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The War on Thinking

Critics of the Jewish state rely on trite clichés about proportionality and escalation to hamper the Israeli response.

Israeli soldiers patrol as they are searching for Palestinians militants near kibbutz Kfar Aza near the border with Gaza on October 10, 2023, in Kfar Gaza, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Jonah Goldberg once suggested that we live under a “tyranny of clichés.” That is nowhere more true than in Israel and at no time more true than when Israel is under attack, as is currently the case. Watch for the flags of two perennial offenders: the adjective “proportionate” and the verb “escalate.” 

The first cliché that usually comes into play in times such as these is the demand that Israel forgo any “disproportionate response.” NPR: “Egypt warns Israel not to take disproportionate action against Palestinians.” U.N. human-rights commissioner Volker Türk warns “all parties” against actions that would cause “disproportionate death and injury of civilians.” The cheap moral equivalency of the U.N. grandee is really something: Imagine the denunciations that would—rightly!—rain down upon Israel if they carried out a response that was even merely proportionate in terms of death and injury to civilians, a tit-for-tat operation going door-to-door and murdering innocents, kidnapping children, etc. The fact that a perfectly proportionate attack would constitute a gross crime against humanity tells us a great deal about the character of the combatants here. In a similar vein, the European Council on Foreign Relations warns Israel against “a full ground invasion and disproportionate attacks against Palestinian civilians,” again, as though the Israelis were engaged in the same kind of ISIS-style brutality as the Palestinians.

Irish politician Thomas Byrne says the Israeli response “has to be proportionate. They cannot just go in and do the same thing,” as though for the Israelis to “just go in and do the same thing”—massacring civilians at a music festival and carrying out a campaign of door-to-door murder—were something the Israelis would even consider, rather than an act of savagery that is, in this conflict, reserved to one side. Some variation of the word “proportionate” appears no fewer than seven times, including in the headline, of the Irish Times’ writeup of Byrne’s remarks. The foreign ministry of Qatar sniffs that Israel is using the attack as an “excuse to launch a disproportionate war against Palestinian civilians in Gaza.” Those crafty Jews—always getting themselves murdered as an excuse to get what they want. On and on you can go, without even drilling all the way down to the idiot children at Columbia or in the Democratic House caucus.

Proportionality is very much on the minds of Daniel Byman and Alexander Palmer, who write these genuinely incredible sentences in Foreign Affairs:

The principle of proportionality in international law demands that Israel avoid excessive casualties and otherwise moderate its military response to focus on stopping the threat from Hamas. The logic of deterrence, on the other hand, often involves disproportionate casualties on the Palestinian side. Because Israel is highly sensitive to casualties, an equal exchange of deaths is, in Israeli eyes, a loss for their country. Indeed, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other so-called resistance groups pride themselves on being able to sacrifice more than Israel, believing the Jewish state is a “spider web” that appears strong from a distance but in reality is fragile. By this logic, deterrence requires casualty levels so high that even Hamas is daunted by them.

For deterrence to work in the long term, Hamas needs other options to maintain its political legitimacy, which rests on its opposition to Israel. Deterrence involves only dissuading an adversary from doing a hostile action it might otherwise do. But if the adversary believes that it has no choice, then deterrence is far harder. In theory, Israel could give Hamas more freedom to govern the Gaza Strip and offer it a greater role in Palestinian politics. These concessions might make Hamas even stronger, however, and a wrathful Israel is less likely than ever to be willing to take such chances.

Rewarding Hamas for all this murder and kidnapping is a “chance” that the Israelis are unwilling to take because they are feeling “wrathful”—that is one way to read the situation, I suppose. But perhaps the Israelis have reasons other than mere sentiment to forgo strengthening Hamas at this time, or at any time. 

Here are two things that can be true at once: 1) When it comes to mitigating the effects of their military response on civilians, of course the Israelis should do what they can—which, in this case, is not much, because Gaza is quite densely populated. 2) Of course the Israeli military response should be disproportionate. It should be entirely disproportionate, radically disproportionate. Every sane person knows this, but proportionate has become one of those weird pseudo-magical words.

That leads us to the second inescapable cliché: that Israel must forswear escalation. Why? No one ever quite explains that, other than to offer the usual non-explanation that in geopolitical calculations significant moral burdens fall only on Jews and never on Arabs.

A disproportionate response oriented toward escalation is the only rational response for such a besieged polity if it intends to secure its survival. Israel has superior military forces and far superior economic power: Israel’s GDP per capita sits right between Canada and Germany; Iran, Hamas’ national sponsor here, has a GDP per capita that places it between Cape Verde and Eswatini (the former Swaziland). Put another way, Israel’s per-capita economic output is 13 times that of Iran. (Gaza itself has not much of an economy to speak of, and such an economy as it has is, as you might guess, based on exports to Israel.) Any sensible combatant wants to fight where its strengths are, and Israel is a technologically sophisticated modern country that is very capable when it comes to ordinary warfighting, while the Palestinians are a poor people governed by criminals and very capable when it comes to blowing up pizza shops and murdering toddlers. Escalation is precisely what suits Israel’s self-defense interests—pitched battles, not street skirmishes.

Israel has tried to secure peace through political means, which all have failed, through psychological means (including those deterrence-oriented actions Byman and Palmer mention), through economic means (Israel is by far the Palestinians’ largest trading partner, on both the import and export side), etc. But Israel’s only real hope for peace and security is to win the war as a war—not through political, psychological, diplomatic, or economic means but through physical means. It needs to eliminate the Palestinians’ ability to carry out attacks on Israeli people and Israeli communities. 

As a practical matter, that is going to mean diminished Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza and the West Bank rather than the enhanced sovereignty contemplated by Byman and Palmer. The uncomfortable but necessary question raised by the most recent attack is whether Israeli security ultimately is compatible with any kind of meaningful Palestinian sovereignty. Hamas is a terrorist organization that also serves as the de facto state in Gaza. Giving a terrorist organization sovereignty or quasi-sovereign territory and sovereign or quasi-sovereign powers was always going to produce more violence and terrorism. The Israelis misjudged the form that would take, but that it would take some cowardly and terroristic form was entirely foreseeable and consistent with Palestinian history.

The United States does not have a great deal of leverage when it comes to the Palestinians in Gaza; Washington does not recognize a Palestinian state. It does recognize the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority as the legitimate government of the Palestinian people in the Palestinian territories, but the Palestinian Authority exercises no real power in Gaza, which is, as noted, under the power of Hamas. The United States does have some leverage, however, when it comes to other important players in the region, namely Jordan and Egypt, two countries of which more should be expected in this matter. Egypt’s response to the most recent atrocity has been to lecture Israel about proportionality and to advise Hamas to behave like the better sort of kidnappers rather than the worse sort. That will not do, and Antony Blinken needs to make it clear that a broader partnership with the United States necessitates deeper partnership in this matter. 

At the very least, we should try to move on from the nonsensical belief that this is a problem that can be addressed through platitudes about proportionality and escalation, that this is, in fact, a war that will be worked out principally through military means.

Click here for more coverage of the war in Israel.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.