How many Israelis must die before we are ‘allowed’ to defend them?

Israelis clear rubble from the front yard of a home in Ashdod after a Hamas rocket landed on 15 July. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Israelis clear rubble from the front yard of a home in Ashdod after a Hamas rocket landed on 15 July. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Last weekend, a BBC journalist offered the following: “I know it’s a vulgar conversation, but 160 deaths versus nil does raise the question of whether it’s proportional or not.” At the time of writing, two Israeli civilians have been killed by a rocket attack and scores of others have been injured. This frustrates Hamas, while Israelis are grateful for the Iron Dome defence system, set up to intercept the missiles fired from Gaza that have killed dozens over the past few years, maiming and injuring many more.

These rockets are aimed at Israel’s civilian population, and are unprovoked, sent with murderous intent. Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, Hamas has fired over 1,500 rockets into Israel. The Palestinian envoy to the UN human rights council, Ibrahim Khreisheh, observed that Hamas rocket-fire amounts to war crimes, “whether it hits or misses, because it is directed at civilian targets”.

Israel’s operation, meanwhile, is dedicated solely to removing the capacity of Hamas to fire missiles into Israeli population centres and dismantling its terror tunnels. Eager to count the number of dead in Gaza as victims of Israel, Hamas has been encouraging its citizens to stay at home when the Israel Defence Forces send warnings to evacuate. Hamas’s perverse logic is designed to put Gaza’s civilians in harm’s way.

As Binyamin Netanyahu remarked this week, Israel uses its missiles to protect citizens, whereas Hamas uses citizens to protect its missiles.

Trying to appear fair-minded, the BBC journalist cited the death figures in order to make a rhetorical point about “proportionality”. Yet the concept of proportionality requires weighing the wider reasons as to why military operations are taking place. Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the international criminal court, wrote in 2006: “International humanitarian law and the Rome statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) ... or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).”

So to discuss the concept of proportionality one must offset the number of deaths against the aims of the operation. In the context of putting a stop to intolerable, hourly murder attempts against an entire population, Israel’s campaign is perfectly understandable. One wonders how the UK would react if a terror group overtook the Isle of Man and began raining missiles down on Britain. Sadly, all too many in the media treat proportionality as something quite different: the number of Israelis dead.

In this view, the aims of Operation Protective Edge are less important than the price Israel is paying for such a defensive operation, and Israel has to pay this price in blood. The coldhearted subtext is that Israelis must die in order for their military campaign to gain any sympathy. Of course, this has not been the case when the British media has debated the effects of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. No interviewer would dream of asking a British army general or politician why more Afghans died than British soldiers, yet these are the macabre mathematics being presented to Israel. The concept of proportionality is being twisted, so that it now demands Israeli blood in exchange for Israeli military operations.

As Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, said recently: “We don’t have to apologise for Israelis not being killed.” Indeed, one wonders quite how the media would want to even up the scores. Perhaps Israel should switch off the early-warning systems that notify Israelis of missiles, and stop using Iron Dome until more Israelis have been killed than Palestinians? Only then, having satiated the media thirst for Israeli blood by dying in sufficient numbers, would Israel be “allowed” to resume its protective operation to let Israelis live peaceful lives free from terror.

Israel both has the right to defend our citizens with military operations, and to protect the lives of our citizens with bunkers and anti-missile systems. Until our operations are over, the media ought to drastically rethink the irresponsible way they are discussing proportionality.

Hilik Bar is deputy speaker of the Knesset, secretary general of the Israeli Labor party, and chair of the Knesset caucus to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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