Does obsession with disproportionality compromise responsible warfare?

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If Israelis are unable to perceive the paradigm shift in discourse, they will never be able to challenge it.

Samson and Delilah by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (photo credit: DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Samson and Delilah by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni
(photo credit: DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

To some, power is all that matters. It is not simply something to be obtained, but a lens through which to see the world. During the recent  Gaza conflict , such a worldview began to dominate discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel has power. And to some, this is wrong.

Once the issue of Israel’s supposed disproportionality was the focus of commentators and influencers. Now, the underlying principle that informed this belief has emerged as the main framework for critics. The clash of narratives has evolved into discussions of power imbalance, in which the assumption is that the more powerful party is inherently wrong.

It’s vital to understand this new principle, that “might makes wrong.” For all the discussions of diplomacy failures in past conflicts, if Israelis are unable to perceive the paradigm shift in discourse, they will never be able to challenge it. Without challenge, a frightening moral framework will create untenable rules of war that Israel will never be able to follow.

Disproportionality

Review of media coverage of Israel’s wars in Gaza and Lebanon shows one term used ad nauseam: disproportionality. 
As international law expert and IDC professor Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak told the Magazine, discussion of proportionality is “always a timely and important topic because it keeps popping up, every time there is an engagement against Hamas or Hezbollah, the conversation quickly jumps to disproportionality and committing war crimes.”
The term is used repeatedly to describe Israel’s use of force. In 2012, during BBC World Service’s Newshour, the host claimed the numbers showed Israel acted disproportionately. In 2014, Al Jazeera created an infographic called “a chronology of disproportionate attacks on Gaza.” In 2018, UN Human Rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein argued that the “stark contrast in casualties on both sides is… suggestive of a wholly disproportionate response” to Gaza border riots.
The issue of proportionality is derived from a principle of international law, though its colloquial usage is different. The incorrect use of “disproportionate” borrows the principle’s legitimacy to allege war crimes. 
“I think that they are looking purely at the ‘results’ of the conflict as opposed to the big pictures and all the facts on the ground,” Emily Schrader, CEO of Social Lite Creative explains. “They believe, incorrectly, that because the death toll is higher for Palestinians then they must inherently be in the right. It’s human nature to think this way, but it’s also not sound logically.”
The arguments made, beyond the rhetoric, are twofold. Israel is accused of using too much force in comparison to its opponent, or the outcome of the conflict is unequal in terms of damage to civilians or civilian objects. Both are appeals for equality in warfare. 

In the past, calls for false proportionality have not stood up to scrutiny, as a standards regime on the use of force were still respected. However, the accusation has survived through repetition and an underlying belief.

NAFTALI BENNETT replies to statements by celebrities (from left) Bella Hadid, Trevor Noah and John Oliver, in a YouTube video released during Operation Guardian of the Walls. (Credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)

NAFTALI BENNETT replies to statements by celebrities (from left) Bella Hadid, Trevor Noah and John Oliver, in a YouTube video released during Operation Guardian of the Walls. (Credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)

Power imbalance

 In 2014, then-CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill complained that Iron Dome 

created unequal footing. While mocked then, he was ahead of his time, using the principle informing the belief of disproportionality: power imbalance.

