Fearful Asymmetry

Should Israel Pull Its Punches?

Kierkegaard taught that you don’t really know what your opinions are until you’re required to act upon them. Unless you have had to sacrifice something for justice, for example, you don’t really know what you believe about justice. The Danish philosopher might have gone slightly overboard in his talk against empty talk, but I think he has a point. I humbly acknowledge that I have never been in combat, never had to rush to a bomb shelter to take cover from incoming rockets, and so I offer this short reflection on the Israeli military action in Gaza as someone who has always been on the sidelines of war.

Israel’s bombing and invasion of Gaza is morally troubling in itself, but it also raises questions about the ethics of military strife in an era when war has become asymmetrical—that is, when one side has all the technological tools of destruction and the other has only rocks and primitive rockets.

Just-war theory is a set of beliefs that reaches back at least as far as Augustine. Within this theory, jus ad bellum concerns the justice of going to war in the first place, while jus in bello concerns justice in the conduct of war. These two sets of criteria have promised a way to establish the moral parameters of armed conflict.

According to this theory, it is unjust to enter into a war without first exhausting every peaceful means of resolving a conflict. In asymmetrical situations, however, resorting to power first is a powerful temptation. When one country has an impenetrable air defense and the most advanced weapons technology on the planet, while its enemy’s weapons are outmoded, the more powerful country is likely to rush to the conclusion that drones and tanks are the only good option. It should be just the opposite: the side with the vastly superior military force—and thus the capacity to unleash another magnitude of havoc—should show more restraint, not less. After the tragic murder of three Israeli boys and the arrest of hundreds of Palestinians, Hamas fired a fusillade of rockets into Israel. Whether Israel did everything it could to avoid the conflagration of violence that followed is an open question.

A central tenet of jus in bello is proportionality. As Brian Orend describes this regulatory principle, “Proportionality for jus in bello requires tempering the extent and violence of warfare to minimize destruction and casualties…. The principle of proportionality deals with what kind of force is morally permissible.” “Kind of force” can also be understood as degree of force. So, according to the rule of proportionality, it would be immoral to turn a country upside down because it’s perceived to pose a minor threat. Orend continues, “At the battle of Omdurman in 1898 in the Sudan, six machine gunners killed thousands of dervishes—the gunners may have been in the right to defend themselves, but the principle of proportionality implies that a battle end before it becomes a massacre.”

In a recent essay in the Boston Review, philosopher Frances Kamm contends that the principle of proportionality has nothing to do with comparing levels of military casualties but demands only that the use of force be “proportionate to the goal of the war or an individual military action…. Harm to enemy combatants, whether deliberate or produced as a side effect, is not standardly thought to count against achieving the goals of a military mission. This is one reason why military actions are not considered disproportionate if many more enemy combatants are killed than one’s own combatants.”

Just-war theory is not a legal document with codicils but an evolving tradition. Kamm’s suggestion that just-war theory permits the one-sided slaughter of combatants is, I think, problematic. The theory first began to develop at a time when war was reasonably expected to involve a reciprocal risk. In asymmetrical conflicts, the combatants of the weaker side can be so out-matched as to be virtually defenseless. In such cases, battles become outright massacres, à la the mowing down of the dervishes in Sudan. Massacres often destroy the prospects for long-term peace—always the final aim of just-war reasoning.

Israel’s defensive offensive has so far cost the lives of more than 1,900 Palestinians, 80 percent of them civilians and many of them children. According to the UN, over ten thousand Palestinians have been wounded. Thousands more have had to flee from their homes because of the bombing and artillery fire, and many of the displaced have sought sanctuary in UN-run schools, which the Israelis have also bombed. And yet, as the New Yorker reported last week (“Aflame,” August 4), "Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, suggested…that the Israeli Defense Forces should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for the ‘restraint’ and the humanity of their assault.”

All the exits from Gaza are closed, so there is no way to flee the fighting. Many have likened the Gaza operation to shooting people in an open-air prison. To date, three Israeli civilians and sixty-four soldiers have perished. It may be hard to conjure up a formula for disproportionality, but as Kamm points out, the destruction that Israel has wrought seems out of proportion to the destruction it is defending itself against. Therein lies the breach of the proportionality clause. Of course, Israelis will argue that unless they close the network of tunnels from Gaza, Israel will be vulnerable to new and much more dangerous attacks from Hamas.

