Israeli military actions are consistently judged and found wanting by metrics
that are applied to no other army or conflict. Application of these standards is
designed to render Israel incapable of defending its citizens.
among these new metrics is the comparison of Israeli casualties to those of the
civilian population from whose midst the enemy fights. As soon as the casualties
on the other side exceed those suffered by Israel – usually within hours of an
unprovoked attack on Israel and without any cessation of fire from the other
side – Israel’s response is labeled disproportionate.
Post’s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexson, for instance, recently dismissed the
overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza as “like bee stings on the
Israeli bear’s behind.” By which he presumably meant that they only killed a few
But there is no acceptable level of civilian casualties, and any
Israeli government that treated rocket attacks on its cities as tolerable would
deserve to be tossed out of office. The protection of its citizens from external
attack is the first duty of any government.
In a widely read essay,
“America, Israel, Gaza, the World,” Walter Russell Mead accurately describes
what the reaction of American citizens would be in a similar situation:
“Certainly if some kind of terrorist organization were to set up missile
factories across the frontier in Canada and Mexico and start attacking targets
in the United States, the American people would demand that their President use
all necessary force, without stint or limit until the resistance had been
completely, utterly and pitilessly crushed.” While Americans might feel sorrow
for non-combatants killed, writes Mead, they would feel no moral
Pexson himself would never dream of living in a place like Sderot.
Crude and unguided Kassam rockets do not kill people every day. But people in
Sderot run for the closest cover when the warning siren shrieks, sometimes many
times in a day, and sleep in basements at night for a reason. Kassams have
killed more than a dozen people. Americans would never subject their children to
an environment in which somewhere between 42 percent (according to Ambassador
Michael Oren) and threequarters of the children suffer from post-traumatic
The Grad missiles and Iranian Fajr-5s are far more
lethal than Kassams, and are deliberately fired with the aim of killing many
Israeli civilians. Only by the grace of God and the billions of dollars invested
by Israel in civil defense and anti-missile systems have heavy casualties been
averted. Grads have hit school buildings and playgrounds when school was not in
session, and have fallen close to the Ashkelon oil refinery.
The ratio of
civilian casualties to those lost on the other side is only mentioned with
respect to Israel. But NATO bombing in the Balkans in the 1990s killed over
1,000 civilians. No NATO pilots were lost. And obviously no American lives were
lost in unmanned drone strikes in tribal regions of Pakistan, in which hundreds
of civilians have been killed. At least 500 Panamanian civilians were killed in
the 1989 US invasion to capture Gen. Manuel Noriega.
No NATO country was
under threat from Serbia. While Noriega had harassed American civilians and
military in the Canal Zone, he was no threat to the United States. These were
wars of choice. By contrast, Israeli civilians have repeatedly been under direct
attack from Gaza.
Western powers rely on safe bombing from above, even at
the cost of far higher civilian casualties. Israel, however, repeatedly put its
own reserve soldiers and enlisted soldiers in mortal danger in Operation
Defensive Shield and Operation Cast Lead in order to minimize civilian
casualties on the other side.
PERHAPS THE most dismaying treatment of the
issue of proportionality during Operation Pillar of Defense was that of Walter
Russell Mead in the above-mentioned essay, precisely because of his well-earned
status as one of America’s leading foreign affairs experts.
Mead is above
suspicion of any anti- Israel bias. Indeed the main thrust of his essay was to
explain why there is so much more sympathy for Israel in the US than anywhere
else. Nevertheless, his treatment of the principle of “proportionality” is
Proportionality, as described by Mead, mandates that even a
legitimate war – e.g., one of self-defense – must be fought by appropriate
means. To illustrate: “If the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t
pull a knife; if he’s got a knife, you can’t pull a gun.”
argues, “doesn’t have an unlimited right to respond to limited attacks with
unlimited force,” an obvious moral principle toward which he accuses Israel of
turning a blind eye.
The description of Israel as employing “unlimited
means” against Gazans is ridiculous. The US enforced a general blockade of
Germany in World War II and the Union army of the Confederacy during the Civil
Israel did not even turn off the electricity in Gaza, even in the
midst of missile attacks from Gaza, and despite having no obligation under
international law to supply Gaza. Food continued to flow into Gaza and injured
civilians to cross the border into Israel for medical treatment.
