A Philosopher's Blog

Proportionality, Gaza & Israel

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2009

As Israel continues ground operations in Gaza, the casualties continue to grow. Not surprisingly, the civilians are suffering the most. As Thucydides wrote, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Of course, the suffering is not all on one side. Hamas continues to launch random rocket attacks into Israel and there will no doubt be more deaths among Israeli forces.

Having followed events in the news, I have noticed that a common talking point among those critical of Israel is the notion of proportionality. The view generally expressed by such critics is that Israel is not responding in a proportional manner to Hamas. While the news does not go into depth (depth is the bane of TV news) I infer that they are using the concept in the usual moral sense. Put a bit simply, the idea is that a response to a harmful or provocative  action should be in proportion to that action. To go beyond that in doing harm would be unjust. For example, suppose someone gets angry at my political views, hits me with a small rock and thus bruises my arm. If I break his arm, then I have acted in a disproportionate way. As such, my action would be wrong. In the case of Israel, the critics say that Israel’s air strikes and ground invasion is not proportional to the random rocket attacks and hence is wrong.

On one hand, the critics do have a reasonable point. By the numbers, the rockets have killed and injured only a few people and the airstrikes and invasion have killed and injured many. As such, Israel seems to be acting wrongly be responding in such an extreme way.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Israel is acting in a just manner. While it is clear that Israel is killing far more people than Hamas’ rocket strikes, there is also the matter of considering what is required to stop the rocket strikes. Going back to my example above, if I shoot someone for brusing my arm with a rock, then I have clearly over reacted. However, there is the question of what my response should be. If I react in a way that is exactly proportional and throw a rock at him, then I will most likely just create a cycle of rock throwing. Each response will be proportional (a rock for a rock) but this would hardly be a desirable solution. It would be better to put an end to the rock throwing altogether.

In the case of Israel and Hamas, if Israel fired comparable rockets randomly into Gaza, then they would have an exactly proportional response. However, this would create an ongoing cycle of random deaths and injury. This hardly seems desirable (although a utilitarian argument could be made that an ongoing rocket exchange with few deaths would be better than an invasion that end up killing many people).

Perhaps there is a way for Israel to stop the rockets without killing and injuring a disproportionate number of people. If so, that would be the morally preferable approach. Unfortunately, Israel seems left with few options. Air strikes against the rockets will do more damage than the rockets do to Israel. Further, they will not stop the rocket attacks without inflicting massive destruction.  Precision special forces operations could destroy some rocket launchers with minimal deaths, but such operations cannot be extensive enough to solve the problem. As such, the military way to stop the rockets would seem to be to use ground forces to defeat Hamas in the area. This will no doubt prove both difficult and costly.  However, if such operations are the only way to stop the rocket attacks, then they would seem morally justified. Assuming, of course, that it is wrong for Hamas to fire rockets at Israel.

Going back to my example, if the person who hit me with a rock will not stop throwing rocks at me unless I break his arm, then I would be justified in doing that. This assumes, of course, that he should not be throwing rocks at me. If I deserve to be hit with rocks, then I would have no moral right to break his arm. But if I do not deserve to be hit by rocks and only a broken arm will stop him, then I would be right to break his arm.

As always, it would be better if a peaceful solution could be reached. However, history shows that this is not likely. We can expect more death, injury and suffering before this current situation comes to an end.