Criticism against Israel amazingly disproportionate


By Gerard Leval

This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most protracted battles in modern history — the Battle of Verdun. In February 1916, a year and a half after the beginning of World War I, in an effort to break a stalemate and march on Paris, the German armies launched an attack on French positions at Verdun, in the northeast corner of France, where the two nations’ forces faced each other along miles of trenches. Throughout the battle, the Germans and the French attacked and counterattacked, but without victory for either side.

At the end of 10 months of unremitting carnage, the battle came to an end. Evenly matched, neither army accomplished much of anything. When the battle ended, the front had barely moved. More than 500,000 young men, my great-uncle included, lay dead. Instead of either side achieving a decisive victory at this epic battle, the war would grind on for two more years, and millions more would die.

Had either army had the capability to inflict disproportionate casualties on the other, the battle might have ended, quickly and definitively, and so might have the war. Sadly, it can even be suggested that it would not really have mattered which side had won so long as the conflict had ended decisively.
The simmering conflict between France and its allies and Germany actually did not end until May 1945.

The armistice of 1918 was merely the prelude to World War II, a second round of fighting that would claim more than 50 million lives. Not until overwhelming force had destroyed the German military, along with much of Germany’s infrastructure — at an enormous human cost — would peace finally come to Western Europe. Had disproportionate power been available to Germany’s opponents earlier, the lives of many millions of people, including my grandparents who died in the gas chambers of Treblinka, might have been spared.

The United States provided its own important disproportionate contribution to bringing about a relatively peaceful era. After having been attacked without provocation at Pearl Harbor, we refused to accept anything less than an unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan. Arguably our use of force was not in proportion even to the nature of the threat. Once confined to the Japanese home islands, the Japanese forces could hardly have threatened the U.S. mainland. Nonetheless, President Truman chose to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, with devastating civilian casualties, in order to bring Japan to its knees and to destroy its ability to threaten other nations.

It does not take great knowledge of military strategy to understand that the only means of defeating an aggressive enemy is with overwhelming force. A stalemate does not achieve lasting peace. Proportional warfare between implacable foes, as the terrible Battle of Verdun so clearly illustrates, simply postpones the inevitable — ultimate victory or defeat by one of the combatants — and does so at enormous cost.

It is currently popular to cry that the response to attacks should not be disproportionate. That position, however, is not only unrealistic, it is dangerous. Any nation state whose existence is threatened has the right to eliminate that threat by the means at its disposal. Indeed, the response should be proportionate not to the military strength of the aggressor, but to the nature of the threat. When it is clear that the aggressor will not stop at anything short of destroying its target, then the targeted nation must simply and as quickly as possible put an end to the threat by destroying its enemy.

The State of Israel faces just such an existential threat. There cannot be any doubt that if the terrorists of Hamas had the ability to do so they would annihilate Israel and its citizens. Therefore, any riposte that is less than adequate to the elimination of that threat is inadequate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has accused Israel of a disproportionate response to the attacks from Gaza. He cites the alleged number of casualties in Gaza as being excessive. This very much misses the important point of the matter. It is not the number of casualties that determines the morality of a military response (although, of course, casualties should be minimized as much as possible and Israel assuredly does that). Rather, what is critical, is whether force is being used reasonably and appropriately to eliminate the threat.

Israel’s “mow the grass” approach to Gaza — the need to go back and reduce Hamas’ capacity to attack Israel on a periodic basis — is actually quite proportionate. The fundamental problem is that, due to its proportionality, it is not effective enough. If Sen. Sanders and others like him truly want to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict come to an end and quickly, then they should advocate not less force, but a far greater use of force. Hamas terrorists, just like the Nazis before them, will not be deterred by restraint and caution; they must be removed.

Sometimes, regrettably, morality demands the use of force and of a great deal of force. Insistence on proportionality in defending against aggression can be disguised as an exercise in morality, but it is assuredly not that at all. Rather, it is simply a false premise and for Israel in its confrontation with its mortal enemies it is a very dangerous one.

Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of Arent Fox LLP.

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