Is it proportionate to bomb the town of Kochav Ya’ir, where top commanders and political officials live, when its residents are asleep or eating dinner with their families? That’s a horrid question that has no right to be asked. But Israel long ago gave an affirmative answer to the general question: Is it proportionate to crush neighborhoods and bomb homes with entire families in them – children, elderly people, women and babies?
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Yes, Israel has said, with its bombing of Gaza and Lebanon. It’s proportionate because we also killed – or meant to kill – military commanders and activists, and senior political officials in Palestinian and Lebanese organizations.
Here’s what the military prosecution wrote about one of the many attacks that killed civilians during the Gaza offensive in the summer of 2014:
“The attack was aimed at ... a senior commander, equivalent to deputy brigade commander, in the Palestinian terror organization Islamic Jihad .... In the process of planning the attack, it was estimated that a number of civilians might be found in the structure, and that the extent of harm to civilians would not be excessive relative to the significant military advantage expected to be achieved as the result of the attack .... In retrospect, the target of the attack was seriously wounded and [another two Islamic Jihad operatives] were killed along with four civilians.
“The attack was in line with the principle of proportionality, because when the decision was made to attack it was estimated that the expected collateral damage would not be excessive relative to the military advantage that was expected to be received . A specific warning before the attack to the occupants of the structure where the target was present, or to the occupants of adjacent structures, was not legally required, and could be expected to frustrate the purpose of the attack.”
The onslaughts on Gaza have introduced to our world three terms that have no right to exist: proportionate killing, collateral damage and target bank. These terms have become axiomatic beyond question or reflection. How would these axioms work if we sketched out the target bank in the opposite direction?
Every home where there’s an Israeli soldier or reservist would be a legitimate target for bombing; the civilians harmed would be collateral damage. Every bank in Israel would be a target because Israeli ministers and generals have accounts there.
The neighbors of the police station on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street ought to move because Shin Bet security service officers operate there regularly and the missile might miss and hit a nearby school. Military bases and Shin Bet centers in the heart of civilian neighborhoods – at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo and Neveh Yaakov, or at the Binyamin Division headquarters near the settlement of Beit El – condemn the neighbors to a proportionate death.
All the patients at Sheba Medical Center must be evacuated because of the army induction center at Tel Hashomer; all the university laboratories and high-tech companies should be evacuated because of their links to the arms industry, while the lives of the children of Elbit and Rafael employees are also at collateral risk because their parents help develop weapons that our imagination cannot grasp.
This sounds horrifying, and rightly so. But because this mirror-image monstrous script looks completely imaginary, the horror fades immediately. Surprisingly, the state comptroller criticized the fact that no effort was made to find a diplomatic alternative to the war, but most Israelis only think inside the box, a bloody box. They seek ways to streamline the box, not break it and replace it.
Our wars are a continuation of our policy to deny others their rights. Those who scoffed at Palestinian diplomacy seeking an independent state alongside Israel got boycotts, sanctions and divestment. Those who didn’t listen to the logic of generations of Palestinian popular resistance are paying the price of Qassam rockets, attack tunnels and the fear of suicide bombings. Those who set up the prison that is Gaza got Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ new head in the enclave.
It’s true, our doctrines of repression work as a proven recipe for escalation. They set the criteria for defining us, Israelis, as “collateral damage” in the eyes of those humiliated by our multifaceted violence.