Proportionality and Terrorism in the Middle East

During my short visit to Israel a couple of weeks ago there were two terrifying incidents. On the first night of our visit a family of five was murdered at a kibbutz in Itmar, near Jerusalem.  The second, the day after our departure, was the bombing of a bus in central Jerusalem. Around that same time, Hamas resumed its random mortar and missile attacks from Gaza into southern Israel.

Just yesterday one of those missiles scored a hit on a school bus in southern Israel, injuring at least one youngster critically and harming many more. Hamas touted their latest success today.

Jerusalem Post, April 7, 2010 - Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades took responsibility for firing an anti-tank missile at a school bus in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council on Thursday, which left a 16-year-old in critical condition. A Hamas statement said that the attack was "the first response to the continuing crimes of the occupation."

Their first "response"? Click here to see a listing of Hamas "first responses" in 2011 alone.

Yesterday, NYT’s columnist, Roger Cohen, wrote a column entitled "The Goldstone Chronicles", in which he laments the recanting of a report written by a South African Jewish jurist condemning Israel for its "disproportionate" response to Hamas attacks. Cohen suggests that Gladstone’s recanting was just another example of an honest and deserved criticism of Israeli over-reaction being quashed by pressure from uncritical supporters of Israel. He wrote:

"The charges (against Glastone) cascaded: He was a “self-hating Jew,” a hypocrite, a traitor. For Alan Dershowitz he was “despicable.” For Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, Goldstone was up there with the Iranian nuclear program and Hamas rockets as one of Israel’s ‘three major strategic challenges.’"

Cohen concludes with a finger of condemnation pointed at Israel.

"Meanwhile the facts remain: the 1,400 plus Palestinian dead, the 13 Israelis killed, the devastation, the Hamas rockets — and the need for credible investigation of what all evidence suggests were large-scale, indiscriminate, unlawful Israeli attacks in Gaza, as well as Hamas’ crimes against civilians."

The pivot point of Cohen’s condemnation of Israel’s "unlawful" attacks is the issue of proportionality. He sees in the numbers—1,400 Palestinians vs. 13 Israelis—a great injustice. Presumably if the numbers were 13 for 13, he would see a more balanced reign of mutual terror. But terror is not a game of attrition. It is not a numbers game. It is a mind game. When the U.S. was attacked on 911 around 3000 Americans were killed but the terror produced by the random killing of civilians on home soil provoked a response that included our invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and continues today to shape our national policy and daily lives. The numbers killed by our reaction to 911 are often debated but few would suggest that there has been anything even close to proportionality.

Israel has lived and continues to live under constant mortal threat. In the past much of that threat entailed conventional warfare conducted by aggressors on Israeli home soil—1947, 1956, 1967, 1970, 1973, 1982, and 2006. And most of those wars involved adversaries with vastly superior numbers and material. More recently though, aggressor attacks designed to undermine Israel’s existence have taken the form of terrorism, a strategy favored by those engaged in asymmetrical warfare with an adversary of superior strength, but warfare nonetheless.

Were Israel to do as the U.S. has done, she would invade Gaza and West Bank, overwhelm her adversaries and impose by force of arms, a complaint government. But world opinion would never tolerate such action from the tiny state. All that Israel can do is to react to terror with terror. She can try to undermine the will of her neighboring populations to continue in their support of acts by various factions bent on using terror, and Israel’s reaction, to their advantage on the world stage.

The issue of proportionality is nonsense. A hundred rockets randomly lobbed into cities and towns may only kill a few Israelis but the terror wrought by such tactics exceeds any numerical accounting. Even if it were possible for Israel to proportionately scale their responses to the killing of a few innocent civilians, such a proportional response would cede all hope of turning the populations that tolerate and support terrorism.

Would Mr. Cohen prefer it if Israel lobbed untargeted mortars and missiles into Gaza in numbers equivalent to those fired from Gaza? Would such equivalence be a more fair response? Tit-for-tat proportionality is nonsensical because it can produce nothing more than a Kafkaesque stalemate of perpetual terror.

The resolution to the conflict between Israel and her Arab-islamic neighbors must always come back to the question of whether or not there are concessions that Israel can make in order to placate the wrath of her adversaries? Is there something Israel can give that would defuse the bombs of hatred? Short of self-immolation, a viable compromise has yet to be proffered by those who continue to war against her.

From Hamas’ charter:

"Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it." (The Martyr, Imam Hassan al-Banna, of blessed memory)."


About marc

Instructional Design Consultant
This entry was posted in Current Events, Motivation, Politics, Theory of Knowledge. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Proportionality and Terrorism in the Middle East

  1. Frank says:

    It seems you mistake the pivot point of Cohen as one of proportionality. That’s not what he writes. His point is in the second part: “- and the need for credible investigation of what all evidence suggests were large-scale, indiscriminate, unlawful Israeli attacks in Gaza, as well as Hamas’ crimes against civilians”.

    Any credible investigation out there from any of the two parties? What nation prides itself “the only democracy in the mid-east”? Who would you expect a credible investigation from then?

  2. marc says:

    You make a valid point Frank. Cohen’s criticism does include a call for a “credible investigation” but I do not think this makes his criticism more credible. Based on a report by McGowan Davis, Cohen casts a jaundiced eye at Israel’s attempts to legitimize her use of military might. Cohen wants to apply to Israel, the genteel standard of behavior that we ascribe to liberal democracies. But lack of proportionality remains at the root of his criticism.

    The Western narrative always follows the Biblical pattern of Good vs. Evil. For many years Israel enjoyed the status of a good David doing battle with an evil Goliath. Back then the story of proportionality favored Israel. Today the story line has been reversed, with Israel Goliath and the Palestinians David. The first Palestinian Intifada is the most salient event that marked the inversion of the story line. Similar Western stories of disproportionality are being played out today throughout the Middle-East—Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, etc. But the struggle of good vs. evil, of “right” vs. “wrong”, is a uniquely Western story line. In the Arab-Islamic world the story line is one of power vs. power.

    Israel sits astride these two story lines. When she faces the West, she must be a liberal democracy that acts in terms of fairness and responsibility. But when she faces east, she must maintain a posture of ruthless power in the face of her adversaries. The two storiy lines are fundamentally incompatible. Israel’s liberal democratic instincts are not just a sign of weakness, they are in practice, a weakness that is exploited by her self-avowed enemies.

    Can a liberal democracy be sustained by a people engaged in mortal combat? Can those people walk the middle road of fairness, compromise and proportionality? When the tides of fortune favor people who value fairness are flowing, they will try their best. When the tides turn against them, they will fight with whatever means they have. In practical terms, a drive around Israel makes it abundantly clear that she remains a David amid Goliaths. By what method can she defend herself against those who have learned to use the weakness of her democratic ideals against her?

    Of course, this is the very same question we in the U.S. are confronting today in the face of terrorism, and even from our position of uncontested might, we find ourselves trapped into ruthless and disproportionate action. The litany of our self-examinations for the many atrocities we have committed are no more credible than those conducted by Israel. Indeed, our list of innocent victims is much longer.

    So I think Cohen lives with his head in the clouds. From his comfortable office, he accuses Israel of violating democratic ideals of goodness and fairness. Meanwhile the missiles fly and bombs explode amid the sons and daughters of a people who have suffered the slings and arrows of their enemies for 2000 years. The battles raging in the Middle East today, against Israel and against the various proxy regimes installed by the West, cannot be reduced to simple Good vs. Evil story lines. A great struggle for power is underway and the disproportionate military power of the West is no longer decisive given today’s technological realities.

  3. Pingback: “Divine commands” and personal conscience | Open Parachute

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