Middle East ‘proportionality’


Since Dec. 27, when Israel began its aerial bombardment of Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinians -- reportedly more than 200 the first day -- the word most frequently used by the world media is “proportionality.”

How many bombs, it is asked, should Israel have dropped on Gaza in response to the missiles launched -- hundreds in recent months -- at Israel’s southern settlements and towns, and how many Palestinians could be killed for the response to be considered proportional?

There is something soothing in the proportionality debate because it takes unquantifiable parameters such as anxiety, pain and even human life and seeks to introduce them into a seemingly objective equation. Similar to Newton’s laws or the second law of thermodynamics, this is an a priori law of nature: an equation that contains the suffering and victims of Israel’s southern settlements on one side and produces a reasonable number of corpses on the Gazan side. Something like 23.5 (the half could, perhaps, stand for a particularly serious injury or the death of an elderly person or an infant).


To be clear, I have no objection to the logic in the proportionality principle and the positive, sincere aspiration behind it. The very thought of introducing a rational criterion into the harsh and irrational Middle Eastern conflict helps clarify the distorted reality we live in, and it constitutes a kind of desperate attempt to regulate something that is neither regular, normal or essentially comprehensible.

But let’s pretend for a moment that logic can be forced onto the hatred and fear that have ruled the Middle East for more than 60 years. Can both sides here agree on identical criteria for what constitutes proportionality?

If you ask an Israeli right-winger who is under rocket attack in Sderot, he’ll explain his own equation this way: Hamas is trying to kill as many Israelis as it can without discriminating between soldiers and civilians, or among men, women and children, and so, according to its proportionality principle, we too must try to kill as many Gazans as possible. The fact that Israel has state-of-the-art military equipment and the capability of killing thousands of people in Gaza should not be part of the proportionality equation. What tips the scales is the degree of aggression and brutality. After all, the Palestinians know that we have more and better armaments than them, but that didn’t stop them from launching rocket attacks daily at our southern settlements in recent years. They’ve continued trying as hard as they can to kill us, and now it’s time for our side of the equation. It’s time for us to kill them.

If you ask a Palestinian in Gaza, he’ll tell you that the reason Hamas did not stop firing rockets when Israel and Egypt sought to extend the cease-fire that had been in place for six months was precisely because Hamas tried to maintain another, different, but no less just, proportionality principle: As long as Gaza is isolated and the Israeli Defense Forces controls the border checkpoints and our population is suffering, Gazans must create similar suffering on the Israeli side. For if things are very bad for the inhabitants of Gaza, but they’re not all that bad for the citizens of southern Israel, the proportionality principle is violated. And for that reason, Hamas continued to launch rockets at Sderot and other places.

Not at all, the Israeli right-winger will argue; the effective blockade imposed on Gaza is what preserves the proportionality principle. As long as Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured more than two years ago in Gaza, is being held captive without being accorded the basic rights dictated by the Geneva Convention, restriction of freedom and movement to a proportionate degree must be imposed on the regime holding him.

You’re wrong, the Gazan will counter; Shalit must remain in captivity to create a proportional balance with the hundreds of Hamas detainees being held in Israeli territory and here.

Thus, it appears that the proportionality debate presents objective criteria for a situation that is essentially subjective, in which two contradictory narratives clash and neither side is prepared to include the other and its suffering.

Is there anything in the proportionality principle that can rationally justify killing of any kind?

The motives of vengeance, which drive us to kill those who have killed people we love, are completely irrational, even if we try to wrap them in rational packaging. We exact vengeance because we hate and are hurting, not because we excel in mathematics and logic. Early in the aerial bombing of Gaza, five young girls from the same family were killed, and many more children have died on both sides of the border in recent years. The attempt to introduce their bodies into an equation that would make their deaths justifiable or comprehensible might be necessary to influence current events, but it is still enraging.

The only equation I can wholeheartedly accept is one whereby zero bodies appear on either side of the equation. And until that time comes, I’ll choose outcry and protest that appeal solely to the heart. I shall reserve my appeals to the mind for better times.

Etgar Keret is the author of, most recently, “The Girl on the Fridge and Other Stories.” This essay was translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris.