One of the primary tenants of just war theory is the jus in bello principle that the amount of force used must be proportional to the amount of harm suffered. Critics of the recent Israeli attacks on both Palestine in the Gaza Strip and on Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon charge that Israel has violated the principle of proportionality (see here for details). After all, one recent body count generated the following figures: since the beginning of the conflict, 230 Lebanese (mostly civilian) and 103 Palestinians (30% civilian) vs. 25 Israelis (50% civilian) have been killed.
And yet rather than demanding that Israel cease and desist, the West has demanded that it is the Lebanese and Palestinian governments who are responsible for bringing the conflict to an end. Given that the kidnapping and murder of a handful of Israeli soldiers served as the most immediate spark for the conflict--it was an open question from the start whether the Israeli targeting of civilian infrastructure and centers of mostly civilian populations was proportional.
Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni had the following response to this line of criticism: “Proportionality is not compared to the event, but to the threat, and the threat is bigger and wider than the captured soldiers.” If one fleshes out the principle of proportionality in this way, is there anything that the principle could not justify? Traditionally, the "harm suffered" part of the principle of proportionality was backward and not forward looking--i.e., in order to see whether a military response x was proportional, one had to look to the past to see how serious the original harm y had been. For instance, if five soldiers of country A were killed by B and A responded by killing a 1000 civilians from B, this would obviously run afoul of the principle of proportionality. Of course, figuring out precisely when the principle has been violated is an admittedly tricky affair.
For present purposes, that need not concern us as much as the implications of Livni's aforementioned remarks. What she seems to be suggesting is that in judging a country's response to a harm, it is not to the actual harm suffered that we must look, but to the harms that could be suffered in the future. In many respects, this very liberal interpretation of the principle of proportionality shares an affinity with the Bush doctrine of preemption--both of which essentially enable governments to side-step the mandates of traditional just war theory while nevertheless maintaining the surface appearance of moral acceptability.
My question to the readers is the following: Is there a way of defending the recent Israeli attacks on Palestine and Lebanon that does not require us to entirely redefine the principle of proportionality? It's worth pointing out in advance that simply criticizing Israeli policies no more makes one an anti-Semite than criticizing American foreign policy makes one an anti-American (see here for my earlier discussion of this issue). The issue is not whether Israel should be able to defend itself against aggressors. Rather it is whether their current actions satisfy basic principles of justice.
While I have allowed comments on this post because I think philosophers have something to contribute to the debate about proportionality, I nevertheless reserve the right to close the comment thread in the event that is becomes unnecessarily abusive and/or hostile. There is a time and place for personal attacks, but this thread is not one of them. So comments will be monitored for relevance and appropriateness. Please post only once; comments may take awhile to appear.
UPDATE: There is an interesting database of bloggers on the conflict here.
UPDATE: Over at The Nation, there is the following interesting editorial.