Who says war has to be proportional?


ISRAEL’S counteroffensive against Hezbollah may not be a good idea. But the main criticism that is being made against it, at home and abroad -- namely, that Israel is using “disproportionate force” -- is just silly.

As The Times reported Thursday: “Critics have said Israel’s response to the killing of eight soldiers and capture of two others by the Shiite Muslim guerrillas last week is disproportionate.”

First of all, Israel is responding not just to those recent killings but to a long string of attacks since it withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. The kidnapping was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.


Second, as the Israeli government rightly points out, no country operates on the principle of responding to aggression with no more force than was originally used against it. During World War II, Germany sunk a lot of American ships and declared war on us, and in return we flattened its cities, killed or captured hundreds of thousands of its solders and occupied its land. That was hardly a proportionate response.

Now, it is true that Israel’s counteroffensive has taken the lives of several hundred Lebanese civilians (many entirely innocent, others who sheltered Hezbollah rockets) and displaced perhaps half a million more. Every innocent death is a tragedy.

But the brutal fact is that civilian deaths are Hezbollah’s strongest weapon. As Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, once said: “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death.”

Thus Hezbollah places its rockets and other potential targets in homes, knowing that Israel cannot hit back without creating collateral damage. This does not relieve Israel of the burden of minimizing civilian casualties as best it can. The point is that if Israel has to operate under a code of ethics that renders civilian deaths unacceptable, then it automatically loses. The ramifications would be dire and ultimately aid the cause of Islamic radicals in such a way as to bring about many more innocent deaths over the long run.

The real question, then, is not whether Israel’s counteroffensive is disproportionate but whether it’s working.

Israel says every one of its airstrikes has a specific strategic and military rationale. The attacks on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure are not “collective punishment,” they’re an attempt to prevent Hezbollah from transporting the captured soldiers to Iran and to prevent Iran and Syria from resupplying Hezbollah. Where Israel has bombed civilian areas, it has been in an attempt to strike Hezbollah’s rockets.

If those strikes are carrying out their intended effect, then it’s a justifiable response. If they’re not, then it’s not justifiable.

But proportionality has nothing to do with it. If Israel was attacking Lebanon’s infrastructure at random, then it would be wrong even if it killed fewer Lebanese than Hezbollah killed Israelis.

So, is the Israeli counteroffensive working? We don’t know. Israel says it has massively degraded Hezbollah’s store of rockets. We shouldn’t take Israel’s word on that, for obvious reasons. (Any country overstates the effectiveness of its military operations from time to time.)

On the other hand, we shouldn’t necessarily take the critics at face value, either. In 2002, Israel faced a savage wave of suicide bombings. It responded to the attacks by locking down the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and building a wall to keep out terrorists. Europeans, United Nations types and other doves insisted Israel was only making the problem worse. But Israel did manage to choke off the flow of suicide bombers, which paved the way for its subsequent withdrawals.

Sure, there are hawks who are predisposed to believe in the efficacy of military force. The doves, though, have an equally strong disposition to believe that military force inevitably fails. We won’t know for some time whether Israel has really taken a chunk out of Hezbollah. Either way, balancing the number of dead Israelis against dead Lebanese tells us nothing.