The Israeli offensive into Gaza continues this morning with devastating effects for Palestinians across the Gaza Strip. Say what you will, but the military strategy that has marked Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” clearly only hurts Gaza’s civilian population. With much of the water supply and sewage system dependent on electricity, and the impact on hospitals and limited supplies, the damage to civilian infrastructure raises serious medical concerns and unmasks this campaign of collective punishment of the Palestinian people—a predictable and uncreative display of Israeli military might over and against 1.5 million poor Palestinians. These are actions clearly in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory. And with more than a thousand Palestinians killed and the death toll rising, thousands wounded, Gaza’s children severely traumatized, and Gaza’s population without reliable electricity, the obvious disproportionality of the Israeli military response only underscores its unacceptability.
And U.S. complicity has never been more evident. The words of the President and Secretary of State, it can be argued, at the least have directly contributed to this recent campaign through its silent legitimization of this violence. Indeed, the U.S. abstention from the recent UN Security Council call for an immediate ceasefire is interpreted by many as tacit approval, the silent “wink across the room” serving as the needed go-ahead for Israel to continue this offensive.
The power of language—which includes silence—reveals itself in this situation. And all attempts at minimization with the language of “proportionality” are examples of hiding this complicity. With our own occupation in Iraq, with our pouring of billion of U.S. dollars into the Israeli military complex each year, whatever words of “proportionality” or “restraint” that are coming from the U.S at this time are sadly misplaced.
Instead an assertion is made that the response must be proportional to the “threat,” and that dead bodies and burning cities are not indicators of ethical or moral standards. “Threat,” a category unquantifiable and therefore subject to a calculus dictated by those making the assertion.
Let us keep in mind that the people of Gaza have been living as prisoners in what is essentially the world’s largest open-air prison. The Palestinian people have had no control over movement in and out of Gaza, no control over borders (land, sea, or air), no open access to needed services and viable economic opportunity with a poverty rate reaching 80 percent, and have lived constantly under the threat of Israeli military incursions, shelling, and “targeted assassinations” that leave entire Palestinian families murdered in the streets. As the occupying power, Israel has certain obligations under international law in regards to the Palestinian people. Israel has completely shirked this responsibility and left the burden of responding to the needs of one of the most densely populated areas on earth—the great majority of whom being refugees—to the international community, creating a situation that does not provide the opportunity for a prosperous future but only just prevents Gaza from slipping into humanitarian disaster on a daily basis, let alone during times like these.
In this context, the language of proportionality too easily serves the purpose of hiding these realities and obfuscating overarching power dynamics. It is hard not to conclude that its purpose is to paint this situation as balanced, without a clear power differential, and with the U.S. as neutral, an “honest broker” for peace.
“Proportionality” seems to reveal a critical weakness of the “just war” tradition as it is or is not applied in situations of conflict or the response of the international community to those situations. According to this ethical tradition, war is “just” and “justified” if it meets certain criteria, among them the criterion of proportionality.
In reflecting on the justice of resorting to the use of violent force in the first place, jus ad bellum, the criterion of proportionality is met by concluding that the overall destruction expected from the use of force will be outweighed by the good to be achieved. Concerning the justice of conduct within war itself, jus in bello, proportionality means that the force used must be proportional to the wrong endured, the ends sought, and to the possible good that may come. The more disproportional the number of “collateral” civilian deaths, for example, the more suspect will be the sincerity of a belligerent nation’s claim to justness of a war it initiated, which is why weapons of mass destruction are usually seen as being out of proportion to legitimate military ends.
Now there are several other criteria and considerations when engaging this tradition, but proportionality is an essential piece that, in contexts of severe power imbalance, must be examined seriously, beyond the rhetoric of political means and ends, which only cheapens whatever ethical resources we have to appeal to in the first place. But then again, who among the powers is engaging in ethical reflection right now, besides those who seek to appropriate ethical language as a legitimizing tool (i.e. “proportional to the threat”)?
Yet, the manner in which the language of “proportionality” is employed often carries with it the assumptions of “neutrality” and a “distanced objectivity.” Words that at least in this context, and perhaps it can be argued in most contexts, are at best inadequate and inappropriate but most often downright disingenuous and dangerous. The continued employment of such language seems to reveal the weakness and inadequacy of this “just” tradition as it is typically exploited.
In a land of walls, checkpoints, land confiscation, and colonization—where Israeli military incursion occur on a daily basis, terrorizing an entire society, where Palestinians are randomly dragged away to add to the over 10,000 Palestinian men, women, and children sitting in Israeli jails, and where every response to Israeli aggression is labeled “terrorist” by those who control and employ such ahistorical and decontextualized language and calculate “proportionality” according to their own interests, the language of “proportionality” immediately dehumanizes, denying the value of human life. It too often becomes the language of violence and oppression.
At a time when so many are seeking to live in a world that is defined with a deeper, richer definition of peace, we should at least seek to be consistent with the moral and ethical formation of our language and our own actions.
TIMOTHY SEIDEL works as Director for Peace and Justice Ministries with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. He worked as a Peace Development Worker with MCC in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 2004-2007.