Most of those who have defended Operation Cast Lead as justifiable, whether or not they believe it to be in Israel’s best interest, have done so on the rather obvious grounds of self-defense. But another equally sound, if not stronger, case for the moral and legal justification of Israel’s Gaza offensive can be made using the doctrine of preemption.
In order for the “disproportionate” argument to make sense, many of Israel’s critics have argued that the near-daily rocket fire that Israel had endured since it evacuated Gaza in 2005 was really not that big of a deal. “Rag-tag,” as the American Prospect’s Dana Goldstein put it. Whatever the myopia of this argument — no state, not even the utopia envisioned by Goldstein and her colleagues in liberal imagination-land — would put up with what Israel endured for so long. Indeed, it’s because of the double-standard that Israel and Israel alone is subjected to in the world media and international fora that its leaders waited so long before taking such necessary action to protect its citizens. If you want an example of what other countries do when felt put-upon by lesser antagonists, see the case of Russia vs. Georgia.
That said, there is something seductive in the disproportionality argument, seeing that the Hamas rockets, up until very recently, were almost entirely hitting the small town of Sderot and had only killed a handful of people. As wanton as the attacks might have been, the vast majority of Israelis were never threatened by the terrorism that their government has risked so much — in terms of national prestige, international reputation, and the lives of soldiers — to thwart.
For the sake of argument, let’s concede that the Hamas rocket attacks up until this point did not nearly merit the aggressive response that they eventually elicited. But along with that concession comes this concern: what would Hamas have been capable of had Israel not invaded and decimated its offensive capabilities? While the initial attacks from Gaza utilized the unguided Qassams (which, however crude, were no less deadly to the people who lived within their range), they became more threatening once Hamas violently seized control over the territory in 2007 and slowly expanded its arsenal — thanks to support from the Iranian regime. Last week, Israel reported that it believes Hamas acquired dozens of Iranian Fajr-3 missiles, and that, over time, Hamas would have obtained rockets able to strike the Israel nuclear installation at Dimona, 20 miles east of Beersheba. At some point, given the existence of a massive tunnel smuggling network, Hamas would have weapons capable of hitting Tel Aviv.
Though it has greatly reduced rocket fire, Operation Cast Lead has not eliminated it. There is no doubt, however, that left unmolested, Hamas would soon be firing rockets at densely populated areas, thus disturbing normal life for an ever greater number of Israelis and inflicting many more casualties than the number currently deemed acceptable by Israel’s critics. Given the current unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — both of which were undertaken not only as responses to illegal and dangerous behavior by the regimes then in power, but also to preempt even graver threats down the line — it’s understandable that Israel and its defenders would opt for the relatively easier case of self-defense as opposed to preemption. But the latter is justified all the same.