Commentary Magazine


Three Questions About “Disproportionate Force”

Yesterday in the New Republic, Michael Walzer weighed in on the question of whether Israel’s offensive in Gaza is a "disproportionate" response to attacks on Israeli citizens.

He rightly notes that most of those making this charge against Israel are not credible:

The commentators and critics using it today, however, are not being cautious at all; they are not making any kind of measured judgment, not even a speculative kind.” ‘Disproportionate’ violence for them is simply violence they don’t like, or it is violence committed by people they don’t like.

That’s an important point that can’t be made too often. Those who question Israel’s tactics are often those who don’t think any Israeli response to terror is justified under any circumstances. But for those who don’t fit into that category, how do we make judgments about proportionality?

Walzer lays out three questions to be asked before coming to a conclusion about a nation’s behavior.

•  Are there other ways of achieving the end-in-view?

•  Once the fighting begins, who is responsible for putting civilians in the line of fire?

• Is the attacking army acting in concrete ways to minimize the risks they impose on civilians?

Unfortunately, though Walzer makes it clear that he doesn’t think much of those who throw the "disproportionate" charge at Israel indiscriminately, he doesn’t go to the trouble of specifically answering these three key questions. Had he done so his essay would have been as useful as it was thoughtful.

Too much the philosopher, Walzer says, "The question ‘Is it disproportionate?’ isn’t hard at all for people eager to say yes, but asked honestly, the answer will often be no, and that answer may justify more than we ought to justify."

That’s all well and good but his effort to be even-handed here doesn’t lead us to the moral clarity he says ought to be our goal. If Israel’s tactics are not disproportionate, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that saying so will lead us to "justify more than we ought to justify." On the contrary, failing to forcefully answer this question in the negative means abandoning the field to those whose animus against Zionism or Jews leads them to make such false charges in the first place.

So what are the answers to Walzer’s questions? Anyone who has been following the conflict with their eyes and ears open knows what they are.

First, Israel endured years of rocket fire from southern Gaza before undertaking its current military efforts to restrain Hamas. I visited Sderot, the town that has been the target of thousands of Hamas attacks twice in the year prior to the (not very well observed) cease-fire that recently expired with a new surge of Hamas attacks. The people there felt abandoned by their government. A common graffiti message complaining about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scrawled on walls there said (loosely translated): "We are committed to our land. Soon we will all be under it. Thanks, Olmert."

A full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza didn’t stop Hamas from shooting across the border. Nor did diplomacy or any manner of concessions or aid. Hamas wanted war and it got one. Israel had no choice but to resort to force.

Second, Hamas’s tactics are aimed at causing the maximum casualties among their own people. By firing from civilian neighborhoods, including schoolyards and the most densely populated areas, they aren’t daring Israel to hit back; they are actually hoping they will.

Third, Israel’s painstaking efforts to calibrate its attacks to minimize casualties to non-combatants have often put their own soldiers at risk or caused them not to fire at all. No other country’s armed forces, including those of the United States and its Western European allies, would do as much.

The charge that Israel is using disproportionate force is a calumny that must not go unrefuted.

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