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Proportionality and Terror

Andrew Sullivan responds at length to my invitation to flesh out his Just War critique of the Gaza crisis.

The gravamen of Andrew’s complaint is that Israel’s war on Hamas is worse — more violent and deadly — than Hamas’ war on Israel, and is therefore in violation of the doctrine of proportionality. He writes:

Is the evil inflicted by the war greater than the evil prevented?

It seems clear to me at this stage that the answer is yes. The loss of life this past week has been huge – far greater than any other stage of the conflict, and out of all proportion to the damage Hamas has inflicted on Israel. In terms of casualties, we are talking about ratios of roughly a hundred to one. That makes this far from a close call morally. There is a reason, in other words, for many Europeans’ horror. This is an extremely one-sided war, with one side essentially being attacked at will in a way that cannot avoid large numbers of civilian deaths. It is all very well understanding and sympathizing with Israel’s dilemma in tackling Jihadist terror, as we should and must; it is another thing to watch women and children being terrorized and killed as they currently are in Gaza, with very little tangible gained as a result in terms of Israeli security.

Andrew has fallen for one of the great deceptions of the current age. In Andrew’s telling, and in the current faddish European one, proportionality requires that a military’s response to aggression must not exceed in violence the original provocation. This idea is not just a foolish and morally benighted concept of warfighting — it represents the complete repudiation of the actual doctrine of proportionality. It is also a case that is always easy to make, because western militaries, owing to their superiority of arms and organization, will always be able to deliver more devastation to terrorists than the other way around (short of a terrorist WMD attack).

A few days ago right here on CONTENTIONS, Michael Totten — who used to regularly guest-blog for Andrew — wrote a brilliant, heavily-researched review of the doctrine of proportionality. The original idea, first articulated in 1907, conceived of conflict only between uniformed state armies, and is thus inapplicable to a fight between a terrorist group and an army, especially a fight in which one side wishes to commit genocide against the other. Regardless, wrote Totten, “no war has ever been fought tit for tat, and the Hague Conventions doesn’t say any war should be”:

The American response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor went well beyond sinking an equal number of ships in a Japanese harbor, for instance. And European Jews certainly were not entitled to execute six million German civilians after the Holocaust.

Then we come to the Law of Armed Conflict, which also contains a proportionality clause — one that is relevant to all conflicts, even those between terrorists and armies. It is very simple: proportionality “prohibits the use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that needed to accomplish the military objective.” This is where Andrew’s critique conspicuously runs aground, and for a very simple reason: Hamas is still firing rockets; ipso facto, Israel is not using excessive force. If proportionality required similar levels of destruction to be visited on both sides of a conflict, the moral distinction between aggression and self-defense would be rendered meaningless, and deterrence itself — a vital means of establishing long-term peace — would become illegal.

Totten goes into detail on proportionality and more in his post, which I highly recommend reading. I might also suggest that Andrew review a few other parsings of international law as applied to Israel-Hamas: Here, here, here, here, and here.

I have no quarrel with anyone who criticizes the tactics or strategy of Israel’s campaign against Hamas. But there is a fundamental difference between questioning Israel’s means of self-defense and assailing Israel’s right to self-defense itself. I believe the latter is the intent of those who have cynically co-opted and perverted the tenets of international law and just war theory in order to declare Israel outside the bounds of legitimate conduct. Andrew may continue exploring such arguments — I hope, in the end, he doesn’t buy into them — but just war theory and international law, properly construed, lend them no credence.



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