November 19, 2012

Just War and Gaza

Gaza air strikes

(Photo credit: Business Insider)

By Keith Pavlischek

Walter Russell Mead is one of America’s most perceptive commentators on American public life. But in an otherwise perceptive commentary “America, Israel Gaza, The World, Mr. Mead articulates a rather common yet mistaken understanding of how the Just War tradition understands the jus in bello criteria of proportionality. According to Mr. Meade:

Theoreticians of “just war” say that in order for war to be justifiable, two tests must be met. You have to have a legitimate cause for war (self-defense, for example, rather than grabbing land from a weaker neighbor) and you must fight the war in the right way. You must fight fair (that is, fight a just war), and you must fight nice.

One of the criteria for jus in bello (fighting nice as opposed to jus ad bellum which is about whether it is just) is proportionality. If the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife. If he’s got a knife, you can’t pull a gun. If he burned your barn, you can’t nuke his capital. Your use of force must be proportionate to the cause and to the danger.

Mead notes that radical critics of Israel oppose attacks on Hamas in Gaza on jus ad bellum grounds by claiming “that its occupation of the West Bank and other crimes against the Palestinians have deprived it of a just grounds for war when Palestinians attack it.

But more moderate critics of Israel (including many Israelis) focus on jus in bello, and in particular they look at the question of proportionality. When the Palestinians flick a handful of fairly crude rockets at random across Israel, these critics say, Israel has a right to a kind of pinprick response: tit for tat. But it isn’t entitled to bring the full power of its industrial grade air force and its mighty ground forces into an operation designed to crush Hamas at the cost of hundreds of civilian casualties. You can’t fight slingshots with tanks.

Mr. Mead thinks that historically Americans have never gone in much for this “tit for tat” manner of war fighting. He is right to about that. As I discussed at length in a New Atlantis article, ”Proportionality in Warfare, he is wrong to think that this popular “tit for tat” notion has anything to do with the jus in bello notion of proportionality.

In that article I cited the Just War theorist Michael Walzer’s essay in Parameters, the professional journal of the U.S. Army. Walzer, writing after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, noted the “anger over the ratio of deaths in the recent Gaza war — 100 to one, Gazan to Israeli, according to figures accepted by the New York Times.” If those deaths “were all soldiers (fighters or militants) on either side,” Walzer wrote, “a ratio like that would simply be a sign of military victory, the deaths regrettable but probably not immoral.”

Walzer, of course, is absolutely correct here. Proportionality, properly understood has absolutely nothing at all to do with bringing a gun to a knife fight, and almost nothing to do with measuring the ratio of combatant casualties. (See my “Proportionality in Warfare for a brief discussion of those very rare possible exceptions.) Quite simply, the notion that proportionality requires something close to a “tit for tat” employment of military force is a gross misunderstanding and distortion of the Just War tradition and the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).

The proper understanding of the jus in bello criterion of proportionality, that for centuries was part and parcel of  customary international law has to do with the unintended, “incidental” or “secondary” harm done to noncombatants. Proportionality has to do with weighing the unintended bad effects to noncombatants against the intended good effects of an attack. This traditional understanding was articulated for the first time in an international treaty, as opposed to customary law in the Geneva Protocol I (1977), in which it prohibited attacks “that may be expected to cause incidental [unintended] loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

Mead thinks that Americans are much more sympathetic to Israel in their fight against Hamas largely because Americans haven’t bought into the “tit for tat” notion of proportionality. I suspect he is right about that.  But he is wrong to suggest that America’s historical and contemporary understanding runs against the grain of the Just War tradition, rightly understood.

9 Responses to Just War and Gaza

  1. Jeff says:

    Well put. Mead’s article was extremely frustrating because proportionality is both a critical concept and not that difficult to understand. Furthermore, his “update” does not improve on his original discussion of proportionality.

  2. says:

    Well said. I enjoy Mead’s work, and I find his idea of Jacksonism interesting, but he misconceives proportionality in order to make the point.

  3. Tierce says:

    The idea that prolonging a conflict by limiting the resources applied to it, is inherently irrational and immoral. War, if it must be had, should be pursued to an absolute and swift victory. Anything less is a betrayal of both of the people who are giving their lives, and those who they are fighting for.

    That has always been what true Americans believe, and anyone who suggests otherwise has been living in their ivory tower for too long.

  4. dover1952 says:

    Well gee guys. Don’t you guess the Israelis should round up every non-Jew in Israel and either kill them or escort them to and outside of the border of Israeli so they can finally have the long sought after “all Jewish state.” Huh???!!! What???!!! You’re all goyim!!! Get out!!! God picked our people because were all Tiggers, and Tigger is the only one.