Richard Kemp, former high commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and a man
with unparalleled experience in asymmetric warfare, said at the time of
Operation Cast Lead that no army in history ever took more extraordinary steps
to minimize civilian casualties than Israel did.
demonstration of Israel’s care to avoid civilian casualties, despite the
deliberate Hamas strategy designed to maximize those casualties, lies in the
ratio of combatant to civilian casualties.
In Operation Cast Lead, for
instance, the ratio of combatant to civilian casualties was at least 7:4, by
Hamas’s own admission. No army in the world, including the American and European
armies, has ever achieved such ratios when fighting against combatants embedded
in the midst of the civilian population.
Even Mead’s analogy to
illustrate the principle of proportionality defies law and logic. If someone
threatens me with a lethal weapon, like a knife, I’m entitled to shoot him. I’m
under no obligation to put down my gun and pick up a knife to make it a “fair
From the legal point of view, the relative efficacy and lethal
power of a gun is irrelevant, unless I can be absolutely sure of disarming my
attacker without resort to lethal force. The relevant legal questions are: Who
is the aggressor? And has the threatening behavior stopped? So too in
The relevant moral question is who initiated combat and have
they ceased their aggression. At no time during the eight days of Operation
Pillar of Defense did Hamas or the other jihadist groups in Gaza cease firing
missiles at Israel.
Proportionality in international law, Mr. Mead, has
nothing to do with the relative force marshaled by the parties.
Michael Walzer, one of the leading contemporary “just war” theorists, puts it,
proportionality is not symmetry.
It is not like a feud between the
Hatfields and McCoys: If the Hatfields killed three McCoys, three Hatfields (and
no more) must now perish.
War, writes Walzer, is goal-oriented, not
retributive. Proportionality in international law is measured in terms of the
goals of a particular military action. In general, military action passes the
test if it meets two conditions: (1) it is directed at a military target; and
(2) it does not wantonly target civilians. Only if the sought-after military
advantage is very slight and anticipated civilian casualties very high would
proportionality become an issue – for the military action would be akin to the
deliberate targeting of civilians.
Mead’s confusion is so distressing
precisely because he is not some hysterical MSNBC reporter, pointing at alleged
civilian corpses as irrebuttable proof of Israeli war crimes and doubtless
unaware that under international law a party that fights from among the civilian
population and locates military targets in their midst is responsible for their
deaths. For it demonstrates how great is Israel’s burden in the international
ISRAEL IS hypersensitive to international opinion. And that
hypersensitivity might one day prevent it from taking the steps necessary to
survive. The IDF operates under more restrictions than any other
Every battle plan contains a legal analysis of the legitimacy of
every potential target in Gaza and the circumstances under which those targets
can be attacked.
According to news reports, after the recent cease-fire
went into effect, Israeli troops were told that they could not even fire at a
rocket crew preparing to launch a rocket at Israel, without permission of a
senior commander, and that they must permit Gazan farmers, or those posing as
such, to proceed right up to the border fence.
The success of the Iron
Dome antimissile system allowed Israel to pursue a calibrated policy in
Operation Pillar of Defense. But it is easy to imagine a scenario in which both
Hamas’s and the larger and more powerful Hezbollah arsenal were turned on
Israel’s major cities and high-value targets, like the Haifa oil refineries and
offshore gas rigs.
They could overwhelm Iron Dome’s current
In such a situation, which could also involve a ground threat
on one or more fronts, Israel would have no choice but to bomb with little
regard to civilian casualties in order to stop the missile fire as quickly as
possible. Worries about international opinion would have to wait – ensuring
there will be a tomorrow comes first.
In no sense is Israel waging an
unlimited war. And though there are inevitably civilian casualties by virtue of
the decision of those launching rockets at Israel to locate weapons arsenals in
densely populated areas and to fight from among the civilian population, Israel
does not directly target the civilian populations. Under international law,
those civilian deaths are attributed to those who locate legitimate military
targets among the civilian population.
The writer is director of Jewish
Media Resources, has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine
since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish
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