In 2021’s Gaza conflict, commentators shifted from denouncing Israel for disproportionate outcomes to the a priori problem of might. This shift can be found in the language and arguments used by thought leaders. 
The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah released a clip on May 12 in which he asked his audience to ignore the complexities of the conflict: 
“Set aside motives and intentions and just look at technology, technology alone. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world,” said Noah. According to him, the main question that should be asked “in this situation is about power.” Noah mentions power directly multiple times in the video. “I’m just talking about the difference in power.”
Noah asserted in the video, which has over six million views on YouTube, that the party with more power has a special responsibility and extra limitations. 
“If a man has a knife, should the cops shoot him?… We’re going to try to do everything we can to not shoot this person, even at risk to ourselves, because at the end of the day, they brought a knife to a gun fight.”
John Oliver made similar statements in a segment on Last Week Tonight, which was uploaded on May 17 and racked up over 400,000 views on YouTube. For Oliver, the situation was also a question of power.
“One side has suffered over 10 times the casualties, something that speaks to both the severe power imbalance at play here and how that often gets obscured by how we choose to talk about it.”
Echoing Lamont Hill, Oliver expressed how Iron Dome was an example of unfair power imbalance: “This isn’t tit for tat, there is a massive imbalance when it comes to the two sides’ weapons and capabilities. While most of the rockets aimed at Israeli citizens this week were intercepted, Israel’s airstrikes were not. They hit their target.”
Noah and Oliver were not the only to make these arguments. Actress Susan Sarandon shared a graphic calling the idea that Israel and Palestinians are in conflict a “myth,” as to be in conflict requires equal footing. The graphic then stated the relationship to be a dynamic of oppressor/oppressed, a power dynamic. 

Huda Kattan, cosmetics blogger and artist, stated on Instagram that “Israel has one of the most powerful arseries [sic, arsenals] in the world… what does Palestine have?”

RESCUE PERSONNEL and Israeli Home Front Command at the scene of a direct rocket hit, at an Israeli home in Ashkelon, May 20. (Credit: EDI ISRAEL/FLASH90)

RESCUE PERSONNEL and Israeli Home Front Command at the scene of a direct rocket hit, at an Israeli home in Ashkelon, May 20. (Credit: EDI ISRAEL/FLASH90)

While once the term repeatedly used by critics was “disproportionate,” the new focus is “power.” This is not to say disproportionality is no longer part of the discussion. In the same period, Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro called IDF operations “grossly disproportionate force,” and Atlantic contributor Shadi Hamid stated that “disproportionality has always been at the heart of Israel’s deterrence strategy in Gaza.” 
“There is an obsession with proportionality because in the West right now in particular, there is a trend of framing everything in terms of oppressed or oppressor,” Schrader notes. “Proportionality is a concern because it’s incorrectly viewed as a test of morality, but military inferiority does not equal moral superiority.”

“I can understand where they are coming from, but I believe these commentators are either misinformed or have a cognitive bias against Israel; either way they will say that Israel is wrong regardless of Israel’s efforts to minimize collateral damage,” Dr. Avi Jager, a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism

at IDC Herzliya told the Magazine, “hence Israel should not waste resources on convincing the  inexorables, but seek legitimacy from its allies’ leaderships, which Israel has been doing with great success over the past 10 years.”

The matter of disproportionality is now being discussed not as an undesired outcome, but as a result and proof of a preexisting wrongful power imbalance. On May 20, recent defense minister Naftali Bennett released a video countering Noah and Oliver’s statements by asking “What would you do?” in Israel’s stead. While a valid point, Israel will always be considered in the wrong by some people because it has more power in relation to Gaza. It does not matter what one would do, the issue is of moral character – and according to this emerging lens, power is moral character.

Power as morality

The problem of Noah and his ideological compatriots proposing to set aside complexity and judge right and wrong based on power is that power itself is complex. Worldviews established on power are chaotic, and result in outcomes far worse than the events they perceive as disproportionate. 
Thucydides, an Athenian general-turned-historian, recounted an exchange from the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and people of Melos. The Melians, though not part of the Delian League, Athens’s enemy, were ethnic kinsmen to the Spartans, the leaders of the League. Athens invaded Melos and demanded subservience or else destruction. As they were neutral, the Melians argued there was no moral justification for Athens’s action, whereas the Athenians posited, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” More commonly, “Might makes right.” 
The Melian Dialogue is one of the most famous examples of friction between a moral standard for the use of force and a framework based on power. While the “Palestinian Dialogue” reverses the equation and posits that “Might makes wrong,” it still operates on power, and is subject to the same problems.

