During the Arab-Israeli conflict of recent decades, critics have commonly accused the Jewish state of using “disproportionate” military force when responding to the provocations of Hamas, Hezbollah, and its other enemies. Those who use this term imply that even though Israel’s actions are defensive, they are nonetheless immoral and illegitimate because of Israel’s superior military power.
The notion that Israel should limit the severity of its response to terrorist threats, begs some vital questions: In protecting its people, should the Israeli army use only the weapons that Hamas uses—crude rockets and sniper attacks? Should it wait patiently until Hamas, with the help of Iran and Syria, is able to “balance” Israel’s firepower? Or should it, on the other hand, feel free to adopt its enemies’ strategy of suicide bombings and the deliberate targeting of civilians?
Every military conflict is by its nature “disproportionate.” The Israeli army is using its advantages when it “profits” from its technical superiority. And Hamas does no differently, for instance, when it uses Gaza’s population as a human shield.
By rejecting the entire Western concept of the rules of war, Islamist groups (and nations) exploit, to their own great advantage, the adherence of Western military powers to restrictions on battlefield conduct. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, for instance, Iran's proxy militia launched rockets at Israel and fought from within civilian populations as part of a strategy that sought both to kill Israeli civilians and to ensure that any Israeli self-defense would kill Lebanese civilians and would thus be condemned internationally as “disproportionate.”
In stark contrast, Israeli soldiers conduct their operations in a manner that strictly protects human life by minimizing all collateral damage to individuals not directly involved in terrorist activities. When trying to oust terrorists from Jenin in April 2002, for example, Israeli commanders decided to pursue a house-to-house ground strategy rather than employ the kind of airpower that would keep Israeli soldiers out of danger but would heighten the risk of collateral civilian casualties. This decision cost the lives, in one incident, of thirteen IDF soldiers in an ambush in the Hawashin district on April 9.
”Disproportionate response” is a coded attack on Israel, rather than a description of the conduct in the Middle East conflict. It ignores completely the moral and military asymmetry in which Israel restricts itself (in accordance with international law) from indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, while groups such as Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah intentionally target Israeli civilians and employ their own civilians as human shields to deter an Israeli response.
Adapted from "The Psychological Asymmetry of Islamist Warfare," by Irwin J. Mansdorf and Mordechai Kedar (Spring 2008), and "On 'Disproportion'," by Andre Glucksmann (January 13, 2009).