Yesterday, the IDF closed in on the city of Khan Younis, Hamas’s main center in the southern Gaza Strip, beginning what Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has described as the “third phase” of the operation. Two days beforehand, giving a speech in the United Arab Emirates, Vice-President Kamala Harris declared, “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating.” Such comments echo those of other U.S. officials, in what seems like a coordinated effort to hamstring the Israeli offensive in southern Gaza.
But how many “innocent Palestinians” does Vice-President Harris believe to be the right number to be killed? The laws of armed conflict in fact help provide a way of answering that question, as Shlomo Brody explains, through the oft-misunderstood doctrine of proportionality. Moreover, he argues, excessive restraint poses dangers of its own, a lesson Israel might have learned during the second intifada, after buckling to similar U.S. pressure:
In September 2003, the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin gathered with all of his senior men in a three-story Gaza apartment building. . . . Yet Israel didn’t strike. Fearful of dozens of civilian casualties along with the local and international protests that would ensue, Prime Minister Sharon, at the urging of the army chief of staff Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, called off an attack using a massive bomb to topple the building.
An alternative plan was hastily proposed to shoot a smaller missile to destroy the third floor, where intelligence officials speculated the meeting was taking place.
They guessed wrong. The meeting, it turned out, was on the first floor. . . . Within a few days, sixteen Israeli citizens were dead and another 75 wounded by two Hamas suicide bombers.
Israel’s decision not to act cost the lives of many innocent Israelis. Fears of “disproportionate” accusations led Israel to shirk its primary moral responsibility, which is to protect its own citizens from being murdered by terrorists.