Before the next war: Israel and the US should articulate a policy on proportionality

How can a democratic nation fight and defeat asymmetric enemies in the 21st century?

Previously published in the Jerusalem Report.

by Dr. Eric R. Mandel

The recent International Criminal Court decision to investigate Israel for “war crimes” in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) highlights not only the hypocrisy of the international community’s anti-Israel bias but the difficulty of militarily responding to terrorists who play by no rules.

Can America and Israel ever receive a fair hearing in analyzing the complexity and legality of their military actions against asymmetric actors? Especially when international bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are dominated by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world. These anti-American and anti-Zionist organizations have become weaponized political instruments in a war of lawfare against the US and the Jewish nation.

Israel faces asymmetric threats from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iranian-controlled militias in Syria and Iraq. America has at least a 40-year history of fighting non-state actors in the Middle East – from the Iranian-orchestrated bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut to one of the worst asymmetric actors, Islamic State.

Israel’s dilemma is that what the US did to ISIS, with civilians embedded within its terrorist network, would not be tolerated by a world with double standards for the Jewish state. Israel will continually be delegitimized
for its response to attacks from civilian areas, where its enemy cynically uses civilians as human shields.

Proportional responses are a matter of ongoing debate in this murky environment. Let’s be clear: “Proportionate” does not mean that if Hezbollah or Hamas sends 100 missiles indiscriminately into Israeli civilian communities, Israel should be expected to send 100 missiles into Palestinian or Lebanese communities. That is immoral and would never even be considered by any democracy, especially Israel or the US.

Articulating a policy on what constitutes a proportional response in asymmetric warfare is both in American and Israeli interests. This past February, the US struck Iranian-controlled weapons depots in Syria in retaliation for an attack on American soldiers at a US base near the Erbil international airport. One American soldier was injured, but 22 Iranian militiamen of the terrorist organizations Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Is that proportionate or disproportionate?

According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, “The strikes were necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks.”

What is not acknowledged by critics is that it is well within the bounds of international law to retaliate even if the number of casual ties turns out to be more than were incurred, especially if the enemy deliberately uses civilians’ lives for propaganda purposes.

When civilians are inadvertently killed in homes where missiles are stored or whose living room is used as an entrance for an attack tunnel, is it still legal to attack those homes as long as you try to minimize civilian casualties? How do you cope when your intelligence finds kindergartens or hospitals used by terrorist organizations to store weapons or mount operations against your civilians? Israel has called off many operations, walking the fine line between a nation’s obligation to protect its civilians and its moral responsibility to minimize danger to the enemy’s non-combatants.

What is a proportionate response? It behooves Israel, the US and all Western nations not to wait until after civilians are killed in confronting an enemy, but to clearly state what proportionality is, and in a very public way.

Proportionality is wholly misunderstood by democratic governments, the press and the public. It is not the number of causalities that determines proportionality but the necessity of the military action balanced against the potential civilian loss.

Source: Alma Research and Education Center

As Victor Davis Hanson said, “Every Hamas unguided rocket is launched in hopes of hitting an Israeli home and killing men, women, and children. Every guided Israeli air-launched missile is targeted at Hamas operatives, who deliberately work in the closest vicinity to women and children.”

According to Human Rights Watch, no fan of Israel, for a specific attack on a military objective to be lawful, it must discriminate between combatants and civilians. The expected loss of civilian life or property cannot be disproportionate to the attack’s anticipated military gain.

Does Israel take care to avoid civilian casualties, even when they are purposely placed in harm’s way?

Asa Kasher, the co-author of the first IDF Code of Ethics, said, “We can’t separate the terrorist from his neighbors. The terrorists have erased the difference between combatants and non-combatants. They operate from within residential areas. They attack civilians. The world doesn’t have a clue what proportionality is. Proportionality is not about numbers.”

According to international law, the question of proportionality is whether the military benefit justifies the collateral damage. As for B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, all have double standards. For them, there is the poor, pitiful side and the strong side. Testimony that comes from the pitiful side is taken at face value. They think it is immoral to give priority to the defense of the citizens of your state over the protection of the lives of the neighbors of the terrorists.”

