The Myth of Proportionality

RISHON LEZION, Israel — Michael J. Totten makes an important point that that critics of Israel’s attack on Hamas should remember:

The “disproportionate response” crowd doesn’t seem to mind that Israel struck back at Hamas per se. They aren’t saying Israel should only be allowed to negotiate with its enemies or that any use of force whatsoever is wrong. They’re clearly saying Israel should use less force, inflict less damage, or both.

One problem here is that it’s not at all clear how they think Israelis should go about doing it. The weapons used by each side can’t be the same. No one has ever said Israel ought to put its superior weapons systems in cold storage until Hamas can develop or purchase something similar. Presumably Israel is allowed to use its superior technology as long as the casualty count on each side is proportionate.

But how would that work in practice? A single Israeli air strike is going to kill at least as many people as Hamas can kill in twelve months. Does that mean Israel should be given a “license” of one air strike per year to use in the war? If IDF commanders want to take out a target where they expect five Hamas leaders or fighters to be killed, do they have to wait until five Israelis are killed first? If the Israelis endure rocket fire until one civilian is killed, do they get a “kill one Palestinian terrorist” coupon?

To paraphrase a comment that I heard somewhere, there are two rules in warfare: Win, and win quickly. War is not pretty. When a country identifies a military goal, it aims to achieve that goal as quickly as possible. In this case, Israel wants to eliminate the capacity of Hamas to fire rockets into Israeli towns. And Israel’s actions — targeting every office and storage facility used by Hamas — are meant to achieve that goal.

Critics of Israel’s actions who claim that the country’s actions are “disproportionate” do not understand the military term itself. It does not mean that one country is inflicting more damage than other other side — that merely means that one side is winning. As a commenter on Totten’s blog post states, the idea of disproportionality refers to using excessive means to achieve the stated goal. (If one is under sniper fire from a soldier in a tree, it is disproportionate to nuke the entire neighborhood.) Israel’s actions are not excessive in relation to the country’s goal.

Now, with this in mind, if anyone knows a better way to eliminate the ability of Hamas to fire rockets into Israel and kill fewer innocent civilians in the crossfire, I am sure that the Israeli Defense Forces would love to hear it.

One response to “The Myth of Proportionality

  1. Pingback: Israel and Britain « Samuel J. Scott

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