Caveat: I speak here of Gaza rather than Hamas because Hamas has ruled Gaza for almost two decades, was elected in a popular vote, and continues to enjoy popular support. When we speak of geopolitical events, we rightfully name the nations involved, not the party from which their governments stem.
As the situation between Israel and Gaza threatens to escalate into World War III, the future of humanity may literally depend upon correctly answering the question posed in the title.
The horrific attack from Gaza against Israel begun on Oct. 7 is the latest and deadliest installment in her perpetual campaign to destroy Israel. While Israel initially held the moral high ground, at least in the eyes of the nations that typically support her, the situation quickly spiraled downhill as the inevitable complaints of disproportional response came rolling in. Now, even most of Israel’s allies and defenders are urging her to accept a ceasefire because of the mounting casualties in Gaza, despite awareness that it would give Gaza a chance to recoup and continue to attack.
Left-leaning voices all insist that Israel has to cease the warfare because her response is excessively disproportional.
Right-leaning voices all insist that proportional response does not apply here, that it is a foolish, self-defeating policy in warfare, and that the way to end the war is with an overwhelmingly disproportionate response that causes the enemy to either surrender or be annihilated.
Both sides are getting it wrong.
What’s surprising is that even the brightest conservative thinkers, including Douglas Murray, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson, are failing to recognize what represents a moral proportional response to warfare. The universal assumption is that it means proportional damage. Thus, if a campaign of Gazan rockets kills three Israelis, as is more in line with the attacks prior to 2023, the response of Israel should be to kill approximately three Gazans. While reasonable people will forgive Israel for failing to achieve a precise one-to-one reckoning in the chaos of warfare, when the ratio starts exceeding 30 for 3, they label her Nazi.
In the current attack, which involved not only rockets but an infiltration of fighters murdering 1,200 in cold blood, anything beyond a few thousand dead Gazans is deemed disproportionate and, therefore, intolerable.
According to the calculus of equal damage, the left is correct in claiming that Israel’s typical response is disproportional. And according to this calculus, the right is correct in claiming that the principle of proportional damage is absurd, especially to rocket barrages. The only reason for the low Israeli body count and property damage is that Israel has invested astronomical sums in the technological marvel of Iron Dome, without which the death, destruction and dread in Israel would be incalculably greater. And the reason for the large Gazan body count is that they use civilians as human shields. An Israeli response leaving three Gazans dead would constitute an overwhelming victory for Gaza, leading to an escalation in attacks against Israel (think Oct. 7) and very possibly her destruction. While this would delight those who hate Israel, they are not the intended audience for this article.
The truth is that proportional response is, indeed, a morally valid reckoning and is what nations instinctively use in responding to war. Any nation that intentionally initiates a war to destroy another country expects that that country will try to destroy her first. And, since policy makers are putting such great stock in proportional response, it is essential that they (and the rest of us) understand how it applies.
The best way to understand proportional response is by examining the legal justice system, which has the luxury of slowly and carefully judging individual acts of aggression, in contrast to the fog of war, in which chaos rules, aggression is collective, and harm is accelerated thousands-fold.
The most basic legal justice response to aggression is lex talionis–the Biblical prescription for courts of law: an eye-for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life (or monetary compensation, as determined by the rabbis of the Talmud). We instinctively sense that lex talionis is fair, as it exacts vengeance, deters crime, and ideally makes restitution to victims.
However, damage is not the only thing the legal system punishes. Let’s say that I hate you and decide to kill you. Wielding a gun, I ambush you as you leave your house. Fortunately for you, you happen to be a master of martial arts and deftly extract the gun from my hand while coming out unscathed. Unfortunately for me, in the course of being overpowered, my back is broken. You summon the police, who promptly arrest me, and I am brought to trial.
Will the court’s verdict be that since I caused you no damage, I am a free man? I attempted to murder you, which is a crime almost as serious as murder itself. In many jurisdictions, it even carries the same punishment. Furthermore, will you be punished for breaking my back? Even if you had to kill me in order to preserve your life, you will not be held guilty. The broken back is my fault, not yours.
