. This sense of proportionality is the second jus in bello criterion; it has to do almost entirely with the foreseen but unintended harm done to noncombatants and to noncombatant infrastructure.
Finally, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (as far as I can see, all sources agree with these four construals):
Rule 14. Launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited.
Now of course I’m not condoning the deliberate targeting of civilians here, nor by any means a mass slaughter of Palestinians by Israelis, but merely showing you how “proportional response” has been construed during wartime.
In this case, then, the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II was indeed a disproportionate and immoral response because it was both a direct attack on noncombatants, and, further, the deaths of civilians far outweighed any military advantage (a very, very small one at best) of destroying the city. You can weigh the U.S.’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagisaki for yourselves.
This is not the case when Israel targets the Hamas leaders and bomb-makers that are waging war on Israel. Given that Israel is trying to neutralize a military threat, the argument of unequal numbers of lives lost in a purely military exercise doesn’t apply. (Someone also argued “but Palestine doesn’t have an Iron Dome system to stave off Israeli airstrikes.” The response was “But they do: it’s called ‘Don’t fire rockets at Israel.'”)
No person of good will can look at the deaths of innocents and civilians with a cold heart. Whether Palestinian or Israeli, a civilian killed leaves behind a world of heartbreak, loss, and misery. But I maintain adamantly that in this case Israel has the right to defend itself as it is doing, so long as its response is a military one and not directly aimed at killing civilians. Remember that Hamas’s main aim, according to its charter, is the elimination of the state of Israel. They will do so if they have the means.
And Hamas has it within its power to minimize civilian casualties by not placing missile-launching sites in civilian areas.
These are just some thoughts I had this morning; feel free to discuss them below.