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Why Israel's action in Gaza is not "disproportionate"

Proportionality is not the same thing as symmetry. Israel must counter the developing threat from Hamas.

Israelis emergency services inspect a destroyed building that was hit by a rocket, fired from Gaza, in the city of Rishon Letzion, near Tel Aviv. Photograph: Getty Images.

One of the most common complaints against Israel is that its response to rocket attacks from Hamas is 'disproportionate'. Several MPs, including Menzies Campbell, put this charge to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in the House of Commons yesterday. And it is easy to understand why: in seven days of conflict there have been five Israeli casualties to over 130 Palestinian deaths. We look for things to be 'even-steven'; they are not, and our British sense of fair play is offended. 

No technology, however advanced, can remove the fog of war or the inevitability of human error. The death of a Palestinian family of ten on Sunday makes a mockery of easy talk of 'surgical strikes'. War is always hell and when a cease-fire is agreed there will be joy on both sides.

Nonetheless, the charge of ‘disproportionality’ is fundamentally misguided for three reasons.

First, in comparison to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, what is striking about the current military action is precisely how limited the civilian casualties have been. As of this morning, the Israeli Defence Force has conducted over 1,500 targeted strikes against the weapons caches and the command and control facilities of armed groups; on the rocket launching sites, the tunnels through which they are smuggled, and the terrorists who fire them – all deliberately hidden in built-up civilian areas. These 1,500 strikes have caused around 130 deaths and a significant number of those are terrorists. Of course, each civilian death is appalling. But the ratio tells a story: of scrupulous intelligence gathering, of the intensive use by the IDF of early-warning by leaflet and text message, and of a willingness to abort missions that would cause civilian deaths.

Second, in international law and just war theory, proportionality is not the same thing as symmetry. Princeton’s Michael Walzer, author of the seminal Just and Unjust Wars, put it like this:

Proportionality doesn't mean "tit for tat," as in the family feud. The Hatfields kill three McCoys, so the McCoys must kill three Hatfields. More than three, and they are breaking the rules of the feud, where proportionality means symmetry. The use of the term is different with regard to war, because war isn't an act of retribution; it isn't a backward-looking activity, and the law of even-Steven doesn't apply. Like it or not, war is always purposive in character; it has a goal, an end-in-view.

Proportionality, then, must be measured in part against the future: What is the value of the end-in-view to be achieved? What is the future threat to be avoided? Israel’s stated end-in-view has been rightful: to protect the citizens of southern Israel by stopping the rocket attacks. The developing threat to Israel from Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip must be judged by reference to both the power of the weaponry and the nature of the ideology.

As regards the weaponry, the pattern is long-established: periods of rocket fire on the citizens of southern Israel have alternated with periods of ‘quiet’ during which Hamas smuggles an ever-more powerful arsenal of weapons into Gaza via a pipeline that runs from Iran through Sudan into the Sinai.  In 2008 Israel faced an arsenal of 5,000 rockets held by armed groups in Gaza. Today it is 12,000. In the past, Israel faced home-made Qassam rockets fired over the border onto the people of Sderot. Then Hamas acquired Grad rockets, then Qassams. On the eve of this conflict, Israel faced an arsenal of Iranian-supplied Fajr 5 missiles able to pound Tel Aviv. The question it faced was: what next? 

As regards the ideology of Hamas, few things are more poorly understood among British politicians who tend to talk about Hamas as if it were a present-day version of the secular nationalist liberation movements of their youth. In fact, the Hamas Charter – its founding principles, operative to this day – breathes the worst kind of murderous hate towards Israel.  It opens with the statement: "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."

The Hamas Charter targets Jews as Jews in registers both pious and profane. It cites a hadith in common usage among Sunni Islamist organisations: "The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him." But the Charter also includes passages of classic secular anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, accusing Jews "with their money" of being behind "the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there."

Of course, Israel could have decided Hamas was being ironic. Muhammed Deif said in 2005 after Israel’s disengagement from the Strip, "We promise that tomorrow all of Palestine will become hell for you." But perhaps he was just being discursively playful? Hamas ‘foreign minister’ Mahmoud al-Zahar said in 2006, "Israel is a vile entity that has been planted on our soil, and has no historical, religious or cultural legitimacy. We cannot normalise our relations with this entity." Just a play at rhetoric?  And when Ahmad Al-Jabri (the Hamas military commander killed by Israel on day one of this conflict) called Jews "rats" to be killed in the cause of liberating "Jerusalem, the West Bank, and then Haifa, Jaffa, and Tel Aviv," Israel could have decided he was merely playing by the well-worn but essentially symbolic rules of ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse, and so not to be taken seriously.

If you want to engage in that kind of ‘translation’ then you will find abundant resources within western intellectual culture. Unfortunately it’s not like that in Israel’s neighbourhood. There, when someone says they intend to kill you, they probably intend to kill you.

It is also against these grim measures – of Iranian-supplied missiles, an ideology of genocidal hatred towards Jews, and what that combination may yet inflict upon the citizens of Israel - that ‘proportionality’ must be judged.

Professor Alan Johnson is editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region