Friday, January 09, 2009

Does it make any difference whether or not Israel’s military actions in Gaza are “disproportionate”?

We have heard a lot about proportionality of Israel’s attacks on Gaza in response to rocket attacks upon Israel from Gaza either directed by Hamas or at least tolerated by Hamas. The implication in these arguments is proportionality is the yardstick to measure morality in actions between states.

The problem with proportionality arguments is they divert attention from more important questions. War between nations is not like two guys in a bar who get in an argument, lose their tempers, and engage in a fight. As Michael Walzer points out below, the purpose of war is to achieve political objectives and not an emotional reaction to a provocation. The first question to answer is whether or not the preferred political objective can reasonably be expected to come about by the pursuit of war and the second question, given the inevitability of civilian causalities during war, is whether or not all reasonable effort is being made to minimize civilian suffering.

Michael Walzer dissects “proportionality” and asks the harder questions about the conflict:
Let's talk about proportionality--or, more important, about its negative form. "Disproportionate" is the favorite critical term in current discussions of the morality of war. But most of the people who use it don't know what it means in international law or in just war theory. Curiously, they don't realize that it has been used far more often to justify than to criticize what we might think of as excessive violence. It is a dangerous idea.

Proportionality doesn't mean "tit for tat," as in the family feud. The Hatfields kill three McCoys, so the McCoys must kill three Hatfields. More than three, and they are breaking the rules of the feud, where proportionality means symmetry. The use of the term is different with regard to war, because war isn't an act of retribution; it isn't a backward-looking activity, and the law of even-Steven doesn't apply.

Like it or not, war is always purposive in character; it has a goal, an end-in-view. The end is often misconceived, but not always: to defeat the Nazis, to stop the dominos from falling, to rescue Kuwait, to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Proportionality implies a measure, and the measure here is the value of the end-in-view. How many civilian deaths are "not disproportionate to" the value of defeating the Nazis? Answer that question, put that way, and you are likely to justify too much--and that is the way proportionality arguments have worked over most of their history.

The case is the same with arguments focused on particular acts of war. Consider the example of an American air raid on a German tank factory in World War Two that kills a number of civilians living nearby. The justification goes like this: The number of civilians killed is "not disproportionate to" the damage those tanks would do in days and months to come if they continued to roll off the assembly line. That is a good argument, and it does indeed justify some number of the unintended civilian deaths. But what number? How do you set an upper limit, given that there could be many tanks and much damage?

Because proportionality arguments are forward-looking, and because we don't have positive, but only speculative, knowledge about the future, we need to be very cautious in using this justification. The commentators and critics using it today, however, are not being cautious at all; they are not making any kind of measured judgment, not even a speculative kind. "Disproportionate" violence for them is simply violence they don't like, or it is violence committed by people they don't like.

So Israel's Gaza war was called "disproportionate" on day one, before anyone knew very much about how many people had been killed or who they were. The standard proportionality argument, looking ahead as these arguments rightly do, would come from the other side. Before the six months of cease-fire (when the fire never ceased), Hamas had only primitive and home-made rockets that could hit nearby small towns in Israel. By the end of the six months, they had far more advanced rockets, no longer home-made, that can hit cities 30 or 40 kilometers away. Another six months of the same kind of cease-fire, which is what many nations at the UN demanded, and Hamas would have rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. And this is an organization explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel. How many civilian casualties are "not disproportionate to" the value of avoiding the rocketing of Tel Aviv? How many civilian casualties would America's leaders think were "not disproportionate to" the value of avoiding the rocketing of New York?

The answer, again, is too many. We have to make proportionality calculations, but those calculations won't provide the most important moral limits on warfare.

These are the questions that point us toward the important limits. First, before the war begins: Are there other ways of achieving the end-in-view? In the Israeli case, this question has shaped the intense political arguments that have been going on since the withdrawal from Gaza: What is the right way to stop the rocket attacks? How do you guarantee that Hamas won't acquire more and more advanced rocketry? Many policies have been advocated, and many have been tried.

Second, once the fighting begins, who is responsible for putting civilians in the line of fire? It is worth recalling that in the Lebanon war of 2006, Kofi Annan, then the Secretary-General of the UN, though he criticized Israel for a "disproportionate" response to Hezbollah's raid, also criticized Hezbollah--not just for firing rockets at civilians, but also for firing them from heavily populated civilian areas, so that any response would inevitably kill or injure civilians. I don't think that the new Secretary General has made the same criticism of Hamas, but Hamas clearly has a similar policy.

The third question: Is the attacking army acting in concrete ways to minimize the risks they impose on civilians? Are they taking risks themselves for that purpose? Armies choose tactics that are more or less protective of the civilian population, and we judge them by their choices. I haven't heard this question asked about the Gaza war by commentators and critics in the Western media; it is a hard question, since any answer would have to take into account the tactical choices of Hamas.

In fact, all three are hard questions, but they are the ones that have to be asked and answered if we are to make serious moral judgments about Gaza--or any other war. The question "Is it disproportionate?" isn't hard at all for people eager to say yes, but asked honestly, the answer will often be no, and that answer may justify more than we ought to justify. Asking the hard questions and worrying about the right answers--these are the moral obligations of commentators and critics, who are supposed to enlighten us about the moral obligations of soldiers. There hasn't been much enlightenment these last days.
And Matthew Yglesias considers the actions of both sides in the way the world really works :
…what’s most relevant for both sides here are separate elements of just war theory — possession of “right intention” and “reasonable prospects for success.” First from the Hamas side. As Israel’s critics will happily let you know, Palestinians have just cause for fighting against Israel. But Hamas’ actual cause isn’t the just cause of Palestinian independence but an unjust cause of aggression against Israel. And even if Hamas were fighting for a just cause, their method of untargeted rocket fire has no reasonable prospects for success. If the way the world worked was that you should some rockets at Sderot, damage some buildings and hurt a few people, and then suddenly Israeli officials are ready to shake hands on a deal that ends the occupation forever you might be tempted to say that the loss of civilian life would be proportionate to the ends being pursued. But that’s not how the world works and it doesn’t characterize Hamas’ war aims.

A lot of commentators seem to want to believe that the situation on the Israeli side is very different from this. In fact, I think it’s only a little different. In terms of “right intention” this is where the settlements come into play. As long as Israel is occupying illegal settlements in Palestinian territory, restricting Palestinian movement in order to defend them, and indeed expanding the settlements it becomes difficult to view any Israeli activity as purely defensive in nature. And, again, if the way the world worked was that attacking Gaza and causing suffering there led Palestinians to say “you know, these Hamas guys are bloodthirsty maniacs — let’s put some non-violent moderates in charge” you could understand this campaign as having reasonable prospects of success at securing enduring safety from Hamas rocket fire. But that’s not how the world works. So asking what kinds of Israeli actions might or might not be “proportionate” to those war aims is really neither here nor there. Everyone understands that this round of fighting will stop some day soon, but that the halt in fighting won’t create a permanent end to rocket fire.

1 comment:

Cargosquid said...

Let's look at this from a self defense point of view. 1) One may use deadly force to stop an attack at is perceived as life threatening.
2) One may only use enough force to stop said attack.
3) If attack continues after force is used, continue to use deadly force.

The mission in Gaza is not to stop the current rocket attacks. It is to stop ALL the rocket attacks. Therefore, Israel is using all appropriate force.

Personally, I think they should hunt down and shoot every terrorist HAMAS scum they could find, and giving rewards for every HAMAS head they bring in.

Then give Gaza back to Egypt. The Palestinians will be crying for Israel to "take them back" within a year. Egypt does not like them either.