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).

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.