Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Proportionality

Last week, in the wake of rockets being fired from Gaza into Southern Israel, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert promised harsh and "disproportionate" retaliation.

While I'm deeply unimpressed by saber rattling and fear the prospect of a return to violence, there's something about Olmert's claims that actually please me: the shedding of the notion of "proportionality".

As you may remember, one of the critical point of debate over the recent violence was whether or not Israel's actions were "proportionate". This word found itself thrust into the spotlight, as, under international law, a country has a right to proportionate military action in defending itself. The fact that this critical word doesn't actually carry a well-defined meaning led to a massive debate (or rather a PR war) over whether it is proportionate to conduct a full-scale invasion with a high number of civilian casualties in response to dozens, ultimately hundreds, of rocket attacks.

This whole debate is ridiculous for a number reasons, but I'd like to focus on one in particular: the fact that Israel's military policy is founded on the concept of deterrence, which requires disproportional, rather than proportional, response.

Israel's policy goes something like this: you mess with me and there will be hell to pay. It's a basic rejection of the principle of "an eye for an eye" (which no one, especially the West, does anymore anyway) designed to strike fear into the hearts their enemies - cross the line and you've got it coming to you, big time.

Sometimes this works well. It certainly helped Israel hold its own against previous enemies like Egypt, where governments with standing armies and large, unoccupied areas of land have a strong sense of self-preservation. No one's going to mess with you if they know you'll hit them back as hard as you can.

Or so goes the logic.

Where this strategy doesn't work well is against guerrilla fighters, like in Southern Lebanon in 2006, where rocket-launchers have lots of places to run and hide and aren't really worried about their cities being pounded into a pulp.

Also, with regimes like Hamas, and the people of Gaza who aren't doing so hot, having been blockaded for some time now, the calculation of whether or not it's worth the blood of your people to get a global response hopefully in your favour may welcome disproportionate reactions. Again, deterrence with Hamas didn't make sense - and it didn't work, though I suppose one could argue that the threat of disproportionality and the war-torn state of Gaza and the inability of Hamas to best Israel militarily may cause Hamas to think twice before resuming rocket attacks, which is what Israel would be hoping.

The question for Israel is not so much is the legality of deterrence (and subsequent heavy response), an area where Israel hasn't historically cared much, but whether or not it will work. It certainly hasn't worked so far for dealing with Hamas (and other, lesser groups), and I doubt that in this sort of situation it ever will.

Thinking long and hard on what Israel's military policy is and should be a serious question, and it is, as yet, one without a clear answer. What is clear, however, is that the concept of proportionality is, at present, no more than legal and moral term at the centre of a debate far removed from the actual practice of warfare.

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