Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Is Israel's Invasion "Proportionate?"

One clear media victory of the pro-Palestinian camp has been to paint Operation Protective Edge as "disproportionate." The daily body counts reported in major newspapers bear out this idea. To date, over 600 Palestinians have been killed versus 29 Israelis. Activists use these numbers to claim Israel's operation in Gaza constitutes a "disproportionate" response.

While these assertions have gained traction, there has been little serious discussion of what a "proportionate" response actually looks like. The virtues of a proportionate response have been extolled by everyone up to and including characters on The West Wing. However, measuring whether a response is proportionate is much more tricky than the pure moral outrage over Israel's actions might lead us to believe.

Using body counts is perhaps a reasonable starting point to measure proportionality. However, this strategy runs into problems. Were Israel to allow more of its civilians to die, would it's response in Gaza then be "proportionate?" Would disarming Iron Dome batteries and letting Hamas get in a few good shots be the morally superior outcome? Few decent people would argue so.

Body counts are really only useful as a rough proxy for the extent of force. In theory, a more forceful response should incur heavier civilian casualties and vice versa. But is a proportionate response one in which both sides use an equal amount of force? In an asymmetric conflict like Operation Protective Edge, this framework also runs into problems. As Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has pointed out: If Hamas rockets land on a school, should Israel's response be to fire rockets back at a Palestinian school? The amount of force would be perfectly proportionate. However, it would hardly be just. In fact, Israel has been rightly criticized for targeting civil targets such as hospitals (though they are often used as a base of operations by Hamas). Israel is expected, as a liberal state, to adhere to higher standards of civilian protection than Hamas, not proportionate standards. Given that Hamas is a State Department designated terrorist organization, this makes sense. A perfect tit-for-tat strategy between Israel and Hamas would still generate legitimate moral objection given Israel's status as a liberal state.

One potentially better way to define proportionality is as follows: A proportional response is one which achieves the defeat/surrender of the enemy with no more force than necessary. One important consideration is whether the actor is defensive or offensive - states understood to be acting defensively often get more leeway in the use of force than do offending states.

So, is Israel's response proportionate according to these criteria? Short answer: It's complicated.

The question of whether Israel's actions are offensive or defensive is hopelessly entangled. Israelis and their supporters will point to the 13 years of rocket fire on innocent civilians, terror attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings, and murders that preceded the current operation as evidence Israel is on the defense. Palestinians will point to the harsh restriction of their freedoms, removal (by various actors) from their historic lands, and systematic denial of their basic humanity as evidence that Israel is on the offense. Both sides have enough rhetoric, ammunition, bloody photos, and pain to last millennia of intractable bickering.

But the offense/defense question is secondary to the core issue: Whether Israel uses the minimum required force to achieve its goals. This issue is also complicated. Text warnings, precision munitions, calling off strikes when civilians are present, agreeing to humanitarian cease fires, and agreeing to Egyptian political mediation are evidence in support of the claim that Israel is not using an abundance of force. However, its targeting of hospitals, (alleged) use of flechettes in populated areas, and airstrikes that have resulted in the deaths of children are important pieces of evidence that call this claim of proportionality into serious question.

Rather than argue intractably about which evidence matters more, perhaps it makes more sense to consider how much each piece of evidence matters. Proportionality need not be a binary. A response can be more or less proportionate. It is this framework that allows analysts to account for the inherent complexity of the conflict rather than ignoring it. It also gives us a stronger, less polemic basis to push for recognizing the human dignity of civilians so often denied in the Middle East.


  1. I take issue with a few of your arguments:

    1. You present letting more Israeli civilians die as the only way to achieve proportionality (e.g., closer “body counts”). But this is flawed, and certainly not what people mean when they call on Israel to react responsibly and proportionally. The obvious way, and what people actually mean, is to kill fewer civilians on the other side. That too would be proportional, and would have the benefit of lowering body counts. In other words, don’t bomb an entire building if you’re after one person.

    2. Your point of whether it would be proportionate for Israel to fire rockets at a Palestinian school should a Hamas rocket fall on an Israeli school is moot. Israel has already bombed schools in Gaza without Hamas rockets coming anywhere near schools in Israel.

    3. Israel has stated that its major goal of Operation Protective Edge is to destroy the “terror tunnels.” Why, then, is it bombing civilian infrastructure such as homes, hospitals, and mosques, even if the latter hide weapons? By doing so, Israel fails to meet your second definition for proportionality (e.g., using minimum force to achieve goals).

  2. Hamas did in fact target a school in Ashdod on July 16. See: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4544405,00.html