Friday, June 24th | 26 Sivan 5782

July 31, 2014 5:21 am

Proportionality? For Whom?

avatar by Mark Lavie


IDF artillery corps. Photo: IDF.

“Look, when militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality,” wrote a well-known columnist as Israel fought Hamas in Gaza.

So let’s do a historical exercise:

It’s Dec. 7, 1941. Out of a clear, blue sky, waves of Japanese warplanes suddenly sweep over the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In a swift, precise strike, the attacking Japanese kill 2,403 Americans.

  • In response, American political and military strategists pore over intelligence of the Japanese military formation. After consulting the Proportionality Committee (PC), they find a Japanese naval base with 2,403 soldiers. A wave of American warplanes is sent out to obliterate the base.

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It’s Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaida terrorists hijack four planes. Two of them crash into The World Trade Center in New York. Another hits the Pentagon in Washington. Brave passengers bring down the fourth. Altogether, 2,977 people are killed.

  • Concluding—wrongly, it turns out—that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and declaring—also wrongly—that Iraq was threatening the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. sends troops into Iraq, but not before the PC determines that its military operation must kill no more than 2,977 people there.

It’s 2014. U.S. forces are fighting violent Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan. From far away, a military pilot remotely guides a drone toward a target where high-level militants are known to be meeting. He sees that the target is a house with civilians.

  • The PC delays the drone strike, fearing that civilians might be killed. It orders the U.S. military to first drop leaflets on the village warning that an airstrike is about to happen, then call everyone’s cell phone with another warning, and finally shoot a firecracker at the house before carrying out the deadly drone strike. The military cancels the attack.

None of these three scenarios played out that way, though the third could still happen, as opposition to drone strikes increases.

What actually took place is that after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. joined World War II, firebombed Tokyo, killing about 100,000 people, and then brought the war to an end by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, incinerating 225,000 more, most of them civilians.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in a war that has taken the lives of about 200,000 people, most of them civilians, and it’s still going on.

There’s no PC, of course, except when it comes to Israel’s repeated clashes with Hamas in Gaza. Then, suddenly, “proportionality” rings out, because of the disparate casualty figures on the two sides.

To examine what’s behind this, do an Internet search for “proportionality (minus) Israel.” With the exception of one article about the above Afghanistan scenario where the concept is mentioned in passing, the hundreds of articles are theoretical and legal. In practice, the term seems to apply only to Israel.

Then look at the legal articles. You’ll discover that the concept of proportionality has nothing to do with numbers. It has to do with whether a conflict is justified, and whether the measures taken during the conflict are suitable in relation to the original threat or attack.

In defense of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan—the whole concept of human rights, out of which grows the idea of proportionality, is post-World War II. It dates to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a year earlier.

So the proportionality concept was definitely in play in 2001, when the U.S. hit Iraq and Afghanistan to try to weed out the terrorists who attacked on 9/11. There have been many bitter complaints about those wars, but proportionality isn’t one of them.

Over the past weeks, Hamas has fired more than 2,000 rockets at Israel. Israel has launched more than 2,000 airstrikes at Hamas targets in Gaza and has sent troops in to destroy tunnels Hamas dug under the border to send attackers into Israel.

More than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israel claims that most of the dead were Hamas fighters. Several dozen Israelis have been killed, most of them soldiers fighting inside Gaza.

Israel’s honeycomb of bomb shelters, reinforced rooms in houses and especially its Iron Dome missile defense system have kept its casualties to a minimum. Gaza has none of that.

So critics of Israel scream “proportionality.” It’s as if Israel needs to apologize for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to protect its citizens, while Hamas spends its money to smuggle in rockets and dig tunnels under the border, and then instructs its civilian citizens to protect its rocket launching sites by staying put in defiance of Israeli warnings to leave.

So that part of the PC appears to be in place in Israel, which drops leaflets from the air, group-dials cell phones and “knocks on the roofs” of targeted buildings with low-power mortar shells before an airstrike. There is no record of any other military force in the world taking those measures during a conflict.

Yet the numbers are the numbers, and the wails of “proportionality” echo around the world like these air raid sirens outside my window .

Legally, Israel’s operation in Gaza obviously meets the definition of “proportionality” as a fitting response to the rocket attacks, but the misuse of proportionality as a way to bash Israel could have a terrible result.

In past such conflicts, world bodies have ignored logic and legal definitions, ignored Israel’s unique efforts to limit civilian casualties in Gaza, ignored Israel’s acceptance of cease-fire initiatives even when they give Hamas a prize for its rocket salvos. Instead, Israel is lashed with official reports charging it with war crimes, crimes against humanity and intentionally targeting civilians.

The day may come when Israel throws up its hands in despair and dismay and decides that its warning measures that endanger its soldiers, which they do, are not worth it, because Israel gets no credit for them.

Though it would be most un-Israeli behavior, despite the outlandish charges—on that day of exasperation, the Israeli military might plow through Gaza with no regard for civilian casualties, killing tens of thousands—just as Truman did in Japan, just as the U.S. did for the most part in Iraq.

It could happen if world bodies, journalists and columnists continue to parrot the “proportionality” mantra without thinking about what they’re writing.

Mark Lavie has covered the Mideast since 1972. His book, “Broken Spring,” explains the rise and fall of Arab Spring from Cairo.

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