    A lot of the Palestinians are Christians you know. Oh, I forgot. Anyone who is not specifically a homegrown, cornfed American Christian fundamentalist is not really a Christian at all. I guess you guys are all Tiggers too. But wait a minute, if the Jews are Tiggers, and you guys are Tiggers two, then both of you cannot be “the only one.” Which one of you is really “the only one.”

  5. whd2 says:


    The USA Buys Off Syrian Ally Hamas Leaders with Threats and Bribes then
    Directs its Stooge “Israeli” to Bomb GAZA in an “8-Day War” in Order: 1.)
    To Try to Restore CREDIBILITY of its Newly Bought-Off Hamas Traitors and
    2.) To Try To Generate Credibility of the USA Puppet Governments of Egypt,
    Turkey, Qatar, etc. who Support the USA Attempt to Overthrow Syrian Ba’ath
    Socialism and 3.) To try to Manipulate Palestinians both Inside Syria, in Occupied
    Palestine and in Other Countries to Support USA Mercenaries/Proxies against Syria!

    With the full understanding that Fatah and the so-called Palestinian Authority had long ago lost all credibility and has no further credibility or “authority” among Palestinians, the USA/“Israel” proceeded to bribe and BUY OFF the TRAITOR Khaled Meshal of Hamas who deserted Syria, retracted all support for Ba’ath Socialist Syria and moved from Damascus to Qatar, met with USA and “Israeli”-puppet Egyptian “President” Moslem Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi (BBC, July 19, 2012) and U.S./“Israeli” puppet Jordan’s King Abdullah and supposedly resigned (temporarily) as the leader of Hamas on September 23, 2012 and THAT was the actual reason that Hamas, which had represented the majority of Palestinian Sunnis, moved their offices out of Damascus, Syria! (See: New York Times, October 2-3, 2012) The USA and so-called “Israel” want Meshal, Haniya and Hamas to replace the hugely discredited Muhammed Abbas and Fatah and the so-called “Palestinian Authority,” which has no authority. HAMAS, now run by traitors, Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniya, both of whom the USA/“Israel” has bought off, will retain little credibility once the Palestinians realize that Meshal and Haniya want to recognize so-called “Israel,” which they have now done by signing a cease fire with “Israel,” where Hamas agrees to SUPPRESS all active resistance in GAZA against “Israel” in exchange for opening the border crossings to “Israel” and to USA-puppet Egypt, BOTH of which think Palestinians are just a problem, a problem which somehow should be eliminated! Hamas, which had NOT been part of the ongoing and relentless missile strikes against so-called “Israel” for years suddenly joined with the other Islamic groups in firing rockets into “Israel” after the assassination of Jabari in order to try to buttress the credibility of its leaders as supposedly being “opposed to “‘Israel’” and reverse their most recent image of BETRAYERS of the CHIEF PALESTINIAN ALLY—SYRIA! The USA began the buy-out of the Palestinians in GAZA with a tiny $400 million (USA-authorized!) token gift from the emir of Qatar, who visited GAZA on October 23, 2012. GAZA needs well over a hundred $billion to actually start to rebuild the entire city of GAZA and environs destroyed by USA/“Israel,” not a measly $400 million to build a couple of housing complexes and a prosthetic center to deal with the limbs lost through the continuous non-stop, escalated and now temporarily halted USA-authorized “Israeli” air attacks! No amount of token monetary gifts can change the political and economic reality in GAZA!

