Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Part II: Is Israel Exercising "Restraint" In Gaza?

Yesterday's post left out an important point about body counts as a proxy for proportionality. Clearly it was short sighted not to expect a sharp reader like my grad school friend Naseema to point out that:

"What people actually mean is to kill fewer civilians on the other side. That too would be proportional, and would have the benefit of lowering body counts."

This important point introduces a concept closely related to proportionality: that of restraint (expressed here as the moral good of lowering body counts). The issue of restraint raises an important set of questions. Since both proportionality and restraint are liberal concepts, there is a complex overlap between them that needs to be clarified. What is the difference between the proportionality and restraint? How can analysts make sense of claims from both Israelis and Palestinians about Israel's restraint - or lack thereof - in Gaza?

Proportionality is hard to disentangle from restraint because it's often used to mean essentially the same thing. But perhaps a working definition is that restraint is a focus on using the least amount of force necessary in general, while proportionality calls for the least amount of force necessary for achieving defeat/surrender. Proportionality takes the political ends of force into account, whereas restraint tends to operate as as universal norm on the use of force itself.

Restraint quickly becomes a tricky concept because it is a liberal ideal. In other words, it can never be truly achieved in the context of warfare. A perfectly restrained response would be no response at all. However, every theory of international relations assumes that states use force - a contradiction in liberalism that scholars have pointed out. Israel's current security situation exposes the difficulty of being a liberal state that exercises restraint. And while politicians in Western capitals can talk about restraint in the abstract, Israel's geopolitical posture does not give it a similar luxury. Another important qualification about restraint is that Hamas and its supporters are not under similar normative pressure to exercise it. The norm applies to states, and liberal states in particular.

In some ways, Israel is clearly exercising restraint. Examples from yesterday's post apply here: Text message warnings that sacrifice the element of surprise to protect civilians, targeting specific Hamas infrastructure versus indiscriminate carpet-bombing, calling off airstrikes that will kill civilians, allowing humanitarian cease fires, and engaging in political mediation all support the idea that Israel is acting with restraint. 650 Palestinian deaths are a horrific tragedy, but many states in similar situations would have incurred even more because they would not employ similar measures.

But importantly, every one of these examples has qualifications. Texts are only as effective as the receiver's ability to actually find a safe space. Targeting Hamas infrastructure is impossible in Gaza without incurring casualties - 20% of which have been children so far. It's alleged use of flechettes in populated areas exacerbate the danger to civilians. While Israel called off one airstrike where civilians were threatened, it also went ahead with one that killed four boys playing at a Gaza beach. Its humanitarian cease fires are only necessary in the first place because of a) Israeli operations themselves and b) the severe restriction on imported goods imposed by Israel on residents of the Gaza Strip.

Ultimately, while Israel is acting with considerable restraint, there are specific ways in which it could act with more restraint without jeopardizing its mission to degrade Hamas' capability to harm Israeli civilians. Rather than relying on body counts to bolster claims about restraint, analysts should give Israel some credit for the restraint it has shown while identifying specific ways to exercise more restraint without risking mission success. 

*Edit: An earlier version of this post used a list of prohibited items in Gaza from May 2010. The link has been updated with a 2013 list whose items are much less arbitrary.