The Israel-Hamas conflict proceeds full throttle and threatens to escalate dangerously. Philos Project President Robert Nicholson does a great job of summarizing the conflict, letting me bypass a detailed history. What I do want to address is the scale of the attack against Israel and the criticism of Israel’s response. As the fight continues, these numbers have certainly already changed. But when last I looked some 400 Israeli’s have been injured and seven killed—including both Jewish and Arab citizens—as a direct result of Hamas rocket fire. One of the most recent victims is a five-year-old boy who was killed when his bomb shelter took a direct hit. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has spared the nation greater grief as more than 1,600 rockets have been fired from Gaza. Helpful too is the fact that around 1/3rd of the rockets fired have fallen short, landing inside the Gaza Strip itself. But the threat of those rockets is essential, as is the fact that a five-year old boy has to run into a bomb shelter in the first place.
Israeli response has been characteristically strong. Some reports suggest up to 122 Palestinians in the Gaza strip have been killed, including 31 children. Because Hamas habitually engages in information warfare—intended to discredit Israel and knock the Jewish state from the moral high ground—these numbers are notoriously difficult to substantiate and, to be sure, Israel has challenged many of Hamas’ claims regarding non-combatant deaths. Undoubtedly, however, the innocent have died, both because the contingencies of war mean that even the most scrupulous attempts at preventing civilian casualties will fail at times and because civilian death is what happens when the enemy shields itself with children. While Israel’s heavy hand is augmented by Israeli Defense Force attempts to limit civilian death—from warning calls to roof-knocking—a heavy toll is still exacted.
This toll is condemned by many as criminally or morally disproportionate. The estimable Brookings senior fellow Shadi Hamid has levelled this charge extensively over the last couple of days, leading to spirited exchanges, including over twitter:
It’s this charge of disproportionality that I want to address. Readers of Providence know that just war tradition offers a two-tiered moral framework for thinking about war—the jus ad bellum, which shepherds our thinking about when justice requires the use of force, and the jus in bello¸ which guides our prosecution of justified wars. Both when determining whether it is right to fight and in determining how to fight that war that’s right to fight, justice demands proportionality. What proportionality means in concept and practice is the point of this essay.
In illuminating his charge of Israel’s alleged disproportionality, Hadid reminds us that we’ve been down this road before. Marshalling aid, he points to a 2014 OP-ED by his Brookings colleague Daniel Byman to help sharpen his own. In light of the 2014 conflict in Gaza, in which upwards of 700 hundred civilians were killed—including 100 children, Byman’s “An Eye for a Tooth” criticizes Israel’s previous operations against as being grossly disproportionate to their intended and “ultimate goal” of convincing “Hamas’ leadership that future strikes against Israel are too costly to carry out.”
Before proceeding too far, I would suggest that Israel’s “ultimate goal” in the 2014 Gaza conflict—just as it is the goal of the current conflict in Gaza —is not, in fact, the deterring of Hamas from future attack but, more precisely, the restoration and maintenance of the just security of Israeli citizens—an end toward which the punishment and deterrence of Hamas is a means. This is rather more than merely semantic.
My second complaint is that Byman demands from the doctrine of proportionality both something the doctrine is not intended to provide and what is probably impossible to deliver. He writes: “[proportionality] calls for ensuring that the minimum amount of force is used to achieve the objective and avoiding harm to noncombatants.” Not quite. Now, it is true that international law probably breaks along these terms. A number of international agreements as well as customary international law points to using only force proportionate to the injury received and only as much as required to reinstate the status quo ante. It is also true that many solid just war scholars—even from within the Christian tradition—describe proportionality in similar terms. For instance, the sometimes brilliantly opaque Paul Ramsey—with whose just war sensibilities I often agree—defined proportionality as “the obligation to use no more force, than necessary to achieve the end.” But here Ramsey’s precision works against him, resulting in error by overstatement. First, his and similar demands are a practical absurdity. “No more force than necessary” or “the minimum amount of force” will be in many cases—especially in the time-constrained high-stakes context of battle—impossible to determine. It’s right that one should attempt to limit violence to only what is deemed necessary, but it is also true that when trying to make this determination our sense of proportionality should be leavened by a commitment to decisiveness. This is a presumption not a categorical imperative, but, for both strategic and moral reasons, when fighting for peace we should—just as in cancer surgery—hedge toward thoroughness and clean margins.
