As the responses to events in Gaza come in, the word of the day is “disproportionate.” Apparently, Israel’s response to Hamas re-ignition of hostilities doesn’t fit whatever definition of proportionality various politicians, writers, church leaders and others have in mind. Among the statements to mention it is one from the Churches for Middle East Peace (a coalition of 22 denominations that is a creature of the National Council of Churches):

We reject all justifications for the unconscionable Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel.  We similarly reject the Israeli response as disproportionate and believe that it is likely to strengthen extremists and undermine moderates in the region.

The first part of that is admirably clear and unequivocal. The second is vague, speculative, and doesn’t address the reasons for Israeli action. Anyway, the key here is the assertion that Israel’s response is “disproportionate.”

“Proportionality” is one of the criteria for determining whether a military action is morally legitimate under just-war theory, so by decrying the Israeli response as disproportionate, the decriers are hoping to stigmatize it as immoral. The problem, of course, is that the concept isn’t self-defining, and if there’s one thing that unites all the statements so far, it’s an unwillingness or inability to define the idea. Michael Totten, writing at the Commentary magazine blog “Contentions,” puts his finger on the problem:

“At last count,” J.G. Thayer wrote, “one Israeli and two Palestinians (sisters, ages 13 and 5) died from [Hamas] rocket attacks. So a proportionate response, one presumes, would have required Israel to kill a single Palestinian and two of its own citizens.”

There were, I suppose, other “proportionate” responses available aside from killing one Palestinian and two Israelis. The Israel Defense Forces might have launched thousands of air strikes against targets in Gaza to match the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. It’s unlikely, however, that this is what Israel’s critics have in mind.

So what do they have in mind? What would a legitimate and “proportionate” response actually look like? Surely they don’t believe Israel should scrap its sophisticated weapons systems, build Qassam rockets, and launch those at Gaza instead.

The “disproportionate response” crowd doesn’t seem to mind that Israel struck back at Hamas per se.

I would dispute this, as I think a lot of Israel’s critics do, in fact, believe that Israel, as the “occupying” power, has no right to retaliate when Hamas attacks. The best evidence of that is that said critics never criticize or condemn Hamas when it is the only one trying to kill its enemies; only when Israel responds is there a perfunctory “oh, and Hamas should stop what they’re doing, too.”

They aren’t saying Israel should only be allowed to negotiate with its enemies or that any use of force whatsoever is wrong.

Once again, I think Totten is giving Israel’s critics, particularly people like Samuel Kobia of the World Council of Churches, too much credit. I think this is exactly what they believe–that Israel has no business ever usiing force, and should use diplomacy as its only means of trying to get Hamas to stop trying to kill its citizens.

They’re clearly saying Israel should use less force, inflict less damage, or both.

One problem here is that it’s not at all clear how they think Israelis should go about doing it. The weapons used by each side can’t be the same. No one has ever said Israel ought to put its superior weapons systems in cold storage until Hamas can develop or purchase something similar. Presumably Israel is allowed to use its superior technology as long as the casualty count on each side is proportionate.

But how would that work in practice? A single Israeli air strike is going to kill at least as many people as Hamas can kill in twelve months. Does that mean Israel should be given a “license” of one air strike per year to use in the war? If IDF commanders want to take out a target where they expect five Hamas leaders or fighters to be killed, do they have to wait until five Israelis are killed first? If the Israelis endure rocket fire until one civilian is killed, do they get a “kill one Palestinian terrorist” coupon?

If strict proportionality isn’t necessary, what are the limits? If the Israelis kill two Palestinians for every Israeli that’s killed, is that okay? Or is doubling the number of casualties on each side too unfair to the Palestinians?

No army in the history of human civilization has ever hamstrung itself with these kind of restrictions in wartime, but let’s leave that aside for the moment and assume the IDF should be the first. Maybe Israeli commanders will be swayed by the legion of bloggers, Arab street radicals, and United Nations apparatchiks. What, precisely, should be the limits and rules of proportionate war? If critics expect to be taken seriously, they will need to advise.

Don’t hold your breath. The claim that Israel is acting “disproportionately” is not a claim that requires any substance or definition for it to serve the purpose of many (I would put people like Kobia, Katharine Jefforts-Schori, Desmond Tutu, and the thug-lovers of the U.S. Campaign to Stop the Israeli Occupation in this category) who so blithely toss it out. Their purpose, to all evidence, is simply to demonize Israel and put it on a moral par with a genocidal gang. From their standpoint, any attempt to put substance to the charge would simply be counter-productive.