Alan Johnson – @Fathom_Journal – is the editor of Fathom.
What is meant by ‘proportionality’ in war? Let’s begin with Michael Walzer, author of the seminal Just and Unjust Wars, explaining what proportionality, in international law and in just war thinking, is not.
Proportionality doesn’t mean ‘tit for tat,’ as in the family feud. The Hatfields kill three McCoys, so the McCoys must kill three Hatfields. More than three, and they are breaking the rules of the feud, where proportionality means symmetry.
But if proportionate does not mean symmetry, what does it mean? Walzer again:
The use of the term is different with regard to war, because war isn’t an act of retribution; it isn’t a backward-looking activity, and the law of even-Steven doesn’t apply. Like it or not, war is always purposive in character; it has a goal, an end-in-view.
In other words, the goal pursued by military action must be proportionate to the ongoing threat faced. Israel’s goal is the removal of Hamas as the controlling political and military power in Gaza is proportionate because 7 October made clear that Hamas now poses an existential threat to Israel.
Israel’s goal is proportionate to the revelation that the mass slaughter of all the Jews of Israel will be attempted again and again by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad until successful, with whatever technology and weaponry can be acquired or supplied, under the guiding hand and financial support of a nuclear threshold state religiously committed to Israel’s destruction, Iran.
Although Hamas has declared this eliminationist goal openly, again and again, western liberal opinion has refused to take it seriously. What Paul Berman calls our ‘liberal naivete’ (‘No, they can’t mean that! No one can mean that!’) has routinely trumped what Hamas, as the kids would say, literally tell us, in words and, as on 7 October, in deeds.
Here is what Hamas has said.
Muhammed Deif, then the Hamas bomb-maker, now one of its leaders, said in 2005 after Israel’s disengagement from the Strip, ‘We promise that tomorrow all of Palestine will become hell for you.’
Hamas ‘foreign minister’ Mahmoud al-Zahar said in 2006, ‘Israel is a vile entity that has been planted on our soil, and has no historical, religious or cultural legitimacy. We cannot normalise our relations with this entity.’
Ahmad Al-Jabri, the Hamas military commander killed by Israel on day one of the 2012 conflict, called Jews ‘rats’ to be killed in the cause of liberating ‘Jerusalem, the West Bank, and then Haifa, Jaffa, and Tel Aviv’.
And, infamously, the Hamas Charter, its set of founding principles and its programme, adopted in 1988 and never revoked, declares: ‘Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it’, and ‘[Hamas] strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine’, so ‘Jihad becomes the individual duty of every Moslem. In the face of the Jews’ usurpation’. And no, ‘Jihad’ does not here mean ‘spiritual struggle’. It means the slaughter of 7 October. And all the slaughters they plan for the future. ‘The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them’ says the Hamas Charter, quoting a hadith. ‘Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: “O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”’
On 7 October 2023 the word became deed. That day should have brought an end to the games that westerners play with these genocidal Hamas statements, to their clever-clever ‘translating’ of them into mere ‘rhetoric’, the ‘language games’ liberation movements play, just another ‘text’ or ‘discursive surface’ expressing the degree of its oppression and never the depth and intensity of its eliminationist antisemitism.
If you want to play those games you will find abundant resources within western intellectual culture to do so. (Actually, you will find little else these days.) But Israel’s neighbourhood is a bit different to the Modern Languages Association annual conference. In that region, when someone says they intend to kill you, they really intend to kill you. All of you.
After 20 years of Hamas terror attacks, suicide bombers, indiscriminate rocket and missile attacks, terror tunnels, drones, incendiary balloons, came a long-planned, meticulously prepared pogrom on such a scale that one has to go back to the Holocaust to find as many Jews murdered on a single day. And a pogrom of such a nature – Holocaust survivors shot in the head, babies shot in the head, decapitations, woman raped and executed, Jews burnt alive, young Jews hunted down and massacred en masse at a rave, Jews surviving by hiding under the dead bodies of their parents, atrocity videos uploaded to the internet – to make reasonable comparisons between Hamas and the Nazi Einzatsgruppen units who carried out the Holocaust in eastern Europe. (I taught the Holocaust at university and I could write an entire article just on the parallels: the eliminationist antisemitic ideology, the spirit of bacchanalia among the perpetrators, the monstrous baby-killing, the echo of those smiley photographs of cruelty the German troops sent home during the Holocaust in the atrocity videos Hamas ‘militants’ (copyright: BBC) uploaded, sometimes to the social media accounts of those they were murdering, and more.
And it isn’t just the future threat from Hamas that is existential. It is existential now. No country, not the UK, not the US, not France, not anybody, would accept the permanent mass trauma of citizens faced with a permanent threat of pogrom, or the possible depopulation of swathes of its country as fearful citizens flee from that threat.
How Israel sets about achieving the goal of removing Hamas as the power in the Strip is, of course, limited by prudential concerns (which I wrote about last week) and by the non-negotiable effort to minimise non-combatant casualties and maintain humanitarian corridors (which Jack Omer-Jackaman and I argued for in Fathom). The ratio of combatant to non-combatant deaths achieved by Israel in previous military operations to restore deterrence in face of Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks has been consistently better – far, far better – than anything achieved in its wars by the US, the UK, not to mention Russia. Every effort should be made to make it so again.
In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, pogroms didn’t have consequences for the pogromists because the Jews were powerless because stateless. Well, not any more. Since 1948 there is a Jewish state with the IDF on its ramparts. Hamas is going to find out that pogroms now have consequences. Its total removal from Gaza will be a proportionate response to its total threat it now poses to the only Jewish homeland in the world.