Navigate to News section

Are Israel’s Attacks on Gaza Proportional?

The answer isn’t in the skewed number of casualties or mismatched weaponry

Myer Freimann
July 22, 2014
Smoke from an Israeli offensive is seen as people gather at a cemetery during the funeral for members of the al-Kelani family in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on July 22, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke from an Israeli offensive is seen as people gather at a cemetery during the funeral for members of the al-Kelani family in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on July 22, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel is often accused of using disproportionate force. Last Thursday, U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg blasted Israel’s operation in response to Hamas rockets raining down on its cities as being “deliberately disproportionate”. Similar claims have been made by other world leaders and can be frequently heard in the corridors and meeting halls of the United Nations in New York.

So what does “disproportionate” mean? The number of dead on each side is often cited as evidence of disproportionality—so far more than 600 Gazans have been killed and 30 Israelis. In war, one side aims to emerge victorious and intuitively their casualties will be fewer. Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has highlighted that this was the case in World War II, when German casualties were 20 times greater than those of the Allies, who turned German cities to piles of rubble despite the fact that Germany never managed to drop a single bomb on the continental U.S.

Another frequent point of contention is the types of munitions used, both offensively and defensively. Israel strikes at rocket launchers with sophisticated missiles launched from F-16 jets and is able to successfully shoot down crude Hamas rockets. This advantage has been labelled as “unsportsmanlike” by some commentators. To suggest that combat should be a level playing field with each side playing for a draw conflicts with the nature of warfare, which is not, in fact, a game.

What all these analyses share in common is a failure to understand the established military doctrine of proportionality. On Sunday, Shoshana Bryen of the Gatestone Institute released a helpful analysis of the doctrine:

“Proportionality in international law is not about equality of death or civilian suffering, or even about [equality of] firepower. Proportionality weighs the necessity of a military action against suffering that the action might cause to enemy civilians in the vicinity.”

Simply put, proportionality requires “that the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians.” What must be proportional, in other words, is not the number of dead people on each side, but the military importance of the goal to the number of casualties inflicted.

To take two examples from American military history, the massive Allied carpet-bombing campaign over the German industrial heartland during World War II, in which tens of thousands of innocent German civilians were killed, and hundreds of thousands of homes and civilian industrial structures destroyed, is cited as an example of proportional violence, since the goal was to end a global war by destroying Germany’s military-industrial complex. The fire-bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, large German cities which had no particular military value, was arguably disproportionate—since the intended impact on German morale was not commensurate with the deaths of so many people. The Mi Lai massacre, in which 300-500 Vietnamese villagers were killed by a rampaging American platoon led by Lieutenant William Calley, was clearly a war crime—since there is never a compelling military reason for murdering, torturing, and raping the civilian population of a village. The violence was simply an outlet for the frustration of the American troops, and the sadism of their leader.

In contrast to the U.S. and other Western armies, Israel goes to great lengths to warn civilians in the vicinity of military targets about impending strikes, utilizing phone calls, text messages, leaflet drops, and stun grenades to that effect. Often, these warnings lessen the tactical effectiveness of the strikes by forewarning the intended target as well as innocent civilians. Deaths of civilians are tragedies but they are not crimes under international law unless the civilians are the intended target.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a document on Thursday that acknowledges the doctrine of proportionally but continues to ignore the actual definition of the term. Instead, it opts for a simplistic, mathematical definition of proportions to draw its conclusion.

“Attacks against military objectives must be proportionate, offer a definite military advantage in the prevailing circumstances at the time and precautions must be taken to prevent harm to civilians and civilian property /infrastructure. In case of doubt, buildings ordinarily used for civilian purposes, such as homes, are presumed not to be legitimate military targets.”

The proportion of civilians among the fatalities, is well above the one recorded during the previous large offensive in the Gaza Strip in November of 2012…This continues to raise concerns about respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack under international humanitarian law.

Yet Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, has clarified that,

“Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime.”

So far, Israel’s leaders have outlined achievable goals of restoring quiet to the residents of Israel and the destruction of the tunnel network that has enabled tens of Hamas operatives to sneak into Israeli territory and inflict casualties. So long as the strikes aid with the accomplishment of the mission and do not target civilians, the military’s actions are proportionate and legal.

Myer Freimann is a Master’s candidate in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and previously completed a BA in Political Science at Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @myerlf.