Israel's use of force in Gaza: Excessive, or just right?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 |  Ryan Jones

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday condemned Israel for "excessive use of force" against Gaza's terrorist infrastructure.

Several other world leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, made similar statements on Sunday, decrying what they called Israel's "disproportionate response" after a fleet of Israeli aircraft dropped 100 tons of ordnance on 50 Hamas targets at the weekend.

The Israeli assault came in response to incessant and unprovoked Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel. But because the Hamas rockets failed to kill more than a handful of Israelis, the world views Israel's killing of some 300 Palestinians - most of them terrorists - as completely unacceptable.

Former Israeli ambassador to the UN and expert on international affairs says this focus on proportionality of force and casualty figures flies in the face of reason, as well as international law.

"According to international law, Israel is not required to calibrate its use of force precisely according to the size and range of the weaponry used against it," writes Gold in a position paper for the Institute for Contemporary Affairs.

Gold points out that to satisfy international law, Israel need only direct its use of force against legitimate military targets, and not the civilian population. But even when civilians are killed in such strikes, Israel is not to be held accountable under international law.

That position is backed up by Luis Moreno-Orampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who previously explained that international law "permits belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur."

According to figures released by the Palestinians themselves, only 15 out of the 230 people killed in Israel's initial wave of attacks on Gaza were civilians. Clearly, the target of Israel's use of force was Hamas, not Gaza's wider populace.

Furthermore, Gold argues that to restrict Israel to only killing the same number of Palestinians as Israelis killed in Hamas rocket attacks is bereft of logic, as it would result in a prolonged war of attrition.

Nor is that the correct legal definition of proportionality in such cases, even though world leaders often suggest as much.

Again citing international legal experts, Gold explains that what the law really says is that "if a state, like Israel, faces aggression, then proportionality addresses whether force was specifically used by Israel to bring an end to the armed attack against it."

To say it another way, Israel is permitted to use the proportionate amount of force needed to bring about an end to the threat to its citizens as rapidly as possible. It has nothing to do with comparing the strength of Israeli bombs and fighter jets to Palestinian rockets and suicide bombers, or the numbers of dead on both sides.

"Numbers matter less than the purpose of the use of force," notes Gold.

Israel's use of force only becomes "disproportionate" if it goes beyond the legitimate objective and purposefully targets civilians for unnecessary harm.

Click here to read Gold's full article.

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