There is a cliché that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The phrase seeks to engender a notion that there is moral relativism within the context of political struggle and the use of force. As a former naval officer who adheres to Western concepts of respect for human rights and the dignity of individual life, this is anathema.
Over the last few weeks, I have watched in disgust as this continuously retread both-sides-style characterization played out across our national and international discourse concerning the Israel-Hamas/Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) conflict. Media on the left, right and center, in addition to politicians, podcasters and pundits, have haphazardly used words like “war crimes” without any regard to their meaning or effect. Such imprecise language reveals either a misunderstanding of the rules governing the use of force or perhaps, more cynically, an intentional disregard of these rules to suit a particular narrative. At varying levels and contexts, I have seen both.
Much hay has been made regarding the disparity in death toll between Palestinians and Israelis. At the writing of this article, nearly 96 hours after the imposition of a ceasefire, the numbers stand at approximately 230 Palestinian lives lost and 12 Israelis—almost a 20:1 ratio. This includes 65 Palestinian children and two Israeli children. Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets towards the civilian population of Israel. Nearly 650 landed in Gaza, killing Gazans themselves, while Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system intercepted 85 percent of the remainder. Assuming a proportionate increase in death from rocket attacks, Iron Dome can account for nearly 40 to 45 lives saved in the recent weeks. This is a conservative estimate given that Iron Dome prioritizes rockets that will impact densely occupied areas. I expect these numbers to change as the literal and figurative dust settles.
Under the law of armed conflict (LOAC), proportionality does not necessitate using the same level of force as one’s enemy, ensuring equality of death toll, or engaging in the same style of warfare. This would be a cold and meaningless calculus that would devalue human life and unnecessarily prolong armed conflict. It is unnecessary to use the minimum amount of force possible, just as it is unreasonable to flatten an entire city to kill a single terrorist. Large, sophisticated militaries should expect to trounce smaller, unsophisticated ones. They bear no responsibility to use less force than necessary to end the conflict quickly and preserve human life.
The Israel Defense Forces’ use of laser- and GPS-guided munitions, shape-charges, programmable missiles and precision artillery have all gone far in providing advanced targeting capabilities that reduce unnecessary destruction. The IDF gives warnings before strikes and directs attacks at known rocket sites and Hamas/PIJ strongholds.
Contrast such practices with the 4,000-plus rockets fired indiscriminately from the Gaza Strip. They are crudely constructed, unguided and fired for maximum effect in the general direction of Israel’s most populated cities. They do not target military facilities or critical defense infrastructure. They are fired without warning, giving some citizens between 15 and 45 seconds to reach shelter. The rockets do not distinguish between soldier or civilian, adult or child, Palestinian or Jew.
The unfortunate occurrence of civilian death from IDF airstrikes does not imply that the attacks causing those deaths are illegal; one must evaluate the legality of the attack itself. This is not a task for a 24-hour news cycle or a passive social-media user from thousands of miles away. As a security matter, when given the option between performing a targeted strike to neutralize a threat or doing nothing whereafter people will continue to be shelled by indiscriminate rocket fire, it is hardly a choice.
Collateral damage and civilian death are always tragic, regrettable and should be avoided to the greatest extent practicable. Therefore, we limit armed conflict where feasible and implement rules to govern the use of force. But these rules are meant to be followed, not abused. Thus, it is a violation to hide weaponry and combatant forces among citizens in their places of worship, schools, residential buildings and commercial centers. The rules do not say “Don’t fight terrorists near civilians;” but instead “Don’t use civilians as human shields.”
The need to remain objective is especially challenging when faced with the gut-wrenching personal narratives and visual media that this recent round of conflict yielded. The stories and the loss of life are tragic and should not be discounted. Simultaneously, emotion should not form the basis for determining what is and is not an appropriate use of force.
The death of innocent civilians is justifiably disgusting. I do not celebrate such loss of life or suggest that a 12-year-old child delivering a toaster oven was a necessary victim of collateral damage. However, I do suggest that those who share in my disgust direct it at the party that established an indistinguishable military presence among the civilians they claim to fight for, knowing that the response to indiscriminate rocket attacks would be military force. When faced with such death and destruction, the same party increased their attacks from populated areas and uses the images of the dead and tragic stories of loss as propaganda tools.
Israel is not above criticism. I have reservations about retaliatory strikes in general, and I think there is ample reason for an inquiry into some of the decisions made regarding specific targets. Israel’s explanation of IDF actions has been somewhat lackluster. Despite any operational successes in weakening Hamas/PIJ militarily, the handling of the public-relations aspect of this conflict has been a failure. We live in a world wherein perception determines reality, and Israel has failed to account for this principle.
I see a large swath of American distaste at Israel’s management of the conflict in Gaza as ignorance at best—perhaps mixed with displeasure in the rules that govern armed conflict or even warfare itself. There are legitimate policy debates surrounding these issues. But for now, the rules are what they are, and warfare is hardly an anachronism. At worst, I see these criticisms as an overused double-standard that conveniently suits an anti-Israel narrative while ignoring Israeli concerns for international security and the safety of its citizens.
Regardless, terms that have far-reaching international consequences should be used with discretion and a complete understanding of both their meaning and the facts, rather than promoting a false moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas/PIJ. These actors are not the same—not even close.
Cade Spivey is a publishing adjunct at The MirYam Institute. He is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and served three tours in the Navy as a gunnery/anti-terrorism officer, damage control assistant and counter-piracy evaluator. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Law.