Operation Pillar of Defense: What is Proportional Force?


Does a country have a right to defend itself?

According to Article 51 of the United Nation’s Charter, every country has a right to defend itself when attacked.[1] Hamas, (classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., E.U. and Israel) has fired hundreds of rockets at Israel’s civilian populations, with the total exceeding 12,000 over the past few years.

How much force can a country use when defending itself?

When a country is engaged in a military conflict it is expected to abide by internationally accepted codes of conduct. The three most important principles are:[2]

  1. Attacks are strictly limited to military objectives (as opposed to doing harm to a civilian population).
  2. Every effort is made to distinguish between legitimate combatants and innocent civilians.
  3. Every effort is made to minimize civilian casualties.

What is the legal definition of proportional force?

The principle of proportionality comes from Protocol I of the Geneva Convention, which defines a disproportional attack as: “any attack in which the incidental damage to civilians is excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated from the attack.” [3]

In other words, a country must do everything it can to minimize civilian casualties while it is engaged in conflict. If a country fails to do so, then it is using disproportional force.

The unintentional killing of civilians is not illegal in and of itself, nor does it constitute a war crime. Just war theorists and legal scholars recognize that civilian casualties may be an unavoidable aspect of armed conflict, especially as they are often deliberately placed in harm’s way. (When civilians are placed in harm's way, responsibility for any casualties resulting from a justified response lies with the militants who placed them there or operated from that area).

What is NOT disproportional force?

Some people think that proportional force is a comparison of military capabilities. For example, Israel has a sophisticated army, whereas the people of Gaza have no organized army or heavy weaponry, thereby making it a disproportional conflict. According to Just war theory and international norms, this is incorrect. A country can use whatever means it has at its disposal as long as it abides by the principles stated above.

Others think of ‘proportional force’ in terms of numerical symmetry. For example, if Hamas kills five Israelis then Israel can kill five Palestinians. Again, this comparison is false. The goal of the defending country has to be to eliminate the threat and accomplish specific objectives.

Discussion questions on proportionality for campus

Determining proportionality is extremely complicated, particularly during an on-going conflict. Here are three questions that can be asked when trying to evaluate the actions of a particular country engaged in battle:

  1. Is the force being used for the express purpose of ending the aggression, or for another purpose (such as causing unnecessary harm to a civilian population)?
  2. Who is responsible for putting civilians in the line of fire?
  3. Is each side doing everything possible to minimize civilian casualties?

The David Project encourages a nuanced discussion of Israel on campus and believes that the more students know, the better equipped they are to participate in the ongoing discourse about Israel and the Middle East.

We hope students use this guide to help inform their discussions with their peers.

[1] http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter7.shtml

[2] http://www.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul

[3] http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/FULL/612?OpenDocument