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What is the Moral Proportionate Response to Gazan Attacks Against Israel?

Updated: May 30

CaveatI 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 overwhelming 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 disproportionate 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, while demanding nothing of Gaza, despite all of her tactics–randomly shooting thousands of rockets at Israeli population centers, using her own civilians as human shields, fighters dressing in civilian clothing, taking hostages– being violations of the Geneva Convention, and despite awareness that a ceasefire would give Gaza a chance to recoup and continue to attack.

There are three differing popular interpretations of proportionate response:

  1. Left-leaning voices insist that proportionate response involves inflicting roughly the same damage on the other side as the other side inflicts on them. For instance, if a campaign of Gazan rockets end ups killing three Israelis, as is more in line with the attacks prior to 2023, the response of Israel should be to kill approximately three Gazans.

  2. Right-leaning voices insist that proportionate response is a foolish, self-defeating policy in warfare, and that the way to end a war is with an overwhelmingly disproportionate response that causes the enemy to surrender or be annihilated.

  3. Experts in international law explain that proportionate response means that a nation's army must consider the amount of damage inflicted on the other side that would be needed to reach its military goals. Thus, Israel's actions may be justifiable.

All three sides are getting proportionate response wrong.

According to the formula of equal damage, the left is correct in claiming that Israel’s typical response is disproportionate. Because it is killing far more Gazans than the other way around, Israel's response is immoral and must stop.

And according to this formula, the right is also correct in claiming that the principle of proportional damage is absurd, especially in response 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 that is limited to the number or Israelis killed, 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.

The legalistic view–that an army must consider the enemy casualties in relation to the military goals–does not clarify anything. Who is to determine what constitutes a legitimate military goal? What is the precise formula for calculating the allowable damage to achieve the goal?

The correct formula for moral proportional response

To end the quandary, it will be shown that there is, indeed, a morally valid reckoning for a moral proportionate response to the Gaza attack. It is, in fact, what nations instinctively use in response to military attack.

The best way to understand proportionate response is by examining the legal justice system, which has the luxury of slowly and deliberately judging individuals for their acts of aggression, in contrast to what is possible under conditions of warfare between nations.

The most basic legal justice formula for 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 the rabbis of the Talmud interpreted this principle). We intuitively 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 develop a profound hatred for 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 free to go? Of course not. I attempted to murder you, and very well may have succeeded. In many jurisdictions, attempted murder even carries the same punishment as murder. And how about my back? Will will you be punished for breaking it? No. The broken back is my fault, not yours. Even if you had to kill me to preserve your life, you will not be held guilty. In plain terms, my plot to kill you makes me worthy of death.

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 planning to commit a crime.

A fascinating insight into proportionate 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 proportionate response for lying under oath? Perhaps it should be that 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 proportionate 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 death or financial harm, and that is what I get punished for.

It is obvious that we need to be punished for attempted crimes. If we are only to be punished when our attempts are successful, the result will be rampant crime, because we know there is a good chance we will never be caught.

The same moral reasoning applies to warfare.

What has Gaza intended to do?

Plain and simple, its intention has been to destroy Israel and kill as many Jews as possible.This is stated unequivocally in the Hamas charter, and its actions match the intention: teaching her children from birth to hate Jews, how to kill them, and that doing so is the ultimate good, earning them immediate entrance into Heaven where 72 virgins await them; and diverting foreign aid to transform Gaza into an underground military base whose defensive shield is her own residents. Oct. 7 represented the day in which the decades of preparation were intended to bear fruition. While launching thousands of rockets toward population centers, Palestinians infiltrated Israel, committing murders whose savagery can only be understood in light of the intense hatred of Jews that has nourished their minds for decades.

The correct proportionate response to Gaza, then, is to do to her what she is intending to do to Israel.

In fact, by the formula of proportionate response to intention, Israel is responding with far less than proportionality, as she is not seeking to destroy Gaza but only her military capacity. She goes out of her way to avoid harming Gazan citizens at the price of the lives of her own soldiers and even of possibly losing the war.

Of course, total annihilation of Gaza is not the necessary the desired outcome of proportionate response. Surrender is. If this can be accomplished by killing only one key person, then that is the preferred response.

If fact, surrender to Israel would be a win not only for Israel but for the Palestinians as well. 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 in the aftermath of WWII. 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. Had the Palestinians not been taken over by terrorist administrations, Gaza might have, as the saying goes, turned into the Singapore of the Middle East.

Proportionate response to intention is the actual practice of nations

Any nation facing another nation's attempt to destroy would try to destroy that nation first. Yet, most of the world's nations are condemning Israel for taking that path and are pressuring Israel into a cease fire with Hamas, while treating Hamas's actions as legitimate. This pressure is already emboldening Hamas, as seen in its vow to “repeating the kind of massacres they perpetrated on October 7 until Israel ceases to exist.” For their own benefit, nations would be infinitely wiser to demand that Hamas surrender immediately and unconditionally. The jihadist organizations declare that destruction of Israel is only their first step to world domination. We have no reason doubt them.

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