Because my knowledge of the Palestinian conflict is pretty shallow, I’ll refrain from commenting on the effectiveness of Israel’s recent military action. However, I think a renewed outbreak of violence raises broader questions about proportionality and the legitimacy of military retaliation that deserve to be addressed.
At Conventional Folly, I went a few rounds with Sonny Bunch over whether policymakers should consider “proportionality” when formulating a military response to terrorist attacks. You could read Bunch’s comments, but Ramesh Ponnuru has the Cliffs Notes version in the Washington Post:
Critics of Israeli military action say that it is “excessive” or “disproportionate” to Hamas’s provocation. But that’s the wrong way to think about proportionality in war. The traditional just-war standard is that military action should be “proportionate” in that it causes fewer harms than it seeks to prevent. That’s a sane and sound moral standard. It does not mean that military means must inflict only as much pain as the enemy has inflicted.
The newfangled proportionality standard has several perverse implications, not the least of which being that military victories would almost always be considered morally illegitimate.
In this context, enemy combatants – whether they’re members of an opposing military or an irregular guerrilla force – are fair game because they’re willing participants in armed conflict. Ideally, we’d like to minimize military deaths on both sides, but voluntarily signing up for armed service is entirely different from getting caught in the crossfire.
So if the Israeli military suddenly assassinated every single Hamas operative, I doubt anyone would call their response “disproportionate.” But of course that’s not what happened, so we’re left weighing the collateral damage incurred by Israeli strikes against the prospect of continued rocket attacks. So far, the death toll in Gaza appears to be winning.
Some commentators seem to think that Israel is morally obligated to retaliate whenever its citizens’ lives are threatened. I understand the political logic of this approach – would any politician have the guts to stand up and tell his constituents to “sit back and take it?” – but I don’t understand why retribution should outweigh the prospect of Palestinian civilian casualties. Unless we’ve decided that the safety of Israeli citizens should always take precedence over the condition of their Palestinian counterparts, I think the moral imperative to spare as much innocent life as possible should be the determining factor when considering retaliatory military action. If an Israeli military response leads to more civilian casualties than the alternatives, I don’t think such action can be considered morally appropriate.