One of the most basic rules of just-war theory requires warring parties to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. This was easier in ancient times than it is today. Nevertheless, rigorous efforts must be made to shield noncombatants from harm. For example, when one side can either destroy an enemy without peril to itself but with a high risk of “collateral damage” or can achieve the same objective in an action that puts more of their troops in harm’s way but minimizes the peril to noncombatants, the just-war tradition prescribes taking the path of greater risk to one’s own side. Though Israelis usually warn Palestinians when their homes are about to be bombed—as if there were some safe place for them to escape to—it is far from clear that they have made enough effort, or taken enough risks, to avoid harming noncombatant Palestinians.

Writing in Tablet, Leil Leibovitz argues that Hamas has been so repressive and cruel to its own people, such an enemy of freedom and justice, that those who worry about just war should unfurrow their brows and let Israel rid the world of this threat to liberty. Leibovitz warns:

Enthusiasts of nuance may argue that criticizing Israel isn’t the same as supporting Hamas. That is nominally true. It’s also largely irrelevant. Let’s indulge in one more thought exercise and assume for one moment that Israel accepted all the liberal critiques of its behaviors and acted accordingly. The force it was using was disproportionate? It withdrew most of its soldiers, curbed its artillery, and pulled back the deeply unfair advantage of the Iron Dome missile defense system…. You don’t have to be a three-star General to realize the outcome of such moves.

All “enthusiasts of nuance” will of course be quick to point out that no one has suggested that Israel dismantle its air defenses. But Leibovitz is probably right in supposing that serious efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza would put more Israeli soldiers at risk. Leibovitz concludes, “Which leads us back to a terrible observation: wars are so ghastly in part because they crush so much of the ambiguity and nuance that permeates everyday life in times of peace. They’re so awful because often they force us to make stark choices that are scary and absolute, and annihilate so much of the space that exists in between polar opposites.”

Leibovitz and other despisers of nuance believe that if you deem your foe to be evil enough, then anything goes in the fog of war. But as Kierkegaard never ceased to remind us and himself, we humans are creatures with a nasty bent toward pulling the wool over our own eyes. We are much inclined toward seeing matters the way we want to see them. In the case of asymmetrical war, we are primed to demonize our foes as subhuman “terrorists” who really have no reason to be fighting in the first place.

And yet, if Hamas is as dastardly as Leibovitz contends, then this is what Israel’s leaders should be saying: “Hamas is holding both the people of Israel and Gaza hostage; how can we free both of our people from them without killing the hostage?”



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I find 'Just War' theory tiresome. 

If every avenue for a peaceful solution is exhausted then an imperitive for state-sponored war would rarely exist.  The ability to manifest meaningful, lasting peace when bombs are flying overhead is only possible if a groundwork of mutual understanding has already been cultivated (of which diplomatic corps is only a small part).  

Exhausting peaceful solutions requires proactive foreign policy that more fully employs citizenry as the way to mutual understanding.  Not a meakly funed cultural exchange program, but a high visibility, ongoing program of John Doe of one culture breaking bread with John Doe of another.      


Mr. Marino, besides focusing on a nuance, has also chosen to dicuss the Gaza combat out of its overall context.  Hamas and Iran and others still maintain that Israel has no right to exist and that all the Jews should be driven into the sea.  Israel keeps up non-violent pressure by building settlements.  Hamas launches rockets and uses UN construction supplies to build assault tunnels.  Israel accepted the original UN partition, which gave the Arabs more territory than they have ever had since five armnies invaded to destroy the new nation.   Israel has repeatedly accepted the two state solution while Arabs kill those of their own who seriously consider it.  

In other words, Israel, repeatedly accepted peace while Hamas and other Arab entities repeatedly seek conflict.  Yes, Israel over reacts, but they are reacting to violent actions intended to be provocative.  In the overall picture, Hamas is a violent aggressor and Israel is defending against attacks. 

To focus on the counter-offensive is to pretend that no context exists before the possibly objectionable action.  For sixty years Arab states and oganizations have attacked, then complained when they lose.  I can think of no other historic example wherewe take a positive view of aggressors who consistenly lose and refuse to make the best of their situation instead of trying violence again and again.


Just War theorists tend to begin their analysis with the moment the missiles start to fly. Missing from the Jus Ad Bellum analysis is any consideration of what happened in preceding months.  When Hamas and Fatah announced their new unity government in June, Israel declined to deal with its representatives.  Instead Israel chose to put enormous pressure on Hamas in the West Bank putting into motion a series of events that led eventually to Israel killing several Hamas members inside Gaza.  Rocket attacks resumed immediately.  If Israel had chosen to recognize the unity government and begin dealing with them to resolve differences, this summer's conflict in Gaza is unlikely to have begun. 