The number of casualties, civilian or combatant, is not a determinate for proportionality. War crimes and proportionality are for those who target civilians, are indiscriminate in their attacks, or cause disproportionate civilian loss. Israel does not target civilians, but you would not know that from reading European newspapers or reports from so-called human rights organizations in which body counts determine proportionality.

Jeffery Goldberg, writing in 2014, hit the nail on the head in describing terrorist actors. “Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible. Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.” This is the strategy of Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS.

As Middle East analyst, British Col. (ret) Richard Kemp said, “Of course innocent civilians are killed in every war; war is chaotic and confusing, and mistakes are frequent, but mistakes are not war crimes.”

The problem is that the international community judges a disproportionate response by a body count. A democracy like Israel will always lose because its asymmetric enemy uses its citizens as human shields, hoping to
demonize Israel and deter legitimate use of force.

A few years ago, I spoke to the international medical director for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, who told me that in the 300 villages he had visited in southern Lebanon, there was not one where missiles were not placed in civilian homes. This man was no Zionist.

All of this came to the fore in February when the ICC ruled that it is under its jurisdiction to investigate Israel for war crimes for its past military activity in the Gaza Strip. Also, it wants to determine if settlements in Judea and Samaria also constitute war crimes against the Palestinians.

The ICC is also supposedly looking into the potential war crimes of Hamas. Yet, it seems morally perverse to equate Hamas, a designated terrorist entity that indiscriminately targets Israeli civilians while using human shields to induce Israeli retaliation, with a democratic nation that tries as much as any other military on earth to minimize enemy civilian causalities. I have witnessed this firsthand along the Gaza border.

The three-judge panel ruling in favor of investigating Israel in 2021 is a far cry from former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who said in 2006 that the ICC’s Rome Statute “permits belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur.”

The goal of Hamas and Hezbollah is to induce Israel to kill their civilians for political and diplomatic gain. Knowing international arbiters act only as bean counters plays right into their hands.

Whether from the north or south, Israel’s next war will again feature the use of human shields. This time it will be on a massive scale, with the inevitable international condemnation. Lt.-Col. Sarit Zehavi’s ALMA think tank, with the best expertise on Israel’s northern border, has documented many precision-guided missile factories purposely placed in civilian neighborhoods, next to schools, gas companies, and recreational facilities. It takes a herculean effort to fight UN officials and progressive media outlets who don’t hide their bias against Israel, choosing civilian body counts as their weapon to delegitimize Israel, knowing full well that Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilians’ causalities.

Since the term “disproportionate” has been politicized and misused, it is appropriate to ask if an overwhelming response can be legal and justified if it acts as a deterrent to further attacks against your civilian population? What if it is the only effective deterrent against an asymmetric enemy that doesn’t play by international conflict rules, strategizing that it will not be on the receiving end of more missiles than it sends?

Can a case be made for a disproportionate response? Yes, it is called the Powell Doctrine and, in the long run, can decrease casualties by deterring the enemy. According to the late Charles Krauthammer’s interpretation of the
doctrine: “The key to success in a military conflict is the use of overwhelming force. For decades the US had followed a policy of proportionality: restraint because of fear of escalation. If you respond proportionately, you allow the enemy to set the parameters… you grant him the initiative.”

In 2006’s Second Lebanon War, Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force deterred Hezbollah for nearly 16 years. Yet just two year later, the international community ganged up on Israel after Operation Cast Lead in 2008, alleging excessive force constituting war crimes that culminated in the infamous but now discredited and retracted Goldstone Report. The current ICC investigation against Israel for war crimes in 2014 is a continuation of the diplomatic war to discredit Israel and undermine its right to exist like every other nation in the world.

So what can US President Joe Biden’s administration do? It is in America’s interest to protect Israel and itself, so it shouldn’t wait until missiles fly in the next inevitable war. Being proactive before the next war, articulating an American policy on proportionality, would protect both your ally and yourself.

Sooner or later, the US will also be on the docket of the ICC for war crimes. In any war, bad things happen, and yes, war crimes occur. The difference is that for America and Israel, they are far and few between, are legitimately investigated, and punishment is meted out when warranted. Just ask the soldiers in Israeli or American military prisons.

The international community’s goal is to redefine proportionality and tar Israel and America by isolated incidents for political gain. Don’t be misled. Both nations follow the rule of law that is guided by their democratic values.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

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