Conceptually, secondly, it’s more precise to stress that the doctrine of proportionality has at its core the requirement to calculate gains and losses. Jim Johnson, per usual, sets us straight on all this, asserting that in bello proportionality is about determining when a particular use of force—whether a weapon or a tactic—is likely to produce more harm than good. The operational interpretation of this would include targeting for air strikes in an effort to maximize good results—defeating the enemy, shortening the conflict, force protection—over negative results—non-combatant harm, unnecessary destruction, etc., choosing a particular line of attack over others, clearing city blocks house to house rather than leveling them with artillery, using laser-guided munitions, employing UVAs, etc.
In his wonderful In Defence of War, Nigel Biggar provides helpful elaboration. The purpose of proportionality “is to have the use of violence governed by the rightly intended moral ends, partly to limit the damage caused, and partly to provide a way of measuring the sincerity of intention.” So, if the violence used is not, in fact, proportionate to one’s purported end, therefore, the purported end is called into doubt. This holds true in both ad bellum and in bello considerations. One is only justified in embarking upon—and continuing—a war (or initiating acts of war in response to harms) if the evils that war entails are worth bringing into being as a part of the tragic costs of the just peace intended. This can be understood as a proportionality of ends, or purpose. Similarly, one is only justified in launching—and persisting in—a particular military operation within that war if the losses incurred—to both one’s own personnel as well as non-combatants—are reasonable in light of the military advantage being aimed at as a means of helping lead, ultimately, to the just peace intended. This is understood as proportionality of means. In this way, wars purposely aimed at revenge or the indulgence of hatred or irrationally expensive of human lives are ruled against by the doctrine of proportionality. War and wartime actions can also be disproportionate when they are simply not necessary to get the job done. But there are times, clearly, when military necessity prevails over last resort.
Those who insist the IDF’s tactics in Gaza are disproportionate, should point to whatever alternative it is they have in mind and that would as effectively and efficiently achieve the same militarily purposes and move toward the same justly intended peace. I get that moral critics can’t always be expected to also be strategists, but the fact that no equally effective alternatives have ever been identified is, I think, rather suggestive.
Following Johnson again, moral criticism of war which relies heavily on questions of proportionality often seems primarily bothered about significant destruction in itself, hence the demand for the bare minimum of needed force. But in order for proportionality to remain a helpful category in limiting the horrors of war, it needs to remain a calculation of costs against effects—measuring the goods to be achieved by two measures of harms: that which will be likely done if force is not used, as well as the harms that the force, if used, will itself create. In this, proportionality is leavened by necessity and decisiveness—and force protection—and constrained by discrimination.
The complaint that Israel is taking an eye for a tooth is grounded in this misunderstanding of proportionality. The status quo ante that is being pursued is the restoration of order, preferably coupled with justice, and therefore a return to at least the approximation of peace. Peace will be well served when Hamas has found its Iranian-funded capacity for war well and truly broken. Proportionality does not mean that an assaulted nation can only take precisely that weight in flesh that has been taken from it. It has the right to be sure the enemy’s capacity and resolve to try and take more flesh in the future has been humbled. There are limits to this, and it seems pretty clear that Israel is doing an appropriate job in keeping them. The IDF response has been brutal, but it appears pretty they are striking at military targets, even as they know collateral losses will occur. Meanwhile, Hamas’ attempt to kill anything Jewish without regard for combatant status continues. That their rockets kill Arabs—both inside Gaza and in Israel—doesn’t seem to matter to them. Israel appears to take greater pains in preventing Palestinian civilian deaths than Hamas does.
It should also be remembered that Hamas can make it all stop in an instant, they need only renounce the violence and credibly stand down. To riff on the old truism, if Hamas were to lay down their arms, there would be no more violence. If Israel were to lay down her arms, there would be no more Israel.
In proportion to that fact, Israel should continue to fight accordingly.