Israel acting disproportionately? Think again
The vile and bigoted anti-Israel agenda comes roaring back onto the British agenda with every new assault that Israel faces. It is morally illiterate to ignore the difference between Israel and Hamas
Once again, millions of Israelis are under assault from the threat of rockets from Gaza. And once again, truth, morality and international law are coming under vicious assault.
In a short piece in Wednesday's Guardian, Owen Jones decried the BBC's lack of balance. After condemning Palestinian rocket attacks, he objected to a headline which stated that Israel was 'under renewed Hamas attack'.
In his words, it was 'as perverse as Mike Tyson punching a toddler, followed by a headline claiming that the child spat at him'. This was because Israel, 'a military superpower', was being pitted against Gazans with 'almost entirely ineffective missiles'.
Echoing these thoughts in Wednesday’s Independent, Robert Fisk, hardly one to resist an anti-Israeli calumny, made a similar point. 'OK', he declared, 'so by this afternoon, the exchange rate of death in two days was 40-0 in favour of Israel'.
Then there was an outrageous cartoon in the same paper by Dave Brown, purporting to show Israeli jets pounding Gaza while evoking a Biblical verse from Leviticus. The suggestion was that Israel was exacting disproportionate and inhuman revenge for Palestinian wrongs.
At the UN, Ban Ki Moon has condemned rocket fire but added this warning to Israel: “The excessive use of force and endangering of civilian lives are also intolerable.”
According to these views, the divergence in the casualty count shows that Israel is automatically in the wrong. Worse, its 'Mike Tyson' tendencies make it a demented regional bully, one which responds to ‘primitive’ attacks with gargantuan force. This view is supported by BBC images of suffering Palestinian civilians, with a clear subtext that they are victims of Israeli wrongdoing.
While western leaders have been broadly sympathetic to Israel's predicament, the mood music could easily change. In the past, world leaders have been quick to accuse Israel of using disproportionate or excessive force while the UN has echoed the more serious accusation that civilians have been targeted. Yet these charges are egregious falsehoods, the result of lazy thinking, bigotry and a failure to understand international law.
Firstly, the asymmetry of power between the IDF and Hamas is an irrelevance. The fact that the terrorists use less sophisticated weaponry than Israel does not alter their intent to spread terror across Israeli society. In the words of one Hamas official, 'All Israelis have now become legitimate targets'.
Every time a rocket is fired, Israelis must desperately scramble to find their nearest bomb shelter, disrupting the normal pattern of life across the country. The panic this induces should not be underestimated. It is not just a matter of counting body bags or even damage to property. Raining down weapons indiscriminately on a civilian population is a violation of international law; it is a war crime.
Second, the low Israeli casualty count owes a great deal to the country’s extensive counter terrorism measures. These include the highly efficient Iron Dome whose success rate at intercepting rockets gets better by the year. By creating an infrastructure of defence and hitting back at the terrorist machinery in Gaza, Israel’s government is discharging its prime responsibility, namely to protect its citizens from attack.
Anything less amounts to a grave dereliction of duty. By contrast, Hamas has created an infrastructure of death which is impoverishing its citizens.
But in any case, drawing conclusions about proportionality by simply counting up the deaths on each side is grossly simplistic. According to the Rome Statute and the principles of international humanitarian law, the rule on proportionality states that while no country is obliged to avoid killing any civilians in war, the loss of civilian life or injury to civilians must not be "excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated."
One cannot make judgments of disproportionality without taking into account whether the force used was proportionate to the anticipated military advantages to the attacking side.
Given that Israel's (justified) objective is to deter any further rockets attacks from the genocidal regime of Hamas, the level of casualties is proportionate to the advantages gained. Indeed one would expect there to be far more casualties given the number of airstrikes carried out thus far.
The fact that Israeli fatalities are low in this conflict does not reduce the military necessity of attacking Hamas. As famed jurist Alan Dershowitz points out: “Proportion must be defined by reference to the threat posed by the enemy and not by the harm it has produced”.
The accusation of targeting civilians, a violation of the rule of distinction, is equally baseless. At the moment, the Israeli Air Force is carrying out precision raids on Hamas' terrorist infrastructure, including arms dumps, rocket launchers, command and control centres and the homes of terrorist figures.
Where houses have been turned into military targets, the IDF has provided advance warnings to Palestinian residents (so called roof knocking) to leave their houses prior to an attack. This is designed to minimise civilian casualties, rather than maximise them. In any case, targeting civilians would be futile. It would achieve nothing in military terms and hand a massive propaganda victory to Hamas.
It is true that Palestinian civilians have been killed in Israeli raids, and that is undeniably tragic. They too are victims, of the war chosen by Gaza's Islamists.
Hamas' spokesmen have openly admitted to placing civilians on the rooftops of houses in order to thwart Israeli strikes. Extensive video evidence also shows that rockets have also been fired from heavily built up civilian areas, and command and control centres are located close to residential neighbourhoods. Using civilians as a human shield is another blatant war crime.
Just as absurd is the notion of a 'cycle of violence' and the associated view that both sides are required to show 'restraint'. Israel is a UN member which can rightfully invoke article 51 of the Charter to defend itself against the aggression of a neighbouring state.
By contrast, Hamas is an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation which is committing war crimes by launching indiscriminate attacks against civilians. It is morally illiterate to ignore this difference.
No equivalence would ever be made between the criminal act of murder and the legitimate act of self-defence, between the violent vigilante and the law enforcement agent. The same principle should guide our understanding of international relations.
In this latest round of the Middle East conflict, with Israel’s reputation under constant assault, moral and legal truths really do matter. It is essential that western leaders recognise them.
Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton
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