In Proportion

Via Informed Comment. The assumption underpinning much of the commentary about Israeli military action in Gaza is that it is in retaliation for rocket attacks. Yet the doctor in this clip describes it as an ‘all out war against the civilian population in Gaza’. Even Fintan O’Toole’s otherwise excellent piece in today’s Irish Times classifies it as a ‘response’, and a ‘retaliation’ to Hamas rocket attacks:

Between 2002 and the start of the bombing campaign last week, 16 Israeli civilians had been killed by Hamas rockets fired from Gaza. In retaliation, Israeli bombing raids, shelling and ground operations have killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

Furthermore, O’Toole criticises the Israeli action in terms of the ‘flagrant disproportion of Israel’s response to Hamas’s crimes’. This echoes many other criticisms of Israeli action heard in recent days, such as that of the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, who condemned the ‘disproportionate use of force by Israel’. For its part, the Israeli governmnent appears to consider that its actions are proportionate, as this excerpt from an Irish Times article by Israeli ambassador to Ireland Zion Evrony indicates:

Regarding the issue of proportionality concerning Israel’s military operation, it is important to note that the principle of self-defence, according to international law, states that military actions must be measured in terms of the total threat facing a country. As such, the right to self-defence includes not just actions taken to neutralise the immediate threat, but also those taken to prevent subsequent attacks.

The question that arises for me, in light of this issue of proportionality, is whether or not the Palestinians are entitled to respond proportionately to Israeli use of force, and if so, what would be the dimensions of such a proportionate response? It is hard to focus on the totality of Israeli military actions against the Palestinians, so one particular example should suffice. For instance, the West Bank is under illegal Israeli military occupation, its territory is being progressively annexed and colonised. How should the Palestinians respond to this?

By the standards of the Israeli ambassador, they should neutralise the immediate threat, which would entail expelling the Israeli army, and they should then take action to prevent subsequent attacks by destroying the Israeli army’s capability to wage war. How far they should go in such an operation is unclear to me, since the total threat to Palestine is immense, given the power of the Israeli military and the fact that the Palestinians’ country has already been mostly destroyed and its population living in exile, but if people are serious about the need for a proportionate response in terms of the principle of self-defence, it seems to me that they should be advocating sending massive military aid to the Palestinians, or radically reducing Israel’s military power. However, since the answer to the first part of my question is fairly obvious -no, they are not- detailed considerations about how people can enable the Palestinians to respond proportionately can remain unexamined.

Addendum: I did not resolve the matter of whether or not current Israeli operations in Gaza are a ‘retaliation’. For consideration, read this analysis on the Informed Comment Global Affairs blog:

Lost in most of the coverage is the fact that the Israel-Hamas truce was working—a fact fully acknowledged in a recent intelligence report released by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). According to that report, “Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire.” Furthermore, “the lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire carried out by rogue terrorist organizations in some instances in defiance of Hamas.”

Yet on November 4, when the world was focused on the U.S. presidential election, Israel effectively ended the “period of relative quiet” to which the MFA report refers by attacking Gaza, killing at least six Palestinian militiamen. Hamas responded to the killings with salvos of rockets. Israel believed that the group was planning to abduct Israeli soldiers through a tunnel it was digging near a border security fence, but whether Hamas wished to risk a successful truce and the possibility of political progress in order to abduct Israeli soldiers is debatable.

The extensive report released by the MFA acknowledges that most of the rockets and mortar shells fired at Israel during the six-month lull fell after November 4.

Why would Israel want to end the truce? The success of the Israel-Hamas truce tacitly legitimized political dialogue with the Islamists, something that Israel (as well as the U.S. and Egypt) vehemently rejects. Equally important, while the truce was holding there was greater talk internationally about possible negotiations and freezing illegal Israeli settlement expansion and moves to boycott products made in those settlements. There were also growing calls for compromises that successive Israeli governments have been unwilling to make. Despite recent comments from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert linking Israel’s survival to withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, Israel has consistently rejected a viable two-state solution because it insists on maintaining control of the West Bank.

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