“Since when is war an exercise in proportionality and/or popularity?”

14 02 2009

During Operation Cast Lead –Israel’s military operation on the Gaza strip that began on December 27th,  2008 – I eagerly followed the Israeli news, particularly the Haaretz.


Haaretz is one of Israel’s many great newspapers, one that might be perceived as particularly liberal and left-wing. There are many articles in this newspaper and fewer images. Like many newspapers with online versions, it allows readers’ comments right below the articles.


In an article by political columnist Ari Shavit, titled “Gaza Op May Be Squeezing Hamas, But It’s Destroying Israel’s Soul,” Shavit wrote about the effects Operation Cast Lead has on Israelis’ views, taking the opinion that Israelis are not truly considering the lives affected by this operation. He wrote about the lack of proportionality, voicing the opinion that Israelis have become indifferent to the way the war has turned out, calling for it all to stop.


One of the readers, called Brent from Toronto, Canada, wrote this comment titled “Where’s my barf bag?”:


“Since when is war an exercise in proportionality and/or popularity? Instead of quivering in the attic, have some backbone and stop being afraid of actually doing what needs to be done: Fight your enemies till they are defeated and surrendered as a vanquished foe. Then reap the dividend of real peace.”


I assumed that this comment was written by a young person, in his 20s, not only because most commentators tend to be young but also because it is a hot-headed comment. I have seen many of these comments on Israeli and Arab online newspapers. Here is what I find problematic about this tiny paragraph:


First of all, war should be an exercise of proportionality. Assuming that this war is forced upon a side, it should serve to bring justice, and even peace.


When I thought of the concept of proportionality, I thought of the old phrase, “Eye for an Eye.” In the Torah, the Bible and the Quran, people are taught this principle. In Leviticus 24: 17-21, the third book in the Torah, it states: “fracture for fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth; what injury he gave to another will be given to him.”


In the Quran 5.45, it says, “Unbelievers are those who do not judge according to God’s revelations. We decreed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and a wound for a wound.


It doesn’t matter whether you follow any religion or not. The question is: Why haven’t these books along with conventional wisdom and the law demand more punishment than exactly the equivalent of the harm? Why not two eyes, three or even a hundred? Because proportionality matters. It sustains some sort of humanity, some sort of justice and fairness. If there is no proportionality we become the aggressors we hate.


If you are a Gandhi-lover you will ignore all the quotes above and say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”


The second problem is in the phrase “quivering in the attic.” Our commentator here portrays any action other than war to be an act of cowardice.


But here’s the revelation: courage is not always associated with war. It is not always associated with fighting, whether for defense or offense purposes.


There are many examples of courage that involved no violence at all, no “quivering in the attic.” Those who marched in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 as part of the Civil Rights movement carried a motto of peaceful protest. They got the beating instead of giving it. Nelson Mandela fought the apartheid and sat in his prison cell for 27 years. He too had courage, without “quivering in the attic” yet without firing a shot. What needs to be done here, perhaps, is far from flexing muscles on both Hamas’s and the Israeli Defense Forces’ sides.


The third and last point is the connection between “surrendered as a vanquish foe,” and “real peace.” I searched for what real peace means to this reader. It is intriguing how these two phrases are written in two consecutive sentences. The idea that in war there is only one winner who triumphed and one loser who became the “vanquished foe” is not always true. In fact, there can be two losing sides in wars. Think of Vietnam.  Better yet, think of Iraq and Afghanistan. Chaos and instability persists years later. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have been victorious enough to reap the “dividend of real peace” for the past 60 years.


People may see what happened in Gaza in different ways. We have yet to completely digest what truly happened. But real peace doesn’t come by easy, and it especially doesn’t come by through bombs and rockets. Again, I emphasize 60 years of lack of “real peace.” How many more lives are you willing to sacrifice for it?






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