Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: Body Counts and Proportionality

Nov 28, 2012 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer

Body Counts and Proportionality

In the recent Gaza conflict, as in 2008-2009, the media was obsessed with “disproportionate” body counts – the fact that more Palestinians were dying than Israelis. Such counts of course, have nothing to do with the actual international law principle of “proportionality”, which says that the damage from military attacks must not exceed “the direct military advantage anticipated.” That is, anticipated non-military damage and casualties must be proportionate to a legitimate military goal. Nothing to do with relative casualty counts.

In his seminal work Just and Unjust Wars, noted philosopher Michael Walzer explained this well:

Proportionality doesn’t mean “tit for tat,” as in the family feud. The Hatfields kill three McCoys, so the McCoys must kill three Hatfields… war isn’t an act of retribution; it isn’t a backward-looking activity, and the law of even-Steven doesn’t apply. Like it or not, war is always purposive in character; it has a goal, an end-in-view.

Nonetheless, numerous commentators, news stories and cartoons focused on pointing out many more Palestinians that Israelis had died – often strongly imply that these numbers alone serve as proof that what Israel was doing was at the very least immoral, if not illegal, even if it was “in principle” entitled to defend itself.

So have there been similar judgements in other recent cases of grossly asymmetrical casualty counts by Western states?

Let’s take the Libyan intervention last year. How many civilians of the allied Western states that staged that military bombing campaign died in that one? None, of course – nor did any military personnel. How many Libyan civilians died as a result of the bombing? At least 72, including at least 24 children, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Moreover, HRW stated that in at least seven sites where civilian casualties resulted from airstrikes, they were not able to identify any valid military targets in the area.

In other words, the proportion in Libya was an even more lop-sided 0 to at least 72. Yet I have never seen it claimed that the Libyan intervention used “disproportionate” force. HRW merely calls for investigation of the seven cases, while complimenting NATO for the “relatively few civilian casualties” during its campaign.

Another NATO intervention – the 1999 bombing campaign in Yugoslavia to end the war in Kosovo – was an even more extreme case of “disproportionate” casualties. NATO forces again lost 0 civilians and 0 military personnel. HRW says between 488 and 527 civilians lost their lives as a direct result of NATO bombing. Yugoslavia says it is substantially more – anywhere up to 5,700. Yet despite this lop-sided ratio – at least 488 to 0 – the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia concluded of the civilian deaths: “unfortunately high, they do not appear to be clearly disproportionate.”

In other words, the use of casualty ratios as prima facie proof to declare Israel’s undeniably legal use of force in self-defence “disproportionate” is something that appears to apply solely to Israel. It therefore has little to do with either international law, or dispassionate morality, but something else. I leave it to readers to speculate what that might be.

Genocide, Antisemitism and rockets

I hope all readers here recognise that Hamas is dedicated to annihilating Israel. I also hope they know that Hamas’ 1988 Charter – which is still operative – does more than call for Israel’s destruction. It cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and includes a variety of traditional antisemitic conspiracy theories, including that the Jews were behind both the French and Russian revolutions, as well as both World Wars.

Furthermore, there is an invocation of a hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) which it is hard to read as anything other than a call for genocide. It says that the “day of judgement” will not come until, the Muslims fight and kill the Jews, with the very rocks and trees assisting Muslims to kill Jews.

Some people seem inclined to dismiss all this as ancient history (even though its less than 25 years old). But it is worth reminding everyone that all this is still common in Hamas’ discourse.

For instance, with respect to the calls for genocide, in August this year, the Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza, Ahmad Bahr, shouted in a sermon, “Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, destroy the Americans and their supporters. Oh Allah, count them one by one, and kill them all, without leaving a single one.” Hamas Legislative Council member, Yussuf al-Sharafi, said something similar last year “Allah, take the Jews and their allies, Allah, take the Americans and their allies… annihilate them completely and do not leave any one of them.”

Antisemitism also remains a stock in trade among Hamas leaders. Last year, Hamas’ former Culture Minister Atallah Abu Al Subh told an interviewer: “The Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth.” A few years ago, Hamas representative, Dr. Yussuf Al-Sharafi, said “…the Jewish faith does not wish for peace nor stability, since it is a faith that is based on murder: ‘I kill, therefore I am’.” In 2008, Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhum blamed the global financial crisis on “financial management and a bad banking system put into place and controlled by the Jewish lobby.”

Holocaust denial is also part of routine discourse. Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar stating last year, “The lie of the Zionist Holocaust crumbles with countless holocausts committed by the Zionists.” In July of this year, when an adviser to PA President Abbas visited Auschwitz, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said: “The visit helped Israel to spread the lie of the Holocaust… It has been clearly proven that the Israeli narrative [of the Holocaust] is fraudulent.”

One could go on, but you get the idea. Ideas matter. And Hamas’ racist ideas are a major reason why violence between Israel and Hamas looks likely for the foreseeable future.




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