 

IN THE Melian Dialogue during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians argued ‘might is right.’ (Pictured: Athenian politician Pericles, delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. Painting, Philipp Foltz. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

IN THE Melian Dialogue during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians argued ‘might is right.’ (Pictured: Athenian politician Pericles, delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. Painting, Philipp Foltz. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The belief that having less power inherently means the Palestinians are in the right has become popular because it’s intellectually lazy,” says Schrader. “It’s an easy way out of actually researching why what’s happening is happening. Moral character and blame can sometimes be assigned based on power – for example an adult and a child. But the Palestinians are their own people with their own government. The infantilizing and lack of accountability is unacceptable here.”
Deciding who is in the right or wrong according to power is subjective, as power is complex and difficult to measure and even define.
Seen through a wider lens, Israel is at a power disadvantage. The more than one-and-a-half billion Muslims and Arabs in the world with their dozens of countries and vast territory wield enormous political and economic clout that put the tiny Jewish state at a markedly unfavorable position in many ways.
Power changes over time. Even the strong tire and must rest. They may grow ill or old. 
The choice of what to measure is an issue. Often, it’s questioned whether it’s more advantageous for a fighter to be swift, strong or smart. Goliath was stronger, more experienced and more armored, whereas David faster and practiced in a particular discipline, giving him the advantage. 
Power is often situational. Depending on topography, one military force may have an advantage over another. Some may have perceived Leonidas’s Spartan force as weaker than that of Xerxes’ Persians, but in the narrows of Thermopylae, the advantage of Persian numbers was mitigated. 
Power can be limited not just by physical limitations, but also self-limitations.
“Israel is subjected to an unusual amount of supervision and international pressure. As a result, it has developed tactics, procedures and policies meant to reduce the risk of collateral damage associated with war,” Jager observes. “In many cases, Israel went as far as canceling important military missions due to the fear of collateral damage.” 

Israel operates according to a moral standard, while Hamas

and the like do not, allowing them a greater degree of freedom in operation. This is an element of power.

When Noah poses the situation of the cop with a gun and the assailant with a knife, he didn’t just advocate for greater limitations, he also indicated that the stabber is no longer powerful because he faces a greater might. Yet combat doesn’t function in this manner. A knife is no less sharp in the face of an armed opponent. If a killer comes lunging at you with a knife and you could stop him with a gun, you’d be a fool to have qualms about disproportionality and not use it.
Power is therefore always fluctuating, making might-based judgments challenging. Few still subscribe to “Might makes right” beyond fringe supremacist groups. “Might makes right” supposes that there is no objective right or wrong, that those with power can do what they will because they have the capability to do so. The problem of such a system is that because power is constantly fluctuating, so too is the party acting as they desire constantly changing. The result is constant battle over the top of the hill in a war of all against all with no limitations. 

The principle that 2021’s commentators are proposing, “Might makes wrong,” is an inverse system, but it is still one that operates based on power. It simply morally elevates those who suffer from a deficit of power, giving them a sort of “anti-power.” There are different rules, but like power, anti-power can be amassed by demonstrating disparity. A disproportionate amount of dead bodies for actors like Hamas is a form of currency. This currency of anti-power can be

cashed-in

for international support, demoralization and resources. Like “Might makes right,” the system is subjective. It depends on the impossible metric of power, and would result in a mad scramble for authority.

 If morality in warfare is judged by anti-power, then there are no limitations for those who have amassed enough. As the actor with the most anti-power constantly shifts, the rules of war are discarded as all rationalize they are justified to act by the means they see fit. The weak do what they can and the strong suffer what they must.

