Last weekend saw a significant upsurge in violence between Israel and the Hamas run Gaza Strip. Sadly, since the 2008 Gaza War, also known as Operation Cast Lead, a significant conflagration seems to be a regular occurrence as the sides jostle for demands and attempt to either change the status quo by launching rockets into Israel or attempt terror attacks, or reinstall deterrence by targeted assassinations, air strikes and sometimes even ground incursions. 2014’s Operation Protective Edge was the last major conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip. However, over the past year there has been significant violence marked by regular violent protests by the border.
Just like previous conflicts involving Israel, last weekend’s wave of violence highlights how international politicians, activists and commentators criticise Israel for using “disproportionate force” or warn Israel against doing so. For example, while the EU rightly condemned Palestinian rocket fire, calling for it to “stop immediately”, it also called on Israel to act with “restraint” and “proportionality”.
Restraint and proportionality are terminologies that seem to be used every time Israel is engaged in asymmetrical warfare. But what is a restrained response when hundreds of rockets are fired into civilian areas causing deaths, casualties and disruption, a war crime if ever there was one? What is a proportioned response? An explanation of what is a proportionate or disproportionate use of force is needed.
In cases where there have been a disproportionate number of Palestinian civilian casualties than those of Israel’s, often what is being noted is the number of Israelis wounded or killed by Palestinian rocket fire is few than Palestinian casualties resulting from Israeli retaliation. In other words, critics of Israel’s actions are noting that there is a disparity in the number of civilian casualties. The logic of the argument by those who claim that Israel’s use of force is disproportionate in this sense is that 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 such a large response or perhaps even one at all.
Although an understandable sentiment, it is a flawed argument. First, if risks letting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) actions go unpunished. It is one thing to demand rocket fire end, but without a significant military response (I will discuss what is a proportionate response later) these are just empty words. Second, such arguments ignore the fact that the intension of Hamas and PIJ is to inflict the maximum number of Israeli casualties.
PIJ and Hamas rocket fire is also designed to disrupt Israel’s economy and to hurt the viability of Israel’s southern towns and neighbourhoods. Schools were obliged to close and 30 per cent of Israel’s residents in the south temporarily left their homes and stayed elsewhere. Hamas threatened to attack Tel Aviv during the Eurovision Song Contest and PIJ threatened to hit Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona. Don't forget that in 2014, Hamas targeted Ben-Gurion Airport, leaving passengers stranded for several days (I was one of them) and several airliners temporarily ceased flying to Israel. Therefore, a proportionate or restrained response to such a threat cannot be calculated by comparing civilian deaths, regardless about how tragic each one truly is.
When one thinks about what is proportionate or disproportionate, one needs to think in terms of military strategy, rather than simply highlighting the body count. We can illustrate this through analogy inspired by some of the stipulations contained within the Geneva Convention.
Let us imagine, for example, that in order to win a battle an army needs to destroy a railroad belonging to the nation of another army or militant group. It would make sense that destroying the rail track at key points would be a proportionate tactic. But what if this rail juncture could be repaired within hours, minutes even? It would therefore follow that not only would rail lines have to be destroyed but so would the train terminal and station. One may object and argue that this is not necessarily proportionate force because the civilian infrastructure of another country would be affected. However, one could counter that it would indeed be proportionate because alternative actions would be ineffective, even more so if this particular attack was considered vital for the success of the operation and the security of the citizens the attacking army is tasked to ultimately protect.
But what if the rail track and train station in question runs through a densely populated town or village full of non-combatants? This is when the question of proportionate force becomes tricky. In order to assess whether bombing rail targets in such a scenario additional factors need to be considered such as the choice of which munitions should be used to destroy targets while limiting civilian damage, warnings to non-combatants, the quality of intelligence, and, just as importantly, calculations over the consequences of not attacking the targets, especially if the opposing force were seeking to use rail infrastructure to launch their own attacks.
Now back to Israel-Gaza. Re-read the above few paragraphs and instead of railway, think of tunnels or rocket launching sites and the types of places where rockets are stored (mosques, the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, if not in schools and hospitals then areas very close to them). Now ask yourself, are the Israeli operations proportionate? Regardless of your answer, it should be understood that the question of proportionality in war, especially asymmetrical warfare is highly complex and goes beyond body counts and casualty numbers.
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