Sunday, August 20, 2006


What Does 'Disproportionate' Mean? re Israel's oft-cited 'disproportionate response' to the provocations of Hamas and Hizballah kidnapping her soldiers.

Blogger Weary G. wants to know... and suggests, correctly in my opinion, that you can't really discuss Israel's 'disproportionate response' until you agree on what that term means.

My first approximation is this: a proportionate response is one that doesn't escalate. For example, you stick out your tongue at me, and I stick out my tongue right back at you. You insult my mother, and I insult yours right back.

(If this sounds childish, it is... and there's ample precedent for it. Once upon a time, in happier days, it was routine for Hizballah sympathizers to hike down to the Israel-Lebanon border, get the attention of Israeli soldiers on duty there, and taunt them. Israeli soldiers were under strict orders not to escalate the tensions along the border -- which meant that they were permitted to respond in kind, precisely in kind, but no more. IDF printed guidelines were explicit on this, in excruciating detail: if he calls your mother a used dishrag, then, and only then, may you call his mother a used dishrag. If he calls your sister a cow too ugly to wear a cow-bell, then -- but not before -- you may call his sister a cow too ugly to wear a cow-bell. And so on, and so on.)

Why must it be so precise? Because we don't have an equivalence currency for provocations. There's no objective way of knowing that calling someone an ugly cow is worse than calling them a used dishrag; nor can we know how much worse it might be. Even worse -- if you call me a dirty little pazkundyak, it might not bother me at all... while the same insult levelled at you might make you insane with rage. We have no way of gauging that your insult to me was a 0.3 on the provocation-meter, while mine against you got a reading of 17.5... even though we both used the same words. Nonetheless, insulting you with the same words you used against me cannot be called an escalation.

The situation changes if, let's say, you pull a knife on me, and I respond by pulling a gun. That's a disproportionate response. (Please note that a disproportionate response is not by definition the wrong way to go; that's the next discussion. As Weary G. said, it's unfair to presuppose that disproportionate responses are always bad, if you haven't even defined what the term means yet.)

Please note also that a disproportionate response might also be a de-escalation. When Hitler annexed Austria and threatened to invade the Sudetenland, and, in response, was offered the Sudetenland on a silver platter (and, nominally, the rest of Czechoslovakia) if he promised to go no further, that was emphatically a de-escalation. Was it a disproportionate response? I'd certainly say so, given my belief that Hitler should have been opposed vigorously from the start. More accurately, it was a grosly inadequate response.

So. Was Israel's response to the kidnapping of her soldiers disproportionate? If so, was it an escalation or a de-escalation? And is that a bad thing, under the circumstances?

Please let me know what you think. You might want to pay a visit to Weary G. as well.

UPDATE: Well, Cox and Forkum have given their opinion!

So has J.J. McCullough:

UPDATE II: The incomparable Steven den Beste weighs in:
[Hezbollah's] slowing making the transition from hidden guerrilla forces mixed in with the civilian population to more organized and formal units, but hidden forced remained the majority of their force. Then they made the decision to grab a couple of Israeli soldiers.

IMHO Israel botched this war, but that's not the question I wanted to address in this discussion. The question I began with was, why did so many people demand "proportionate" responses from Israel, and condemn Israel's bombing campaign as being "disproportionate"?

It's because Israel refused to play the game. Israel opened up an offensive which ran at a logistically unsustainable rate for Hezbollah, which Hezbollah could not avoid fighting. The code word "proportionate" really meant, "Israel, you have to limit yourself to fighting at a level that Hezbollah can sustain. Otherwise it's just not fair!"

Of course that's idiocy; war isn't about fairness. But that's what they were really saying. Hezbollah did make a major mistake in that attack, because they had developed to the point where they actually presented a target Israel could fight against at a tempo Israel could sustain but Hezbollah could not.
Not sure I agree, actually; it seems to me that many of the people complaining about the "unfairness" of Israel's "disproportionate response" were operating on a much simpler level, e.g. "why did Israel have to invade a sovereign country in response to a measly kidnapping or two?" (Answer: If you don't respond in force to kidnapping, you can expect more of the same.) Or: "why was it necessary to invade Lebanon and make innocent civilians suffer, in response to what a terrorist organization did?" (Answer: the terrorist organization in question, Hizballah, is part of the Lebanese government, and thus an attack by Hizballah from Lebanese territory is an attack by Lebanon. Even were that not true, Israel has every right to hold Lebanon responsible for securing her own border. Either way, Israel had every right to declare war on Lebanon.)

UPDATE III: A distantly-related subject is a different controversy surrounding Israel, involving Israel's controversial policy of targeted assassinations.

Many people have railed against the inhumanity of this policy. (Personally, I think it's far preferable to the alternative. Given the penchant of Palestinian terrorists to use their own civilian neighbors as human shields, what do we prefer? -- That the head honchos be dispatched with lethal force, hopefully resulting in a drastic effect on everyone under them? -- Or that the leaders be considered inviolate, able to recruit new foot-soldiers and plan more attacks, while fighting large numbers of terrorists results in many more accidental civilian deaths? I'll go with option A, if you don't mind.)

Those who criticize Israel for this policy, however, might be surprised to read how very controversial it is among Israelis, including Israeli legal experts and policymakers:
[then-Prime Minister Ehud] Barak also secretly asked Daniel Reisner, a legal adviser to Arab-Israeli peace talks, to determine whether targeted killings were legal. Reisner agonized for six weeks. "It was a feeling of -- what on Earth has happened?" Reisner recalled. "Instead of two states living amicably side by side, I have to write opinions on how and when we kill each other."

Reisner concluded it was legal, with six conditions: that arrest is impossible; that targets are combatants; that senior cabinet members approve each attack; that civilian casualties are minimized; that operations are limited to areas not under Israeli control; and that targets are identified as a future threat. Unlike prison sentences, targeted killing cannot be meted out as punishment for past behavior, Reisner said. In 2002, a military panel established that targeting cannot be for revenge, but only for deterrence. A panelist said it took six months and 20 meetings to reach that conclusion.

"It's not an eye for an eye," Dichter said. "It's having him for lunch before he has you for dinner."
(emphasis added)

Read the whole thing. It has interesting internal details of the planning that goes into this sort of operation, and the feelings of the men who order them (or try to stop them). There are also some interesting statistics:
More than half of all targeted operations have been called off, a senior military source said, because of danger to noncombatants. The current air force chief, Maj. Gen. Elyezer Shkedy, said in an interview that collateral damage had been decreasing from one civilian death per assassination in 2002 to one civilian death for every 25 terrorists killed in 2005. One reason was technology, Yaalon said. At first, Apache helicopters fired Hellfire antitank missiles, he said. Yaalon asked Rafael Armament Development Authority, a Defense Ministry affiliate, to manufacture smaller warheads.

"A person isn't a tank," said Avi Galor of Rafael, who supervises a team that is miniaturizing missiles. Rafael is developing "the Firefly," a warhead the size of a soda bottle.
(hat tip: Solomonia)

Of course, Israel is now being criticized heavily for its alleged role in the destruction of a Red Cross ambulance in Lebanon -- which, according to some, caused so little damage to the vehicle itself because Israel uses small missiles! (Sometimes you just can't win.)


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