Hamas has made clear that lifting Israel's 7-year blockade of Gaza is fundamental to peace.  The seige  has caused the kind of immense human misery that leads inevitably to resistance.  To leave that fact out  is to render the just war discussion useless and amoral. 

What's most disturbing to me is that we can actually have a 'Just War' discussion when we know that a military power is bombing a population that it has walled-in.  Surely, that reality has to mean "game over" before any analysis even begins.

Fearful assymmetry.  Good term for much military combat these days, like the way our troops are dressed with 60 pounds or more of protective clothing and gear and our enemies have a head band.  Like American footballers all padded and helmeted up playing soccer against a real futbol team.  Ironic because we fought our Revolutionary War against the Redcoats not following the rules of war that included definite uniforms and terms of engagement.     

When you are the leader of a country responsible for protecting your citizens against attacks by an enemy constitutionally committed to "push Israel into the sea," and that enemy insists on continuing to rain rockets on your people, you have a right to stop that aggression by the means at your disposal, not to fight with one hand behind your back.  The key point is stopping the aggression, not/not whether you have better weapons.  In fact, having better weapons may stop the aggression with less collateral damage.  And it may also appeal to (the very few rational) folks on the other side that perhaps stopping the attacks might bring about reciprocation.  The problem with this article is simple: Israel did not start this quagmire.

Suggest it is more helpful to stress nonviolence then debating who is the blame or who is the worse culprit. We need more healing words and compassion to offset the spiral of vengeance. Our finite minds can only speak partial truths, thus we must come together for a more just and peaceful world.

The Palestinians and neighbouring Muslim states have consistenly lost and refused to make the best of their situationand tried further violence again and again largely because Islam has a triumphalist kind of soteriology: victory in battle, and subsequent dominion are a sure sign of divine favour, especially victory against impossible odds. So they try and try and try, as the early caliphs did.

I hear you about finding JW theory tiresome. Maybe it is a plain contradiction in terms. And I agree with you that state sponsored warfare would be very rare if every peaceful solution were exhausted. Thanks for your insights and taking the time to write.

Thanks for your comment. My understanding was that the denial of the right to exist is the denial of the right for Israel to exist as a Jewish state --- which would make sense if you were a Muslim. Wouldn't that be like insisting that the US exist as a Christian state.  

Hamas is of course a violent aggressor but I wonder if the people in Gaza have been put in such a desperate squeeze that it is only natural to resort to acts of violent desperation. People don't become suicide bombers unless things are very very bad. 

This is not to excuse the rocket attacks etc but if, as you suggest, we are going to look at the context then we also need to consider the conditions that the Palestiians have been living. From what I understand, their situation, that of the Palestinians is absymal. 

Again, thanks for your comment




True and good image.  We may have fought with different rules of engagement in the rev war but  the redcoats did not have drones and laser guided bombs. Thanks for your comment.

Good point about the run up to the war. And yes, just war can seem like a contradiction in terms. Thanks.

I suppose the Palestinians would say that as for who started what - it depends on how far you want to go back in history....but I don't agree that we are allowed to do anything to defend oursleves as long as we didn't start it.  There is still an issue of proportion. Though I hate to use analogies like this, if a disturbed little kids takes a poke at me, I have no right to knock him out.  But this is not excuse the behavior of Hamas. Thanks for taking the time to write. 

Maybe you are right but it seems to me that the only people with the right to espouse non-violence in these situations are the ones who are taking the blows. But I agree- the violence will go in until some side decides to turn the other cheek. 

I don't know that we can lump all these people together as Muslims trying to get to heaven through martyrdom. From what I understand, the situation in Gaza has long been so bad that it is little wonder that some of the people react in mad acts of violence. Thanks for your comment. 

Thanks for these reflections.  Your humble admission that you have not taken part in combat points to what I consider the main deficiency of the position put forward here.  Israel's border has been breached in many places by a hostile neighbor, and the government has the responsibility to protect its citizens.  Judging how to do that is an exercise of practical wisdom.  Criticism of how that choice was made requires the application of superior practical wisdom, which is hard to have if you have no experience of responsibility for defending people from violent enemies by military force.  There would seem to be an obligation on the critic to point out how the decision could have been differently and better made while still achieving the goal of security.

