Responding to withering criticism to the effect that The Washington Post
refrains from publishing photographs depicting the ravages of Hamas’s missile
attacks, Washington Post
ombudsman Patrick Pexton offered this alarming defense:
“...the overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza are like bee stings on
the Israeli bear’s behind.” As morally disfigured a judgement as this is, it is
a common enough sentiment that it, and the notion of disproportionate response,
deserve serious discussion.
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the obvious
objection to Pexton’s account, namely that these innocuous “bee stings” have
resulted in the death and injury of Israeli citizens and so cannot honestly be
dismissed. They also terrorize a population that lives under constant threat of
death, a foreboding cloud of trauma, however incompetently the missiles are
Pexton’s essential gravamen is that Israel is stronger and
that its military responses are unjustly disproportionate.
But this is a
shallow and tendentious interpretation of what counts as
That Israel causes more damage than Hamas, both
material and human, is empirically unassailable. The more contentious assertion,
and less obviously true, is that this physical disproportion results in a moral
one, for which Israel deserves condemnation.
First of all, Israel’s
military responses are precisely that – post facto reactions to Hamas’s
There is already a moral disproportion built
into the very nature of these military exchanges since Israel’s posture is
permanently defensive. Its overarching goal is to itself from aggression, while
Hamas is in a perpetual state of frothing instigation.
motivated by a protective love of its own, and Hamas is inspired by bottomless
hate for another.
Also, much of the reason Palestinians suffer greater
casualties is that they intentionally place civilians in harm’s way, using women
and children as human shields. Israel exposes itself to heightened danger and
often undermines its own military effectiveness precisely because of its
scrupulous devotion to avoiding collateral damage. Hamas’s cynical strategy is
to cause and to incur as much collateral damage as possible. This is why Israel
relies on precision-guided munitions and Hamas indiscriminately lobs missiles
into civilian territory from hospitals, schools, and residential
Of course, from the practical perspective of the logic of
deterrence, it would make no sense for Israel to aim at an equality of military
Their objective is to create the circumstances that most
powerfully discourage further attacks. Nevertheless, that aim is still tempered
by a remarkable restraint that assigns much more value to Palestinian life, let
alone the lives of Jews, than Hamas ever has.
This is the most important
and true disproportion between Israel and Hamas.
While Israel is the
superior military power, they are, in essence, the moral underdog since they
willingly choose to hamstrung themselves with self-imposed moral strictures.
Hamas remains unencumbered by respect for human life, liberated by their own
GIVEN THE elevated status typically accorded to
the virtue of tolerance today by American liberals, it is unusual how little
criticism they direct toward Hamas for its spectacular lack of it, for failing
to forbear the very existence of an entire people.
Israel pines for
tolerance as classically understood: not comity or cooperation, but at least
coexistence is their ideal. Hamas’s ultimate objective, their only animating
purpose, is to eradicate Jews from the earth.
It is not immediately clear
what constitutes a proportionate response to such existential terror, to the
unremitting threat from an adversary who refuses to acknowledge your right to
breathe the same air and walk the same ground.
It is impossible to assess
the moral disproportion between Israel and Hamas by singular reference to the
arithmetic of physical destruction. Those empirical facts, when wrenched from
the context of a specifically moral calculus, are more misleading than
To capture the unbridgeable distance between their motivations,
consider this: There are clearly definable conditions under which Israel would
accept, even enthusiastically embrace, a protracted peace. Hamas only exists for
war, and will only accept the sullied peace that results from the extermination
of Israel as a nation, and Jews as a people. It is manifestly unjust for the
world to heap deprecations upon Israel for defending itself, and nonsensical to
malign it for defending itself well.
The writer is editor-in-chief of
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