False Equivalency and Lack of Proportionality in the Gaza War

Yes, the October 7 massacre by Hamas was bestial, horrific, and inexcusable. Yet the major media seems compelled to recite the number of Israeli victims each time it reports the escalating number of Palestinian victims. The only apparent reason for this is to imply an equivalency of those killed.   How can the 1,250 victims on the Israeli side be reasonably equated to the more than 40,000 Palestinian dead (including those buried in the rubble)?

Such false equivalency is matched by a lack of proportionality in the IDF war campaign. In both the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law that define the law of war, the principle of proportionality prohibits attacks on legitimate military targets if the number of civilian causalities would be disproportionate to the military objectives.

That Israel has violated proportionality throughout its six-month Gaza campaign is evident from its numerous war crimes, such as the following:

1. Indiscriminate Bombing.  The repeated use of 2,000-pound bombs have leveled multistorey apartment buildings in Gaza, killing hundreds of residents in order to strike even just a single Hamas suspect. The IDF has relied  on the “Lavender” and “Where’s Daddy” AI programs, which have limited human oversight, to kill suspected militants, their families, and nearby neighbors in the hundreds on the mere possibility of on-site Hamas members. In shifting free-fire zones, snipers are ordered or allowed to shoot anyone in sight, even unarmed women and children.  Where is the proportionality?

2. Attacks on hospitals and medical personnel. Claiming that they harbor militants or cover underground command centers, the IDF has decimated almost all of Gaza’s hospitals, including its largest one, Al-Shifa.  At Shifa and other medical centers, the IDF has targeted health workers.  Many doctors and hospital staff have been stripped, beaten, and transported to detention camps in Israel where they endure extreme hardship or torture. The cut-off of hospital electricity has caused the deaths of  newborns in incubators. Some victims of the attacks on Al-Shifa have shown the marks of execution.  The IDF has indiscriminately slaughtered civilians who sought safety in numbers at the hospital. Where is the proportionality?

3. Targeting of Journalists. The IDF has repeatedly targeted journalists, killing some 140 of them to date notwithstanding the highly visible “press” marking on their vests. The targeting of reporters as well as the recent expulsion of Al-Jazeera show a clear intent to limit public attention to atrocities inside the Gaza Strip. Where is the proportionality?

4. Targeting of schools, universities, mosques, and libraries.  Attacks on Gaza’s religious and cultural infrastructure could have had no other objective than to obliterate Gaza’s historical, religious, and educational life. Such destruction has taken place despite the lack of military value. Where is the proportionality?

5. Starvation as a military tactic.  The infliction of starvation as a military tactic is a war crime.  When Israel began reducing the number of daily food convoys, Gazan families became desperate enough to eat weeds and animal feed.  Not surprisingly, children and even adults in the north have begun to die of starvation. The recent IDF attack on a World Food Kitchen convoy was deliberate, killing seven of WKC team.  The incident has highlighted Israel’s targeted  killings of humanitarian aid workers. Where is the proportionality?

Netanyahu now threatens to invade Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians have sought safety from Israeli air and ground attacks. President Joe Biden has demanded that Israel produce an invasion plan that will protect civilians, but how is that possible when the population is so densely crowded into a confined space?  This is the same question that should have been asked at the beginning of the war– if Netanyahu and his war cabinet had really wanted to limit civilian casualties. Why didn’t the IDF confine its military operation to the tunnels, where most of the Hamas militants were hiding?

Israel’s April 1 bombing of the Iranian Consulate in Syria has increased the threat of a broader Middle East war, one that would likely drag the U.S. military into a major conflict. Iran has vowed to retaliate. By violating the inviolability of diplomatic premises, Israel has not only disregarded the proportionality rule, but has also disrespected international law.

If the International Court of Justice ultimately decides that Israel has indeed committed genocide, it will be in part due to Israel’s continued refusal to respect the principle of proportionality.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.