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).

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A general election means Jeremy Corbyn's euroscepticism is finally an asset

The Labour leader's track record means he can connect with Remain and Leave voters alike. 

The first anti-establishment party leader to offer true ideological opposition and alternative to the Thatcher consensus in a generation is staring down the barrel of a 20 point polling deficit at the start of this snap election race. This leader has filled halls; galvanised hundreds of thousands and consistently voted on the side of freedom, progress and justice. So just why has he been abandoned by those who should support him?

While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has rightly been held to account, the criticisms have been, at times, unfairly amplified both by hostile MPs and a condescending press. With the election just over 40 days away, the left must now realise the severity of the task at hand, and question whether its constant attacks are helping to create the monstrous Tory landslide we all so fear. In the run-in, Corbyn will need unified backing by all those who oppose austerity, inequality and injustice, in a way he’s so far failed to receive.

The votes for Brexit and Donald Trump show the sheer disillusionment with the extreme centre governments of the last decades, that have given rise to mass inequality, caused global instability and brought terrorism to our doors. While Corbyn’s policies – on nationalising railways, foreign intervention, supporting the NHS, tuition fees, and more – are overwhelmingly supported by the public, he has so far lacked the communicative edge to ride the wave of this new age of populism. Whereas policy-lite Trump romped home with the mere repetition of eight syllables, Corbyn often misses opportunities to sell the bright, inclusive future needed to inspire the British public. He needs to create the punchy soundbite that sells his vision, in one, short sentence what a future Britain can look like, and how it stands in stark contrast to that of the Tories.

Throughout his spell at the helm of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s style has constantly been ridiculed; from his dress sense to tone of voice. So what do we really value in a leader and how should they act?

As PM, David Cameron regularly hit home in Parliament, brashly mocking opponents with quips and digs. He stood smug and unrepentant as deeply damaging cuts were enforced. But while he was once considered a strong and stately leader, history now judges him quite differently. For inflicting austerity, and leaving behind a heavily divided Britain, he’s now recognised as one of the worst. Theresa May’s brief stint at leadership has already seen a humiliating u-turn, dodged live debate and false election date promises, all while cruelly playing with the lives of millions of EU nationals.

Meanwhile, Corbyn, who at times has been unfairly lambasted for his approach has consistently displayed personal and professional dedication to championing pro-people politics for over 30 years, undeterred by spin and political games. Compassion, equality, fairness - surely these leadership traits hold equal worth.

In an election based primarily on Brexit, Corbyn can take real and emboldened ownership. A lifelong eurosceptic, Corbyn has the chance to offer a people-led Brexit that works for the majority, reaching out to Leave and Remain voters alike.

Much of the Remain protest movement and post-referendum activism revolves around fears of Britain becoming racist, hostile and isolationist in its approach to would-be migrants, and EU nationals. In negotiations, if a deal on immigration is to be struck, Corbyn’s historically compassionate views on migrants and refugees could create the most fair, humane solution possible. In his move today, he’s sought to reassure EU nationals of a future far removed from May’s brutal nationalistic games. And in Corbyn’s lifelong championing of workers’ rights, and redistribution of wealth, he can at last speak to the working-class heartlands freely of an inclusive and beneficial post-Brexit future.

While there can be shortcomings in Corbyn’s communication, and occasionally muted approach; criticisms can frequently seem unbalanced. His inability to shout about recent budgetary u-turns, for instance, made headlines over the actual climbdown itself. The time has surely come to focus on the severity of the alternative.

Throughout his leadership, Corbyn has been targeted by all corners of the press, with focus poured on his character over providing a real and important platform to explore his policies. When he refused mass media engagement he was dubbed cranky and weak, yet we’ve largely let May off the hook for dodging much-needed live debate. Written off by Westminster, mocked and condemned by the media. A principled voice fighting for equality, inclusion and fairness. Not much has changed in 30 years.

While we must hold his leadership to account, there is a sense that we, on the left are at times helping to fuel the massive Tory victory we apparently dread. So now is the time to remind ourselves, and others, who and what we’re up against. The "go-home illegal immigrants" vans circulated, and then pulled by May; her election u-turn, reinvention and uncompromising hard-Brexit approach. A party of callous, brutal decisions that have caused despair and plunged many into poverty. A snapshot of their comparative voting records alone should be enough to put the choice ahead of us into stark perspective.

And just to reiterate Corbyn’s largely swallowed, forgotten record during his rebranding as meaningless, lost and ineffectual. He was right on sad, regrettable wars; he passionately protested apartheid, championed workers rights and equal pay, and has consistently stood up for the NHS – against party line.

That’s a name, record and leader many will be proud to put an inked endorsement by on 8 June 2017. 

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