Israel, ‘Disproportionate’ Force and the Media: Misconstruing the Laws of War

Stephen Riley, Lesley Klaff


It has become common to use the term ‘disproportionate’ to describe the conduct or impact of Israel’s military operations. The media’s frequent use of this term betrays at least two types of distortions. First, it confuses criticism of ends (the kinds of military objectives Israel pursues) and criticism of means (the forms of military force chosen by Israel). Second, it suggests systematic failure of moral judgment and moral concern on the part of Israel – namely, wilful indifference to the consequences of its actions on civilians – which are no more in evidence in Israel’s military operations than in any other state’s military operations. This paper analyses the various forms that this kind of criticism has taken in contemporary media discourse and considers the possible origins of the accusations. It describes the norms that govern the conduct of warfare and the principles that inform the law related to proportionality; these do not provide simple criteria for determining legitimate ends and means, and nor do they yield the conclusion that Israel is a persistent violator of international humanitarian law on the basis of disproportionate practices. It concludes with some reflections on the place of these themes within wider currents of antisemitic phenomena and tropes.

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