J. Pharoah Doss: Is proportionality in war absurd?

The latest update out of the Middle East, as of this writing, stated that Israeli forces have intensified their bombardment of the Gaza Strip as the war with Hamas rages on. This is now the deadliest conflict in Gaza for both sides. The Hamas-run Health Ministry claims at least 5,087 Palestinians have been killed and 15,270 have been wounded. Since the Oct. 7 surprise attack by Hamas, in which 222 individuals, including foreigners, were taken captive in Gaza, more than 1,400 Israelis have been killed.

Israeli critics declared the assault on Gaza a “disproportionate response” to Hamas’s attack. These critics assess “disproportion” by the number of dead bodies. Palestine has four times as many as Israel. For these critics, that disproportion constitutes a war crime.

Israeli supporters believe it is a grave error to draw a moral equivalence between Hamas, a terrorist group, and Israel’s Defense Force, which is tasked with defending a sovereign nation. Hamas entered Israel, slaughtered Israeli people, and then fled to Gaza, where Palestinian civilians were used as human shields. Any unintended consequences of an Israeli military response are the result of Hamas’s exploitation of human shields. As a result, Hamas, not Israel, is to blame for the disproportion of dead bodies.

Douglass Murray, a British political commentator, was asked about the situation between Gaza and Israel. The interviewer claimed that many Western nations were asking for Israel to have a “proportional response” and then asked Murray if this was something Israel should think about.

Murray said no. He always thought the whole idea of proportionality in conflict was absurd. Only in the case of Israel do Western democracies and the United Nations obsess over it. Western democracies do not argue this is entirely a proportional response when they have had to fight wars in the past because proportionality is an abstract concept.

What is proportionate in a conflict? Murray inquired.

In this conflict, he said, proportionate means that Israel’s response to Hamas’s cold-blooded massacre of more than a thousand Israelis should be to send Israeli forces to rape exactly the same number of women as Hamas raped and decapitate exactly the same number of babies as Hamas decapitated. It’s obscene to even think in such terms, but that’s what proportionality would mean.

Murray is correct. It’s horrible to think of proportionality in the way he portrayed it, but Western democracies don’t consider a proportional response as matching evil deed for evil deed; they see proportionality as a key concept in international law.

However, during Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in 2006, Dr. Amichai Cohen, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, observed, “Proportionality has become a common term, widely used by human rights organizations, politicians, soldiers, and laypeople. But its precise legal meaning is little understood. Non-governmental organizations allege that a certain attack was disproportionate because civilians were killed; military officers retort that the action was proportional because the enemy fired first. From a legal standpoint, both claims are inaccurate and based on irrelevant conceptions of proportionality.”

The legal concept of proportionality states that the military target should be defined in the narrowest way possible. The attacking power should consider whether there is a way to achieve the military objective with little or no damage to the civilian population. Then, after a course of action is decided, the attacking power must take measures to limit the harm their action will cause civilians.

In theory, that’s good, but Cohen points out the difficulty in practice.

The concept of proportionality assumes the feasibility of rational choices in battlefield situations and that the attacking power has an option. In the current situation Israel finds itself in, proportionality presumes the enemy doesn’t camouflage themselves among the civilian population. Under these circumstances, the attacking power cannot make an informed assessment of the harm to the civilian population vis-à-vis the gains from a specific military goal. The problem with proportionality, according to Cohen, is that it places an unrealistic burden on the attacker to make a cost-benefit analysis in the mist of battle.

That’s why Murray referred to proportionality as absurd. Pundits from previous generations thought attempts to construct standards for something as lawless as war were lessons in absurdity, but a lesson in absurdity might help us better evaluate the need for proportionality.

Albert Camus, a writer who took part in the underground resistance against the Nazis in occupied France, is best known for his absurdist philosophy. Camus held that the universe was irrational and that there was no intrinsic meaning to existence. Absurdity arises from humans’ natural desire to find meaning in life. Unfortunately, the universe is indifferent to human desire and provides no answer. Camus contended that the only way to deal with absurdity was to embrace it. Through their actions, humans can create their own meaning.

Let’s apply that to war.

War is illogical, and violence has no meaning. Absurdity arises because humans are moral beings who instinctively discern between what is right and wrong. Regrettably, war is fundamentally amoral and lawless. Those who fight war must confront it with their moral sense and devise guidelines for what is allowed and banned during combat.

Murray is right; proportionality is absurd; nonetheless, it is the attempt to create codes of conduct to limit the horrors of war that distinguishes civilization from barbarism. 



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