POWER IS situational: Scene of the Battle of the Thermopylae (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

POWER IS situational: Scene of the Battle of the Thermopylae (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Standards on the use of force

The laws for war and standards for the use of force were designed in large part to prevent an anarchic system in which all means and conduct are acceptable. However, the misuse of the term disproportionality and focus on power imbalance threaten to create conditions in which warfare is much more lawless.
Jager explains the importance of proportionality as a “means to deploy force while minimizing the loss of civilian life and damage to property.”
A problem arises when “the media is holding states to standards that are higher than the law. When the law gets interpreted in a standard that is unmeetable, then states won’t follow the law,” adds Richemond-Barak. When it comes to proportionality, commentators “use these charged legal terms out of context.” The term proportionality creates confusion, and the result is a “gap between what the law requires on one hand, and what the public perceives on the other.”
The principle of proportionality in international humanitarian law is quite different from comparing casualties. “When you strike a military target, civilians might be harmed. Is this unlawful? No,” asserts Richemond-Barak. Disproportionate action is when “it’s excessive to the military advantage that you expected to be gained from the strike.” If the target is highly important then the law will allow for more force; if less important, then there are greater limits. It’s a matter of states advancing toward objectives.
“It is not a matter of military strength; it is a matter of policy objectives,” says Jager. “When policy objectives are limited, the force exercised by the country should be limited as well.”
Proportionality is governed by a calculus. The reasonable commander uses the best information available and weighs the risk to civilian objects against the military necessity of the target. While having some degree of subjectivity, we can judge from “what we expect from what the archetypal commander would do in that situation,” explains Richemond-Barak. 
Contrary to what Israel’s critics argued in May, responsibility to international humanitarian law is not altered by power imbalance. 
“Non-state actors are bound by the same obligations,” notes Richemond-Barak. “The level of military power, none of this changes the obligations.”
Unfortunately, consequences of judging by power imbalance could eventually ruin the utility of international law.
“By distorting the law, making it say something it doesn’t say and applying it inconsistently, the risk we incur is that we might hurt the delicate balance the law strikes between military and humanitarian considerations,” Dr. Richemond-Barak told the Magazine. 
Once the balance has been broken, those that limit themselves by the impossible military standards will be unable to fight properly, and those that don’t abide by standards, like Hamas, will be able to do as they please.

Consequence of a broken standard

“The biggest problem with the ‘Might makes wrong’ principle is that it gives those who are truly at fault a free pass and this perpetuates the problem,” Schrader says. “When we don’t hold Hamas accountable for spending all their resources on building a terror tunnel network instead of infrastructure for the public, and instead blame Israel for everything, we end up harming both sides.”
Hamas offers a vision of warfare when the standards system is broken, and forces use anti-power tactics to attack their enemy. 

It is not a matter of cruelty or necessity that Hamas uses human shields, child soldiers or civilian infrastructure in its operations, but utility. The result of these tactics limits the actions of Israeli forces but also results in damage to civilians, which can then be displayed in

propaganda

for anti-power, and consequently cashed in for monetary aid and legitimacy. With the success of these

tactics

, other groups will likely adopt them.

 

EMILY SCHRADER, CEO, Social Lite Creative. (Credit: COURTESY EMILY SCHRADER)

EMILY SCHRADER, CEO, Social Lite Creative. (Credit: COURTESY EMILY SCHRADER)

Israel must uphold standards for use of force

The principle of “Might makes wrong” must be monitored closely. The Jewish state may need to accept that it will never have legitimacy in a system in which it isn’t judged by conduct, but inherent nature. Asking “What would you do?” may no longer be enough.

Israel should endeavor to strengthen the international standards for the use of force, like international law, which creates an arena in which war can be limited

and directed to avoid tragedy. 

Without laws and standards for use of force, a chaotic system could develop in which responsible states are burdened with impossible demands, while supposedly less powerful terrorists act with impunity. 
In his video, Trevor Noah questions “When you have this much power, what is your responsibility?” The answer is not to obsess over power. Might is neither right nor wrong; might is. It a tool for actors like Israel to responsibly meet its military objectives to defend its citizens in accordance with true proportionality.