On 23 February 2009 Amnesty International issued a report on the recent conflict in Gaza. Its main thrust was to call for an arms embargo on both sides and a cessation of American military aid to Israel. A curious document, on a par with many they have issued on this protracted conflict. As a terrorist organisation, Hamas is clearly unaffected by such a call, so this is really a one sided call for America to stop support for Israel. Amnesty calls for an investigation of war crimes allegations and refers to 'disproportionate' action by Israel and attacks by their forces on civilians and civilian objects.
Now let us talk about proportionality. One death of an innocent is one too many but war is not nice and this was war. It is claimed that Israeli forces killed over 1,300 and wounded over 5,000. These figures come from just one side of the conflict, are they correct? Remember Israel's attack on Jenin in 2004. Palestinian officials spoke of a massacre, of 500 dead, even of 3,000 dead. In the end, when the dust settled, the figure agreed by all sides was between 53 and 56 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers. One death of an innocent is one too many but we are trying to measure proportionality so the figure of suffering matters.
The war was sparked by Hamas deciding not to renew their six-month ceasefire on 19 December 2008, followed by a barrage of missiles into Israel. Hamas officials claimed they were willing to renew the ceasefire if Israel would open the border crossings but Israel was not willing to open border crossings because they feared this would escalate the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and suicide bombers out of Gaza. They did not want to appear to reward the continuing low-level war waged by Hamas through missile attacks and suicide bombing. Israel viewed the threat as being to its existence: what is proportional to the existence of a state? Would proportionality be for Hamas missiles to kill two Israeli civilians and for Israel to respond by picking two random civilians in Gaza and killing them? Is Israel not permitted to try to stop the attacks even if this requires a disproportionate response?
In war both sides use weapons, which are things designed to cause injury and death. Israel was fighting an enemy based amongst civilians: how, therefore, could they avoid civilian casualties? Amnesty complains that Israel used weapons that do not allow pinpoint accuracy amongst civilians but this was war - how many Israeli lives were required to be sacrificed to to achieve pinpoint accuracy? Israeli spokesmen allege that Hamas cynically uses human shields, purposely firing from positions next to hospitals, mosques and schools and that they locate storage and command bunkers beneath these buildings. If this is true then the task of avoiding civilian casualties whilst prosecuting a war becomes very hard. The fog of war makes it certain that errors will occur and that, even with efficiency and goodwill, innocents will die. But let us not assume that the fighters on both sides are always nice. They are people; there are cruel and indifferent people about. In war bad things happen. How do Israeli actions compare with other combatants in other conflicts? I suspect they compare pretty well. They try to avoid civilian casualties as far as this is compatible with attaining crucial military objectives. Hamas does not. Hamas tries to kill and maim civilians - they are the target not 'collateral damage'.
Let us talk about proportionality. Consider America's war in Iraq - we don't know how many civilian casualties there have been where US troops were involved but the number can hardly be less than tens of thousands and the US, perfectly reasonably in the context, has used artillery and aerial bombardment in areas where there were clearly civilians present. We know that the general conflict including civil war has resulted in at least 100,000 dead. Russia's war in Chechnya resulted in the virtual flattening of the capital city Grozny. Chechen officals admitted a death toll of up to 160,000 in 2005. At present Sri Lanka's government is at the point of crushing a long term insurgency. It is hard for us to criticise under the terrible pressures of this war but it is undeniable that tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in the war zone. Many thousands have died and will die.
Let us, in this context, consider the statement from the African Union in January 2009, condemning Israel. They refer to an '...unbearable and worsening humanitarian situation'.... This from the team who brought you the genocide in Rwanda, the war in eastern Congo, the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the government sponsored attacks on civilians in Dharfur, Uganda's war against LRA rebels in the north which observers believe is being kept going on purpose to boost army influence....Where do we stop? This from the people who stand around doing nothing whilst 20% of Zimbabwe's population flees the country and handreds of thousands are starving, where the government uses withholding food supplies as a weapon against suspected political opponents when it does not simply imprison, torture and murder them. The lunatics are in charge of the asylum and who gets waves of criticism...Israel, which is under attack from mortal enemies and which is one of the few countries in the world to make great efforts to limit civilian casualties in conflict. Now why is Israel singled out for special treatment do you think?