Sunday, November 18, 2012

Proportionality In Gaza A Complex Issue For IDF

There have been a number of analysts and journalists raising the issue of proportionality in Gaza.  Israelis and their supporters argue that Israel's targeting of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas leaders and weapons storage facilities is a clearly proportionate response to Hamas' blatant targeting of the Israeli civilian population.  Palestinians and their supporters argue that those rockets have done little damage, while in contrast Israel has incurred numerous civilian casualties during Operation Amud Anan.

The doctrine of proportionality is codified in Article 51 of the Draft Articles of State Responsibility.  The text of the article reads:

"Countermeasures must be commensurate with the injury suffered, taking into account the gravity of the internationally wrongful act and the rights in question."

While international lawyers can much better explain what each of those key components mean, political analysts can explain the complexities of measuring a "commensurate" response.  The issue is far from simple and the standard is highly subjective.  Examining three potential metrics sheds light on just how complex an issue proportionality is.

First, we could define commensurate in body counts, as some Palestinians and their supporters have done.  In this regard there is no question that Palestinian deaths (53) outweigh the number of Israeli deaths (3).  However, this metric leaves out the fact that these casualties occur as part of a two-sided process.  One side is attacking but the other side is defending.  So, should analysts measure a commensurate response in terms of capabilities?  If so, should they consider capabilities of offense, defense, or some combination of both?  Is a country with better defensive capabilities less entitled to respond than a country without them given the same severity of attack?  

Further complicating the picture is the question of strategic intentions.  The impossible question of "who started it?" ultimately shapes the way analysts understand these intentions, but certain aspects of the conflict widely are understood.  Gaza-based groups targeted Tel Aviv specifically because it was a populated urban area.  The strategy of these groups is to target civilians with no connection to policymaking whatsoever.  On the other hand, Israel targeting Palestinian civilians on purpose is clearly outside the boundaries of proportionality.  Yet even the most carefully planned IDF response involves a risk of killing civilians because in 2012, the West's technological advancement is inferior to its moral advancement. Israel simply cannot strike the Gaza Strip without risking killing innocent people.  When the Government of Israel fails to use political measures effectively (threatening to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages, for example), the IDF is forced to choose between an imperfect response or to continue letting the Israeli population continue to live under fire.

Of course, strategic intentions mean very little when measured against outcomes.  Explaining to a Palestinian family in Beit Lahiya whose 3 and 5 year old children have been killed that "it was an accident" is not very persuasive.  One of the tenets of effective counterinsurgency is that actions speak louder than words.  All the hasbara in the world is not going to convince Palestinians, the Arab world, or the international community that the civilian deaths Israel has incurred are justified.  Additionally, many analysts confuse a justified response with an effective one.  Even if Israel is justified in striking urban-based objectives, doing so still may not be an effective strategy since a fatal outcome for civilians limits future decision-making.

As a bookend to the debate, it bears consideration that perfectly proportionate outcomes would not create peace but rather stalemates which can easily kill as many people as an all-out war.  States win wars when they can project more force or leverage more capabilities than their adversary, not proportional force.  Practically no one is satisfied with the ongoing stalemate between Israel and Gaza, and as long as it continues perfectly good people on both sides will continue to die.  Of course, at the same time, an Israeli show of overwhelming force would in reality kill many innocent people on both sides and would risk widening the conflict to a regional level.  

The real question which emerges from the debate is whether military superiority can be effective at all in an asymmetric conflict, and how a doctrine of proportionality applies to two entities that play by different rules.  What does a proportional response to a Hamas' armed wing look like in the real world?  The complexities of the issue are ones that scholars, military commanders, and policy decision-makers will continue to grapple with far after the end of Operation Amud Anan.

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