That being said, the question you raise about what asymmetry does to the proportionality question is an interesting one.  Also interesting is whether the kind of restraint you advocate rests, like just war theory itself, on Christian principles that have to be inculturated into soldiers and rulers, and thus cannot be expected to guide the choices of non-Christians (especially when they are so rarely effective in curbing Christians themselves).

Mr. Marino - one other historical point of fac t.  Israel actually supported and encouraged Hamas years ago to offset the PLO - guess you reap what you sow.

If you deny people's humanity and dignity; suppress their right to exist (face it; Hamas merely says what it does out of hopeless frustration and an inability to impose that goal on Israel) and sabtaogue every effort to set up a two state solution, it is hard to use the language of *just war theory*.

You might want to study the more recent Israeli historians who have not been afraid to detail the Nakba which was more brutal than the Israeli propoganda admits.  It also details the massacres, forced marches, and numerous village destructions. Israel deliberately rewrote history.

You might also want to do your homework on AIPAC - talk about no ability to be balanced and continue the anti-Palestinian screed.

It is in the news today, Hamas admits kidnapping/killing 3 Israelis to spark a conflict. They also admit that they did not think Israel would strike back with such force, but that is God's will. What a bunch of rubbish.  What would you do if someone starts throwing rockets over your back fence, say "Excuse me, I don't think that is a good idea"? The violence will end not when someone turns their cheek but when someone crys "Uncle"

Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to write. Are you suggesting that unless you are expert on military strategy you can't possibly have a basis for making charges about proportionality? That does not seem reasonable to me. But I take your point about alternative strategies. Did Israel do everything it could to bring international pressure to bear. Could they have used more special forces type operations instead of the bombing attacks? I suspect so. But your right - I could be wrong. There is still the over-arching question - just how far do we have "the right" to go in defending ourselves. Are there no bounds to the "right to self defense". We turned Iraq and the mideast upside on the basis of our right to defend ourselves against a percived threat. You raise a good question about the connection between Just War Principles and Christianity. Thanks again for the thought provoking comment.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that when we put people in crushing and humiliating circumstances for long periods of time we should not be surprised that they eventually act in despairing and violent ways. When people are treated unjustly we morally disfigure them and should shoulder some of the responsibility for their explosions of rages. Thanks for your comment.

I'd have to see the report but I was not suggesting that Israel should not take any military action. I argued that it should have been more measured. And so, if say ISIS continued to kill American civilians, I think we would be within our rights - whatever that might mean - to act militarily -- but not to start capet bombing Iraq and Syria! Again, the question is are there any limits to what a super power can do as it exercises the "right" to self defense. And actually it might be the case that the fighting will only end when someone takes the hit and turns the other cheek. Thanks.

Gordon Marino presents a logical analyis of the Gaza question.  It uses the technique I would use both as a physicist and as a computer programmer - isolate a part of the larger problem and handle it.  But experience tells me that is an imperfect solution in this case. 


For example, we have come a long way in making computers.  Yet, interplanetary journeys still contain "midcourse corrections".  The nature of the gravitational force (inverse square of the distance) is such that  it is not exactly computable, unless one takes into consideration the exact position and velocity of all other mass in the universe.


How can one discuss the ethics of actions in Gaza w/o discussing the ethics of land appropriations in the West Bank and the Hamas tactics of using suicide bombers and civilian human shields for war making sites and equipment?


Einstein observed that when making consideration of actions in space, consideration must be made of the time effects of same, much as Margaret O'Brien Steinfels did in this issue.  Who gets to make the ethical choice of timeline when deciding who or what is "right" or "wrong"?  Can there even be a logical resolution of a situation when rational behavior is not the norm, and when the root cause might be differing meanings for "rational behavior"?


pax Christi vobiscum

If I recall correctly, there was a Hebron massacre of Jews within the memory of both sides. On the Palestinian, those involved talk with delight about the butchering of unarmed  Jewish civilians; so I don't think your 'understanding' is correct. Nor does the recent murder of hitchiking Jewish teenagers by those who picked them up posing as Orthodox suggest it except for those seking 'plausable deiability.'  Absent from your elegant criticism is discussion of Pius XII rationale for not criticizing the Holocaust because it would cause 'conflict' in the German soldier. Moreover, perhaps peace would actually be promoted if the Palestinians did not feel suported, and the Irasrelis hated, by a hostile mendacity in the 'civilized' world. So your begining in talking of humility was the saving grace in your article.

Hi Mr. Marino,

I'm a student doing a research based on the Israel-Gaza conflict. I know the source of this article is from Commonweal magazine, but what section does this belong in?

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