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Arithmetic of Pain

Arithmetic of Pain

Why Israel's response is reasonable and proportionate.


There is no democracy in the world that should tolerate missiles being fired at its cities without taking every reasonable step to stop the attacks. The big question raised by Israel's military actions in Lebanon is what is "reasonable." The answer, according to the laws of war, is that it is reasonable to attack military targets, so long as every effort is made to reduce civilian casualties. If the objectives cannot be achieved without some civilian casualties, these must be "proportional" to the civilian casualties that would be prevented by the military action.

This is all well and good for democratic nations that deliberately locate their military bases away from civilian population centers. Israel has its air force, nuclear facilities and large army bases in locations as remote as anything can be in that country. It is possible for an enemy to attack Israeli military targets without inflicting "collateral damage" on its civilian population. Hezbollah and Hamas, by contrast deliberately operate military wings out of densely populated areas. They launch antipersonnel missiles with ball-bearing shrapnel, designed by Syria and Iran to maximize civilian casualties, and then hide from retaliation by living among civilians. If Israel decides not to go after them for fear of harming civilians, the terrorists win by continuing to have free rein in attacking civilians with rockets. If Israel does attack, and causes civilian casualties, the terrorists win a propaganda victory: The international community pounces on Israel for its "disproportionate" response. This chorus of condemnation actually encourages the terrorists to operate from civilian areas.

While Israel does everything reasonable to minimize civilian casualties, Hezbollah and Hamas want to maximize civilian casualties on both sides.

While Israel does everything reasonable to minimize civilian casualties –- not always with success -– Hezbollah and Hamas want to maximize civilian casualties on both sides. Islamic terrorists, a diplomat commented years ago, "have mastered the harsh arithmetic of pain... Palestinian casualties play in their favor and Israeli casualties play in their favor." These are groups that send children to die as suicide bombers, sometimes without the child knowing that he is being sacrificed. Two years ago, an 11-year-old was paid to take a parcel through Israel security. Unbeknownst to him, it contained a bomb that was to be detonated remotely. (Fortunately the plot was foiled.)

This misuse of civilians as shields and swords requires a reassessment of the laws of war. The distinction between combatants and civilians -– easy when combatants were uniformed members of armies that fought on battle-fields distant from civilian centers -– is more difficult in the present context. Now there is a continuum of "civilianality": Near the most civilian end of this continuum are the pure innocents -– babies, hostages and others completely uninvolved; at the more combatant end are civilians who willingly harbor terrorists, provide material resources and serve as human shields; in the middle are those who support the terrorists politically, or spiritually.

The laws of war and the rules of morality must adapt to these realities. An analogy to domestic criminal law is instructive: A bank robber who takes a teller hostage and fires at police from behind his human shield is guilty of murder if they, in an effort to stop the robber from shooting, accidentally kill the hostage. The same should be true of terrorists who use civilians as shields from behind whom they fire their rockets. The terrorists must be held legally and morally responsible for the deaths of the civilians, even if the direct physical cause was an Israeli rocket aimed at those targeting Israeli citizens.

Israel must be allowed to finish the fight that Hamas and Hezbollah started, even if that means civilian casualties in Gaza and Lebanon. A democracy is entitled to prefer the lives of its own innocents over the lives of the civilians of an aggressor, especially if the latter group contains many who are complicit in terrorism. Israel will –- and should -– take every precaution to minimize civilian casualties on the other side. On July 16, Hasan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, announced there will be new "surprises" and the Aska Martyrs Brigade said that it had developed chemical and biological weapons that could be added to its rockets. Should Israel not be allowed to pre-empt their use?

Israel left Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. There are not "occupied" territories. Yet they serve as launching pads for attacks on Israeli civilians. Occupation does not cause terrorism, then, but terrorism seems to cause occupation. If Israel is not to reoccupy to prevent terrorism, the Lebanese government and the Palestinian Authority must ensure that these regions cease to be terrorist safe havens.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

July 22, 2006

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 48

(48) Ilene Richman, December 30, 2012 8:34 PM


You believe in a Palestinian state. i do not. The Palestinians are just another group of Arabs that were controlled by Jordaqn and Egypt prior to 1967. That is where they belong. There is no need for Israel to give up any land at all. That is why we have a difference of opinion. There is no otheer country that gives up land when it has been attacked and defeated the enemy. Change your tune.

(47) ToddCesere, November 29, 2006 11:03 PM

Reflecting On Comments

I wrote a comment several months ago regarding the terribly flawed metaphor of comparing police methods to Israel's actions. Since then there have been many comments, and I have to say, I have never seen so many people so willing to be duped by flawed logic to reinforce what they already believe, so willing to set morality aside out of fear, and so afraid to question that which they feel represents them, Israel. No religion or philosophy on any level condones a method of defense that kills more people than it saves, and yet the prevailing logic for several nations is that this is justified.

If the image at the beginning of the article were truly accurate, rather than designed to make Israeli's feel better about the actions of their military, then it would show ten babies on the left, and only one on the right, and the Israeli soldier would be lobbing a grenade that kills everyone on the left, as the soldier on the left prepares to shoot both on the right. That's what happened, and everyone knows it. That's what you're trying to make yourself feel better about by showing a Hezbollah soldier behind the baby. Anyone who completed fourth grade would be able to see this image as more propoganda than truth, but any biased adult can see it as accurate.

It has never been more clear to me that people become that which they hate when they refuse to understand what they hate. Most of the people who left comments here don't seem to want to understand anything. They don't want to consider alternatives, they don't want to consider the innocent lives lost, and they don't want to remember any history that does not support their cause. There are few examples of nations whose citizens have been so unified in their unwillingness to look in the mirror...but I can think of a couple others to which Israel would not like to see herself compared. Violence begets violence. If the world is a better place one hundred years from now, it will only be because we have learned this lesson, and by learning this we will have also learned to be suspicious when someone declares that someone else has killed for no reason, and that they only understand violence.

(46) AL P., August 2, 2006 12:00 AM

This is why now is the time to attack Iran, (Hitler)

This is why, now is the time to attack Iran, (the new Hitler ruler) that say's openly: Jews shouldn't exist! Before Iran has the Nucleur power, elimininate them now, before they have it and eliminate Israel! They are telling the world what they believe, so did Hitler, we all know history!It is only a matter of time, "GET THEM BEFORE THEY GET US". Hopefully Israel and the U.S. and our Allies know this as well!You must eliminate those who do not fear death and use children to carry bombs upon their bodies, (suicide bombers) and say "that their religion (Islam) is the only religion and must be from Spain to the Middle East. If anything in history taught us is that religion was always the major cause's of war and when a beleif gets so out of hand and when those people inflict pain to others just to spread their beliefs and when a group of people go to the extreme and say that other people shouldnt exist and have no right to live because they dont have the same beliefs as them, that is the time to eliminate those small groups of people!REMEMBER 911 Never Forget! Those are who your fighting now and must eliminate off the face of the Earth!

(45) marion, August 2, 2006 12:00 AM

As it says: a picture is worth a 1000 words. I belive this picture shows exactly what the world should know.

(44) laura, August 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Bravo, beautifully said. I hope many people read this and open their eyes.

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