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.

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

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.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses