A year ago, the most recent extended exchange of rockets, missiles, and bombs between Hamas and Israel ended. Given that 254 people in Gaza were killed (Hamas stated that 80 of its fighters were among the dead) in the eleven days of fighting, compared to 13 Israeli civilians, it was extremely easy for many observers to see Israel as the bad guy, and its response to Hamas rocket fire as disproportionate. But, as former U.S. Army lawyer David French described, proportionality in war is not only about how many people die:
“It instead requires commanders to ‘refrain from attacks’ that would cause injury to civilians and civilian objects that ‘would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage to be gained.’ In layman’s terms, this does not mean using the same kinds of attacks as the enemy, but rather making attacks that are designed as much as possible to damage the enemy without harming anybody else.”
With Hamas in the habit of placing its weapons among the civilian population of Gaza (and with some of the deaths resulting from Hamas rockets that fell short of their targets), it is not surprising that, tragically, an air campaign to strike terrorists firing rockets will lead to innocent deaths. Short of a ground invasion of Gaza by Israel to rid it of Hamas— which would likely have far higher combatant and civilian death tolls on both sides — these casualties are extremely difficult to avoid. (Hamas also has a history of manipulating Western media to get Western observers to misdirect their anger at Israel.)
French cites the campaign to oust ISIS from Mosul, which involved U.S. and allied air strikes destroying entire sections of the city, as a similar case where the death toll did not determine who was right. ISIS was undoubtedly the evil side of the battle. French notes that there was nothing like the outcry against Israel when the U.S.-led coalition liberated Mosul by any means necessary, even though the civilian death toll there was in the thousands.
And it is not only the defeat of ISIS that shows how the killing of civilians does not make a side in a conflict wrong in its cause. When in 2011 NATO intervened in Libya to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from massacring those who stood up to his decades-long dictatorial rule, its strikes killed at least 72 civilians, of whom a third were children, according to Human Rights Watch. Even if HRW was spot-on about the death toll, that does not change the moral equation of the conflict. Qaddafi was a murderous villain, quick to shoot down anyone who opposed him, and NATO was justified in helping Libyans overthrow him.
In 1999, NATO similarly intervened in Yugoslavia, to halt Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanian population. HRW estimated that between 489 and 528 civilians died due to NATO strikes. Again, that death toll does not change who the villain was— Milosevic, the man who had already helped carry out genocide in Bosnia, and who was seeking to “cleanse” part of his territory of an ethnic group he detested.
To use an admittedly extreme example, look at Dresden in 1945. Up to 25,000 German civilians were killed by Allied bombs. It is not unusual to hear the bombing described as a war crime. Whether it was or not, it did absolutely nothing to change who the good and evil sides of World War II were. Putting Dresden in the same category as Gaza probably seems like quite a leap. But with Hamas’ decades-long determination to obliterate Israel, comparing them to the Nazis is not necessarily a stretch.
Israel is morally superior to Hamas. As long as Hamas uses the civilian population of Gaza as human shields while firing rockets into Israel, the tragic deaths that occur when Israel retaliates will not deprive Israel of its moral superiority. The blood is on Hamas’ hands.