    WHAT HAPPENED? On November 14, 2012 the USA authorized so-called “Israel” to assassinate Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas, by a much ballyhooed USA and “Israeli” aerial pinpoint bombing for the unstated reason that Jabari opposed Haniya and Meshal’s betrayal of HAMAS and their support for the USA overthrow of Syria. Jabari had become the de facto leader of Hamas after the traitorous betrayal and defections of Meshal and Haniya to the USA/“Israel.” Hamas had not fired rockets into “Israel” for years and could NOT have been assassinated for THAT REASON! But Jabari apparently strongly opposed such betrayal and treachery by Meshal and Haniya and refused to abandon the original political positions of Hamas, which included SUPPORT FOR SYRIA and no recognition of so-called “Israel.” With Jabari’s assassination Meshal and Haniya were in a position to return and reclaim “credibility (?)” in a leadership role. After assassinating Jabari, “Israel” immediately moved to regenerate credibility for Haniya by “bombing the disgraced Haniya’s vacated house (RT, November 15, 2012) The USA/“Israeli” Bombing of GAZA was simply one more Dog and Pony Show, a WAR OF PROVOCATION in order to manipulate and confuse the Palestinians and the World, while sacrificing the lives of over 160 Palestinians, which is NO PROBLEM for the USA/“Israeli” mass murderers! The PRIMARY PURPOSE of the USA Bombing of GAZA, which began with the admitted targeted assassination of Jabari, the CHIEF OPPONENT of the Meshal/Haniya SELLOUT of the Ba’ath Socialist Syrian Government, was designed to eliminate Jabari and to attempt to simultaneously FALSELY DISASSOCIATE the new USA-Hamas puppets, Meshal and Haniya, from their new USA/“Israel” masters and help to regenerate their credibility, both in Occupied Palestine and in SYRIA to try to reverse Palestinian support for Ba’ath Socialism and Syrian support for Hezbollah! Simultaneously the sudden USA/“Israeli” Bombing of GAZA began with an otherwise unexplained escalation of air strikes and reported “Israeli” troop mobilizations, supposedly under the pretext of Palestinian rocket attacks, which had been ongoing for years! The USA then directed its puppet governments of Egypt, Turkey, Qatar to travel or send emissaries to demagogically: “Stand with the Palestinians” and criticize “Israel” for killing Palestinians! Why now all of a sudden? What a JOKE! Hopefully the majority of Palestinians won’t be fooled and will see through it.

    But the USA has total contempt for the political intelligence of the Palestinian masses, just as it has total contempt for the USA masses, a significant percentage of which it is mobilizing to exterminate in escalating economic and biological warfare, and believes that it can at least NEUTRALIZE Middle East-wide Palestinian support for USA-targeted Syria and hopefully manipulate the Palestinians in GAZA and in Syria to support the USA mercenaries/proxies or at least keep them CONFUSED (because a confused person cannot act!) and to generate enough popular support through the ceasefire for the newly regenerated AUTHORITY for HAMAS misleadership to be able to suppress other political opposition groups in GAZA in order to reduce or eliminate the rocket attacks and recognize so-called “Israel!” This is an example of how the USA hopes to control the Middle East and Persian Gulf and implement DIVIDE AND CONQUER policies made possible through its so-called “Arab Spring” Regime Change Gambit to try to turn the Hamas masses against Ba’ath Socialist Syria, whose support for the Palestinian masses remains STEADFAST as it has always been, but does not support fake leaders who betray ALL Palestinians. On November 22, 2012 USA PUPPET Mohamed Morsi issued a DECREE giving him dictatorial powers, authorized by the USA to enforce USA interests and actual decisions regarding “Egypt’s policies.” USA PUPPET Morsi is completely opposed by Mohamed Elbaradei and other opposition groups. The HAMAS misleaders—TRAITORS, Meshal and Haniya, will undoubtedly move to try to enact the same sort of Rule by Decree in GAZA!

    The name “Bashar Assad” is shorthand for Ba’ath Socialism, which is the real target! The USA overall “strategy” for their Islamic Fundamentalist mercenary proxies in Syria (including Al Qaeda just like in Libya! See below) is to simply invade cities, towns and areas and take over people’s homes as their base forcing the local inhabitants to seek refuge elsewhere in public schools and other sites and openly murdering for intimidation purposes a certain number of the overwhelming majority of Syrians who support the Ba’ath Socialist government, while going about willy-nilly destroying Syrian infrastructure, while depending on the USA-controlled world capitalist media to use the Big Lie technique to label Syria as “the aggressor!” This is what has happened in Damascus and Aleppo and throughout Syria! Syrians generally hate and despise the USA and all its proxies! On August 3, 2012 for good measure the USA directed its proxies to bomb the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp, the home of 150,000 Palestinians in Damascus as a deliberate provocation and then blame the Ba’ath Socialist government for the bombing (!) to try to break Palestinian loyalty to the Syrian government and then claimed to have recruited many Palestinian youths via their false Internet propaganda! The New York Times has openly described what are USA divide and conquer attempts in Syria and Lebanon. (August 23, 2012) In line with its divide and conquer strategy in Lebanon and Syria alike, the USA tried to get its puppet Sunni sheiks in Lebanon to form “Sunni Defense Councils” to attack the overwhelmingly popular Hezbollah, but that obvious USA scheme has been opposed by even the Sunni mufti of Tripoli and northern Lebanon! (BBC, August 28, 2012)

    William H. Depperman, Coordinator
    United Front Against Racism
    And Capitalism-Imperialism
    New York, N.Y. 10003
    November 22, 2012

  6. […] Theonerd objects to this passage in my post, Just War and Gaza: […]

  7. The link to Walzer’s article referred to is broken. Here is the good link:

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