True Proportionality

One of the tenets of Just War theory is the principle of “proportionality.”  Proportionality, or the lack there of, has become the chief focus of criticism of Israeli actions in Lebanon. Russia and the European Union claim the Israel has escalated the fight to a “disproportionate act of war.”  Speaking for Italians, the Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema observed, “We have the impression that this is a disproportionate and dangerous reaction in view of the consequences it could have…”

Hezbollah in Lebanon started the conflict by launching missiles into northern Israel and capturing soldiers along the Lebanon-Israel border and has made military response difficult by the deliberate intermingling of combatants and civilians. Nonetheless, the disproportionality argument rests on the fact that Israel has taken more lives than Hezbollah, many of them civilian. This naive argument misunderstands proportionality in its entirety. Moreover, it implies a sweeping misinterpretation that reduces proportionality, in the end, to mere revenge.

If Hezbollah kills two Israeli civilians through a rocket attack, it is not a proportional response to kill two Lebanese civilians. That is vengeance and retribution. These are principles of action specifically prohibited as legitimate justifications for the use of force under Just War Theory.

Proportionality is a broader, more complex principle. It is not the simple math of tallying injuries to achieve a rough parity. By its nature, war involves death and destruction. The principle of proportionality requires that the good to be achieved exceeds the costs in lives and property and that the minimum force possible is used.

The calculus of proportionality cannot be reduced to entries in an accountant’s ledger. Lives are invaluable, but so are non-tangible goods like liberty, freedom, security, political equality, self-determination, and justice. How the loss of life and suffering balance other values is not a straightforward appraisal. Reasonable people of good will can reach different conclusions.

An assessment of the proportionality of the Israeli response perhaps will only be determined at the outcome of hostilities, whether a sustainable peace of some sort is achieved. Ironically, if Israel were to cease hostilities at this time with the Hezbollah war machine intact enough to keep northern Israel hostage, as seems to be the case, all the lives lost on both sides would have been in vain because little would have been achieved. The balance of good and evil would be weighted to the evil.

The only chance for true proportionality lies in Israel following the difficult route of persuing the disarmament of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in a thoughtful and careful way. The Israelis have not yet achieved proportionality and prematurely ending their efforts would guarantee it will not soon be achieved.

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