Proportionality and Israel’s Use of Forceon 12 August 2014
By Simon A. Waldman
The recent Israel-Gaza War has once again highlighted how politicians, reporters and commentators criticise Israel for using “disproportionate force.” This terminology seems to be used every time Israel is engaged in asymmetrical warfare such as the recent Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza. Unfortunately, there appears to be confusion between “disproportionate use of force” (see here and here for example) when often what is meant is “disproportionate civilian casualties due to Israeli force”. An explanation of both terms sheds much light onto the matter.
“Disproportionate civilian casualties due to Israeli force” would mean that Israel’s military response to Hamas’s rockets has led to a greater number of Palestinian fatalities than Israeli casualties. When citing the number of those dead or hurt in each side to highlight the disparity in civilian casualties, it is this phrase that is really being referred to. According to the logic of this argument, Israel’s operations are illegitimate because they cause mass Palestinian suffering and civilian deaths, so much so that Israel’s comparatively smaller death toll does not warrant a large response or even one at all.
This in itself is a legitimate argument; however, it is also significantly flawed. Not only does it reward Hamas’s actions, but it also ignores the fact that the aims of Hamas’s rocket fire are not limited to inflicting Israeli casualties. The constant barrage of missiles has led to the depopulation of many of Israel’s southern towns and neighbourhoods.
Hamas has also attempted to cripple Israel economically. This was the intention of targeting Ben-Gurion Airport. With the threat of missiles hitting planes, international airliners would not risk flying to Israel subsequently harming Israel’s economy. This strategy worked temporarily when nearly two weeks ago several airliners ceased flying to Israel.
The other term, “disproportionate use of force” is something different and is more related to military strategy and objectives in addition to the harm of civilians. Determining whether disproportionate force has been used is very complicated and is not as simple as highlighting the body count. We can illustrate this point through an analogy unrelated to Israel-Gaza but guided by some of the stipulations contained within the Geneva Convention.
Let us say that in order to win a battle an army needs to destroy the railroad of another army or militant group. It would follow that it would be proportionate to blow up the rail tracks at a key point. But what if this rail juncture could be repaired within hours, minutes even? It would therefore follow that in order to win the battle, not only would rail lines have to be destroyed but so would the train terminal and station. Is this proportionate? Perhaps not - the infrastructure of another country would be affected. Perhaps yes - it could be seen as proportionate if other actions were deemed ineffective, even more so if this particular attack was considered vital for the success of the operation and the security of an army’s citizens.
But what if the train station in question runs through a densely populated town or village that is full of non-combatants? This is when the question of proportionate force becomes tricky. In order to assess proportionality other factors come into play such as the choice of munitions to knockout the rail station while limiting civilian damage, warnings to non-combatants, quality of intelligence, calculations over the consequences of not attacking the station and the imminent use of the railway for the opposing army to launch its own attack, etc.
Now back to Israel-Gaza. Re-read the above few paragraphs and instead of railway and station, think of tunnels or rocket launching sites and places where rockets are stored. Ask yourself, are the Israeli operations proportionate? It is not so simple anymore.
To further illustrate the difficulties, let us remind ourselves of the casualty figures. According to Palestinian sources, over 1,800 Palestinians have been killed during the course of Operation Protective Edge, the majority being civilians. Some of the most horrific attacks have occurred within the vicinity of UN schools, hospitals and shelters where scores of civilians have been killed on multiple occasions. If these strikes were deliberate or indiscriminate they would amount to war crimes as they breach the Geneva Convention. However, if combatants were the target, the strikes would be proportionate only if the intended target was fundamental for Israel to secure its war aims, protect its civilians and all efforts were made to minimise civilian casualties. If not, then the attacks were disproportionate and against international law, unless perhaps they are proven to have been a genuine mistake.
By the same token, it is worth noting that as of 30 July, the IDF had hit 4,100 targets in Gaza, a number that is bound to have nearly doubled by now. The ratio between civilian deaths and the quantity of targets hit in Gaza would indicate that many of Israel’s strikes were proportionate. Regardless, it should be recognised that the question of proportionality in war, especially asymmetrical warfare is highly complex and goes beyond body counts and casualty numbers.
Simon A. Waldman is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at King's College London. He tweets @SimonWaldman1.
Image: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi CC BY