Proportionality

It’s unfortunate for the Palestinian-rights movement that some arguments leveled at Israel are fallacious at best and idiotic or racist at worst. As with so many things, when putting forward any statement on the matter, I find my efforts are nine-tenths explaining what I’m not saying, with little time left for what I am saying. Blogospheric mimetics seize on dodgy reasoning and loudly point out its failings, an echo chamber that leaves one with the impression that critics of Israel are uniformly trend-following fools.

In this latest chapter in the history of Israel-Palestine, many critics of Israel have described Israel’s actions as a “disproportionate” response to Hamas terrorism. Leaving aside for a moment the widespread assumption that this is a response at all – reactive rather than proactive – the criticism has been soundly met with a tasty meme:

Israel is using its capabilities to respond to the terrorist rockets. It’s not Israel’s fault that the rockets are ineffectual by comparison. What kind of “proportionate” response do you suggest – that Israel replies with an equal number of unguided rockets aimed at civilian areas?

This reply to critics of Operation Cast Lead assumes a sense of the word “proportionality” that implies a kind of practical equality, that calling the operation disproportionate is complaining that the attack on Gaza isn’t identical to the attacks on Sderot. It’s possible that some people didn’t think much about what would constitute a proportionate response when they call this one disproportionate.

Really, if Israel was to be proportionate in the sense of making things even, firing an equal number of random rockets back into Gaza would not be proportionate. For Israel to proportionately respond, they would have to either reduce the number of Palestinian civilians killed by the IDF each year or start lining up Israeli civilians and shooting them to make up the difference. Throw in some blockades on food and medicine to severely reduce 1.5 million Israelis’ quality of life to the kind found in Gaza. Then you might be approaching a proportionate response in that sense.

Of course, “disproportionate” is the wrong word. It’s a lot catchier than “inappropriate”, which is a little more accurate. Bombing the shit out of a densely populated town is an inappropriate response to Palestinian terrorist rockets. Toning down the violence to something “proportionate” to the victims of Palestinian terrorism would still be an inappropriate response.

Well, what was Israel supposed to do? Just sit back and do nothing about the rocket attacks?

The simple answer is that, if the two options were “do nothing” and “bomb the shit out of densely populated city, inevitably killing hundreds of civilians”, then yes, sit back and do nothing. Even if Operation Cast Lead was going to put an end to Palestinian terrorism (if anything, it will exacerbate it), the answer would still be yes, sit back and do nothing. If one takes the radical stance of valuing both Israeli and Palestinian lives equally, the choice between 10 civilians being murdered by criminals and 500 civilians being murdered by an army should be fairly clear-cut.

It could be argued that the Israeli government has a duty to value Israeli lives over non-Israeli lives, which is just one of the many things rather sickening about nationality and states in general. But as few would suggest that non-Israeli lives should have a null value in Israeli government decision-making, such an argument would be forced into creating a kind of exchange rate for doing the maths in these considerations – one Israeli life equals X non-Israeli lives. Not a position many would enjoy defending, I suspect.

And then there’s the talk of “human shields”. This is the idea that Hamas are so cartoonishly evil that they strap innocent Palestinian children to their roofs in order to make Israel look bad when Israel bombs the densely populated city. I doubt Hamas could do anything besides line up outside the city limits in the shape of a bullseye to avoid this accusation. But even so, it’s irrelevant. If you know you’ll be bombing civilians and have the option not to bomb civilians, choosing to bomb means choosing to bomb civilians. It really is that simple.

Of course, sitting back and doing nothing is only the obvious choice if there are only two options. There are plenty of other options available – and while, sadly, none will put an end to Palestinian terrorism in the short term, there are ways Israel could put an end to Palestinian terrorism in the long term.

Creating hundreds of new families who hate Israel for killing their loved ones is not one of those ways.