Grasping the ethics of the crisis requires us to understand properly the concept of proportionalityby Jeff McMahan / August 5, 2014 / Leave a comment
Introduction: setting the terms of the debate
Thus far in the war in Gaza, more than 1800 Palestinians have been killed, most of them apparently civilians. Sixty three Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians, and one foreign worker in Israel have also been killed. The great disparity between the casualties on the two sides raises the question of whether Israeli military action has been disproportionate. This question remains important even if the war is now coming to an end. I will argue that Israel’s action has indeed been disproportionate, though this will require an explanation of what proportionality is, as it is a notion that is widely misunderstood.
Despite the bombings of two Palestinian schools that the UN had designated civilian sanctuaries, I will assume that Israeli forces have not been attacking civilians intentionally. What I will argue is that the killing of Palestinian civilians as a foreseeable but unintended side effect of defensive military action has been disproportionate in relation to the aim of protecting Israeli civilians and soldiers from attacks by Palestinian fighters.
To preempt misunderstanding, it is necessary to state explicitly that I accept that Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel are wrong, as are its storing weapons in schools, private homes, and mosques, its locating entrances to tunnels in the same places, and its firing missiles from civilian areas in a way that attracts Israeli retaliatory fire to those areas. I believe that Palestinian resistance to Israel’s unjust quarantine of Gaza and unjust occupation and settlement of the West Bank ought, for both moral and prudential reasons, to be nonviolent in character.
One might think that it requires no argument to show that the killing of Palestinian civilians has been disproportionate, since no Israeli civilians were killed by Hamas in 2013 or 2014 before Israel began bombing Gaza earlier this summer in response to the killing—not, apparently, under the direct orders of Hamas—of three Israeli teenagers. But proportionality in defence does not depend on a comparison between harms one has suffered in the past and harms one causes in response. That is something different: proportionality in reprisal. Proportionality in defence is instead a relation between harms one causes and harms one seeks to avert in the future. And I think it should be granted that Israel’s war has been defensive rather than retaliatory or punitive in its aims. I accept that Israel’s main aims have been to prevent further rocket attacks from Gaza and to destroy the tunnels that have enabled Palestinian fighters to enter Israel to kill or abduct Israeli soldiers.