The Proportionality Trap
J.G. Thayer - 12.28.2008 - 9:34 AM
As predicted, Hamas and members of the Arab world are condemning Israel’s current attacks on Gaza as “disproportionate,” meaning “excessive.” And they do have a purely mathematical point — during the recent bombardments of Israel from the Gaza Strip, casualties have been light. At last count, one Israeli and two Palestinians (sisters, ages 13 and 5) died from in rocket attacks. So a proportionate response, one presumes, would have required Israel to kill a single Palestinian and two of its own citizens.
There is a more fundamental problem here: the notion that Israel’s response (or, indeed, the response of any nation in a similar situation) should be “proportionate” to the provocation. And that is a horrific fallacy.
The notion that one should only respond to an attack with roughly the same force used by the aggressor is based on some fatally flawed presumptions.
The first is that the aggressor can be expected to respond in a rational manner. In this case, the presumption is that Hamas is actually interested in a peaceful solution and mutually beneficial situation. That is provably false. One need only look at Hamas’s charter and the group’s words and deeds to see that it is unabashedly dedicated to the absolute destruction of Israel.
The second fallacy is more subtle. The point of a “proportional” response is that it is intended to end the current hostilities and return to the status quo. And in this case, it implies that the status quo prior to the provocations was acceptable.
Hamas speaks of a “truce,” but their definition of a “truce” is one that no one else would recognize as valid. It consisted of a steady, constant bombardment of Israel by rocket and mortar shells. When they declared the truce to be at an end, they escalated the attacks, which in turn prompted Israel’s air strikes. Had Israel restrained itself to a “proportional” attack, then it would have been saying that the prior status quo — the rocket and mortar attacks reduced to one or two a day — was acceptable.
No, by striking as hard as they did Israel is sending a different message. And it’s, in an odd way, more respectful of Hamas than a “proportionate” response would have been. Israel is saying, in effect, “you are the legitimate government of the Gaza Strip, and we are holding you to the same standard as we would the government of any other nation. And when a nation declares war on us and commits acts of war against us, we respond by waging war on them.”
Hamas now finds itself having to argue before the world that it didn’t really mean all the things it said and did, that it doesn’t want to be treated that way, and that Israel needs to be restrained from further attacks.
And, sadly, there are enough nations in the world who will side with them.