A Question for Israel’s Critics – What Number of Dead Palestinians is Proportionate?

So the Israelis and the Palestinians are at it again.  Here it is, a nice sunny summer, and they’ve got nothing better to do than try (none too successfully, in the case of the Palestinians) to kill one another.  Somethings never change.  Another thing that never changes is the chorus of critics of Israel lamenting it “disproportionate” attacks on Palestinians.  Anytime Israel goes to war with its neighbours, it’s accused of inflicting “disproportionate” casualties on their civilian populations or, and it amounts to the same thing, of a “disproportionate” response, most notably by the British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.   

But no one ever asks the obvious question.  If Israel’s actions result in “disproportionate” Palestinian civilian casualties, what level of Palestinian civilian casualties would be “proportionate”?  And it’s too bad, because the answer to that question would tell us a great deal about the people making such claims.

It is wholly meaningless to say, in the abstract, that Israel’s actions are “disproportionate” because it has killed x number of Palestinian civilians (assuming, of course, as such critics tend to do, that (i) all those Palestinians were civilians at the time they were killed – since Hamas fighters often don’t wear uniforms, it’s hard to distinguish between them and real civilians – and (ii) that they all died at the hands of the Israelis – Hamas’ missiles are so inaccurate that they often land in Gaza proper.  In fact, they have probably killed more Palestinians that Israelis).¹  Think about it,  that’s like telling a man that his weight is “disproportionate”. It’s a claim that, on its own, makes no sense.

In order to say that a man’s weight is “disproportionate” we need to know what his “proportionate” weight should be.  If we think a man who is 5’8″ should only weight 160lbs and he weights 200lbs, his weight is indeed disproportionate.  But without the counterfactual of what we think the man should weigh, any claim that his weight is disproportionate is meaningless.  Moreover, the claim is only as meaningful as the counterfactual.  If you think a man who is 5’8″ should only weigh 90lbs, does the fact that he actually weighs 160lb means that his weight is “disproportionate” or does it mean that you’re a lunatic?

Similarly, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s only meaningful to assess whether or not Israel’s infliction of civilian casualties in Gaza is disproportionate if we have in mind some set of “proportionate” level of civilian casualties for a given military objective.  Indeed, this is what is mandated by international law (such as the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Convention and Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statue).  As I’ve noted before, killing civilians while targeting military targets is not, per se, illegal or wrong.   International law only prohibits attacks on military targets where the attacker has knowledge  “that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated targets” (that’s from the Rome Statute, but it’s broadly similar to the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Convention).  In other words, it’s OK to kill some civilians when attacking a particular military objective, you just can’t kill too many.

So this brings us back to Clegg and his ilk.   How many dead Palestinians does Clegg think would be “proportionate” to achieving Israel’s military goals?

If the answer is zero, they’d just defined any self-defense on Israel’s part as a war crime (belying Clegg’s assertion that “Israeli of course retains the right to react” to Palestinian attacks).   The reality of modern warfare, particularly with an enemy like Hamas, which has few compunctions about hiding amongst civilian populations, is that civilians die.  That is all the more true when fighting takes place in cramped urban areas (like the Gaza Strip). If any Palestinian civilian casualties are “disproportionate” to Israel’s war aims, Israel is effectively barred from defending itself outside its borders.  For anyone who believes this, the only  legitimate exercise of Israeli sovereignty involves sitting at the border fending off wave after wave of Palestinian assaults (if that), but not doing anything to stop them.   This is the equivalent of believing that the 5’8″ an should weigh 90 pounds, its a crazy position.

This is obviously not a position that any reasonable person who purports to accept Israel’s right to defend itself (as Clegg does) would adopt.   Then again, since many of Israel’s critics – not being particularly reasonable people – reject Israel’s right to defend itself (or exist) I’m sure many believe precisely this.   No wonder they hate Israel, they’ve defined everything Israel does as a war crime.  Asking this question helps distinguish between mere critics of Israel and anti-Israel fanatics.

What if the answer is non-zero?  Then Israel’s critics have to engage in the awkward line drawing exercise of distinguishing between the “proportionate” killing of Palestinians and the “disproportionate” killing of Palestinians.  Where’s that number? Is it 1 dead Palestinian civilian?  100? 500?  1000?  10,000? 100,000?  I will put it to you that none of Israel’s critics can draw that line.  If you don’t know what level of casualties are proportionate, how can you say that Israel’s actions resulted in disproportionate casualties?  If you don’t know what a 5’8″ man should weigh, how can you say he’s overweight?

Hey, in fairness to Israel’s critics, I can’t tell you what a “proportionate” number of civilian casualties is, not without a detailed investigation of every instance of civilian deaths.  No fair minded person could.  To be sure, in some cases, civilian casualties are so high that such a line drawing exercise is unneccessary.  But this isn’t one of those cases.  After all, the number of civilian casualties suffered by the Palestinians in the current round of fighting is consistent with civilian casualties suffered in other recent moderns wars (i.e., wars fought by professional armies).  In the Russia/Georgian war, in 2008, roughly 500 civilians were killed. In the first three months of the American bombing of Afghanistan following September 11, between 1,000 and 1,300 civilian dies as a result of the Allied bombing campaign.  In the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, NATO forces killed 500-odd civilians.  The Gulf War (which lasted longer than the other two, and involved relatively more primitive technology) resulted in approximately 3500 civilian casualties.  In the Libyan civil war, NATO air strikes resulted in 60 civilian casualties (despite NATO having adopted a standard of not launching attacks if there was a possibility of civilian casualties – a standard that is unprecedented in the history of warfare and goes well beyond what is required under international law, and which still resulted in 60 civilian casualties).  Set against that factual background, the number of Palestinian civilian casualties at the hands of the Israelis is not so facially egregious to justify claims of disproportionality, at least without a far more thorough investigation.

But, of course, Clegg et al are making precisely such a claim.  By asking what they thing Palestinian casualties should be, we see how baseless, and silly, that claim is.

It also shows how much of the rhetoric of the anti-Israel extremists has been internalized, perhaps unknowingly, by people such as Nick Clegg, who no doubt think of themselves as fair-minded people.   Clegg purports to believe in Israel’s right to defend itself, but he’s echoing the rhetoric (and propaganda) of those who don’t, of the fanatics who believe that any dead Palestinian is a war crime.  By doing so he’s reinforcing the validity of that view (at least among the true believers, if not under international law), further undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a member of the community of nations.

This isn’t to say that people can’t be (or shouldn’t be) critical of actual Israeli  war crimes (or Palestinian was crimes – as an aside,  firing unguided rockets at civilian populations is prima facie a war crime, even if they never hit).  But it would be nice if such criticisms were based on an actual assessment of Israel’s conduct of the war, rather than being based on… well… nothing.


1.  Properly speaking we should be talking about all Palestinian total casualties, rather than just fatalities.  But for the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to refer to fatality numbers, on the theory that they’re broadly proportionate to total casualties.





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