TIME

Israeli Ambassador: Here’s What “Proportionality” In War Really Means

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer speaks to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor on July 22, 2014. Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's man in Washington makes the case that his country's military strikes in Gaza have been proportional to the threat

The Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, challenged critics of his country’s military operation in Gaza Tuesday morning, saying they don’t understand the legal definition of “proportionality” in wartime.

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Dermer, a former top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argued that many are unfamiliar with the “rules of war” when they charge that his country has been disproportionate in its attacks on Gaza.

“We have to understand first of all what the rules of war are, because people don’t know them,” he said. “They throw around words like disproportionate without any understanding of what that actually means. A disproportionate response, from what I can gather in the interviews that I go to and the questions that I’m asked, disproportionate is believed to be what is the body count on both sides. So therefore if there’s 600 and something Palestinians who were killed and 25 Israelis, or a few days ago when there were 200 Palestinians and one Israeli, that is deemed to be a disproportionate response. That’s how most people deal with it.”

But Dermer said those assumptions were wrong. Dermer laid out the calculus that the Israeli government makes to justifying actions that may injure or kill civilians. He continued:

It’s important to understand what proportionality is in terms of the rules of war. There’s two basic principles that you have to remember. The first is distinction, you make a distinction between combatants and noncombatants. That’s the most important principle of the rules of war, that you have to make that distinction. And here Israel always makes that distinction. You have have Hamas that is deliberately targeting our civilians hoping to kill as many as possible. And you have Israel that does not deliberately target a single Palestinian civilian. We don’t deliberately target their civilians. For us, when a civilian is killed it’s an operational failure. And the more civilians who are killed, the greater the operational failure. And obviously a tragedy even of itself. And for Hamas, they celebrate—the greater the number of civilian casualties, for them, the greater the success of their operation.

And then you have the issue of proportionality.

Let’s say there’s a legitimate target because when a schoolhouse, hospital, mosque is turned into a military command center or a weapons depot, or a place where you fire rockets, it becomes by the rules of war a legitimate target. You cannot turn a hospital into a military command center. You cannot do that according to the rules of law. It’s a war crime for Hamas to do that. You cannot turn an UNRWA school into a weapons depot, that’s a war crime. You cannot use a Mosque as a missile manufacturing facility. It becomes a legitimate target. Then the question is okay, but can you target it in this specific instance.

There you get into the question of proportionality. Meaning, just because it’s a legitimate target doesn’t necessarily give you the right to hit it. Because for that, for you to be able to do that, you have to show that the gain you will get from the military action you take is worth the potential loss of lives that you might even foresee ahead of time. So I don’t want to get into theoretical examples but if you had you know 1 rocket that was sitting in a school somewhere and there are 50 kids in a classroom, then you cannot actually target to get to that rocket and kill those kids. That would be disproportionate because the gain that you have by hitting that one rocket would not justify killing 50 kids in the school. By the same token if you had 200 rockets in place and you had one civilian, by the rules of war, you could target that place even if you knew ahead of time that the civilian would be hurt.

Now there are all sorts of judgment calls that happen in between. Can you target that same target tomorrow or in an hour or in three hours? And Israel is always making these calculations.

To date, more than 500 people have died from the fighting, according to a count by the Washington Post Tuesday morning. That includes 25 Israeli soldiers, 2 Israeli civilians, 86 armed Palestinian militants and 406 Palestinian civilians. Of those Palestinian civilians, 129 were children.

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