02/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Israeli Military Operations in Gaza and the Question of Proportionality

Help me out with this one. Would you encourage your twenty-something kids to vacation in a country currently involved in an unjust war? Next week my sons, who are Jewish by birth, are on their way to Israel for this first trip. Hopefully, they will be cosseted from rocket exchanges, but I have qualms about them drinking cappuccinos in a land busy in bloodbaths.

Last night I caught a report from public television on the conflict in Gaza. There were clips of Palestinians families huddled in their homes. As Israeli planes thundered overhead, you could see the signature of fear on a young child's face as it formed a mass of tics. Of course, Israelis insist that their own boys and girls live under the constant threat of rocket fire. But how much harm can a nation legitimately deliver to make itself feel from attacks?

One of the tenets of Just War theory, an age old body of beliefs governing western thinking about the moral evaluation of war, has it that there must be proportionality both with respect to the overall good that might come from an armed conflict and with regard to particular military operations. Having distinguished between combatants and non-combatants, and in the process having done everything possible to protect the latter, the carnage caused must be in proportion to the desired objective. The idea is, of course, that warring nations should use a minimum of force to attain their ends. According to Just War theory, it would be immoral to undertake an operation aimed at taking out terrorist leaders when that action is likely to kill or maim thousands.

Though there is some dispute about the figures in the current conflict, most sources agree that four Israeli children have died in comparison with at least 400 Palestinian deaths and 1400 wounded. This kind of imbalance is to be expected in asymmetric wars in which one side has rocks and old rockets and the other, jet fighter bombers; nevertheless, the death and destruction that Israel is delivering seems out of all proportion.

To be sure, it may take another Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. to douse the flames of war in the Middle East. The cycle of rocket strikes and massive Israeli retaliation will only serve to recruit another brigade of suicide bombers. From the practical point of view, Israeli policy seems misguided but even if does put a halt to the attacks, it remains profoundly wrong; no less wrong of course than Hamas' targeting of civilian populations, but just the same, wrong.

For those who believe that a war can be justly fought, it is critical to remember that there are moral limits to what a nation can do to make itself feel safe. This is especially important for countries that essentially have all the tools of war and who risk few casualties when they start the engines of their fighter planes and drones. There can be no doubt that Israel has passed that limit in Gaza, just as the US passed the limit by turning Iraq upside down and inside out after 9/11.

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