Take a less dramatic example. I attempt to shoplift, but security catches me as I leave the store. Even though I didn’t end up stealing anything, the court will still punish me for the attempt.
Punishment of attempt also underlies sting operations, in which law enforcement agencies and even TV shows like To Catch a Predator get people sent to prison for simply intending to commit a crime.
A fascinating insight into proportional response can be gleaned from the Bible’s approach to false testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15–21). Let’s say I testify in court that you killed someone, or that you stole money. In the course of the trial the court discovers that I Iied. What is the appropriate proportional response? Perhaps you get to say a lie against me?
The Bible’s answer is perfect. The court does to me what I schemed to do to you. If I conspired to get you sent to the guillotine, I am the one who’s to be beheaded. If my aim was to get you to pay $1,000, I must pay you $1,000. The punishment is proportional to the damage I intended to inflict upon you. If the court hadn’t succeeded in exposing my lie, I would have indeed caused you bodily or financial harm, and that is what I get punished for.
Any thoughtful person realizes that society needs to punish people for attempted crimes. If criminals are only punished when their attempts are successful, it will pay for them to attempt crimes frequently, because they know there is a good chance they will not be caught.
The same moral reasoning applies to warfare. What has Gaza been intending to do to Israel? To destroy her. It has been her stated goal since Hamas took over and is in Hamas's charter, and her actions match the intention: teaching her children from birth to hate Jews and how to kill them; diverting foreign aid to transform Gaza into an underground military base whose defensive shield is her own residents; shooting thousands of rockets into Israel; and, lastly, the pogrom of Oct. 7.
The correct proportional response to Gaza, then, is to do to her what she is intending to do to Israel. Namely, to destroy Gaza. (Please read the subsequent paragraphs before you respond with outrage.) It’s what the US and her allies did to Germany and Japan in WWII and to the nations it perceived as harboring the terrorist movements dedicated to destroying the West, such as Al Qaida and ISIS.
By this calculus of proportional response to intention, Israel has always responded with far less than proportionality, as she has not sought to destroy Gaza but only her military capacity. She goes out of her way to avoid harming Gazan citizens at the price of losing her own soldiers and even of possibly failing to achieve victory.
Of course, total annihilation of Gaza is not the necessary outcome. Surrender is. Wars typically end when one side admits it is vanquished and accepts the winner’s terms for peace. If this can somehow be accomplished by killing only one key person, then that is the preferred response. [Unfortunately, Gaza, with the passionate encouragement of millions of armchair warriors throughout the world, is refusing to surrender, which is why the devastation is continuing. Addendum, Feb. 18, 2024] When the winner of a war is an enlightened nation, the results often lead to a long-term improvement in the condition of the vanquished, as happened to Germany and Japan. That is certain to happen to Gaza, too, if it surrenders to Israel.
This is not wishful thinking. Anyone who witnessed the flourishing of Gaza (and Judea and Samaria) following her capture by Israel in 1967 until 1987, when the world forced Israel to accept the master terrorist, Yasser Arafat, as the leader of the Palestinians, knows that administration by Israel was beneficial to both sides. The major impediment to such a result today is the murderous hatred towards Israel and Jews with which Hamas has poisoned the minds of Gazans and turned them into potential terrorists. If they can’t be detoxed of their hatred, they will always represent a threat and be untrustworthy.
The worst outcome would be for the nations of the world, who would never accept such an imposition on themselves when threatened with annihilation, to force Israel into a ceasefire with Gaza. This pressure is already emboldening Hamas, as seen in its recent vow to “repeating the kind of massacres they perpetrated on October 7 until Israel ceases to exist.” For their own benefit, the nations would be infinitely wiser to demand that Hamas surrender immediately and unconditionally. If the declared intentions of the jihadist organizations are to be believed, destruction of Israel is only their first step to world domination.