All Writings
January 13, 2009

Weighing Proportionality In Gaza

Proportionality in war is often judged subjectively as each side weighs the consequences of hostilities, especially when civilian casualties are involved. While it is extremely difficult to justify a military operation solely on the basis of proportionality at any stage during war, a just cause must be central to the argument. Since Hamas' political agenda and raison d'être has been Israel's destruction, Israel claims that its pursuit of Hamas becomes a just cause.

Under this type of equation, the Israeli leaders are duty bound to take whatever measures they deem necessary to bring Hamas to heel. From their perspective, this is not a fight between Israel and the Palestinian people – although Hamas would like to portray it as such – but a fight between Israel and a fanatic terrorist cult acting as agents for Iran, a country that threatens its very existence. Seeing the conflict with Hamas in this context raises different questions about proportionality as well as the stakes for Israel's long-term national security considerations.

Scholars in international ethics have often argued that proportionality and the use of force in war is based on moral rather than on quantitative or qualitative equivalence. In this case, as long as Hamas' objective is to destroy Israel, the moral equivalence would be the destruction of Hamas or, at a minimum, marginalizing its militant capabilities. If, by adhering to proportionality, Israel could dramatically reduce civilian casualties and still reach its objective, it would be obliged to do so. Proportionality in and of itself, however, does not necessarily provide an acceptable equation. If Israel had indiscriminately launched one rocket against Gaza for every one fired by Hamas during the past three years, Israel's response would have been by definition ‘‘proportional'', but would have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians. But Israel would have also been severely and rightfully condemned by the international community for its horrific and yet proportionate response.

It should be noted that the proportionality norms apply not to the combatant's casualties, but to the relationship between the means and goal of war. Moreover, although Israel possesses overwhelming technical and fire-power advantages, Francis Winters, a noted scholar on international ethics, has observed that ‘There is nothing in the moral logic of self-defense that can support the notion that great powers may justly fight only when they reduce themselves to functional equality to small powers.'

Proportionality is also dramatically affected by the effort made to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants with the aim of minimizing civilian casualties. Israeli soldiers strictly follow military protocol to avoid civilian casualties through targeted attacks and accuse Hamas of using civilians as human shields to deliberately increase the civilian death-toll. Hamas rejects this argument on the grounds that their organization is a grass-roots movement inherently embedded in civilian communities. There is no doubt that when a fight is viewed in existential terms, be that political or physical, greater sacrifices are easier to swallow. Hamas wants to put Israel on the defensive, placing it under intense international pressure to end the hostilities before it reaches its objective. Hamas' leaders have time and again publicly asserted that they are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians as long as they emerge victorious. They continue to fire rockets from schools and mosques, knowing full well that Israel is likely to target their launching pads.

Finally, there is the question as to whether these hostilities were avoidable, and as to whether or not Israel had exhausted all peaceful means before it decided to wage war. Israel no longer considers Gaza as occupied territory because it argues that Hamas was given every opportunity to rebuild and develop the strip since the Israelis withdrew in 2005. Hamas opted instead to use the territory as a staging ground to rain more than 10,000 rockets on Israel. Having attempted repeatedly through political and proportionate military means in the past to end Hamas' constant rocket attacks, without success, Israel was left with no choice but to use force. Though this was disproportionate, it is morally justified on the grounds that it is dealing with an enemy bent on its destruction.

Every single Israeli and Palestinian who believes in peaceful coexistence should know that if Hamas is left to its own devices it will continue to undermine any prospect of reaching a just and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel must leave no stone unturned in its efforts to guard against civilian casualties in order for this war to fall into the category of a just cause. Regardless of proportionality, however, the losses on both sides will be all in vain if the final outcome of the war does not substantially improve both the prospects for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace and for Palestinian citizens' living conditions. For this reason, any ceasefire agreed upon must provide the basis for such an outcome. Anything short of that will make this war just another sad chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian annals, and the question of proportionality just an obscure footnote.