Bibi on proportionality

Extract from Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu interview with BBC Television, (?) 13 August 2006:  

Interviewer: "How come so many more Lebanese have been killed in this conflict than Israelis?"

Netanyahu: "Are you sure that you want to start asking in that direction?"

Interviewer: "Why not?"

Netanyahu: "Because in World War II more Germans were killed than British and Americans combined, but there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the war was caused by Germany's aggression. And in response to the German blitz on London, the British wiped out the entire city of Dresden, burning to death more German civilians than the number of people killed in Hiroshima.  Moreover, I could remind you that in 1944, when the R.A.F. tried to bomb the Gestapo Headquarters in Copenhagen, some of the bombs missed their target and fell on a Danish children's hospital, killing 83 little children.  Perhaps you have another question?"

Benjamin Netanyahu

Game, set and match to Bibi. 

Thank you to an American (anglophile) friend for sending me this.  It's been posted on other blogs, including, but I haven't been able to track down details of the exact date or time of the interview, which BBC channel it was on or who the BBC interviewer was.  Some blogs attempt to rebut Bibi's argument, and of course it's true that his analogy isn't exact — analogies rarely are.  But his main implied point is irrefutable:  once a country resorts to military operations, whether defensive or offensive, it will use such a level of force as it deems (or finds) necessary to achieve its political and military objectives; attempts to persuade it to reduce that force level (and thus to increase the risk of military failure) by reference to considerations of proportionality are as likely to be heard attentively in Tel Aviv now as they would have been in London in 1939-45 or in Washington from 1942 (oops).  

I would lay a very modest bet on Bibi being prime minister of Israel again within the month.


18 Responses

  1. Rob says:


    being contrarian is all very well, but surely you must see that this is taking it a bit far. Firstly, invoking what states will and won't do is pretty much beside the point. The question is not, is this what states do, but, is this what states should do. The difference is clear. Murderers murder people: pointing out this fact does not obviously have any bearing on whether or not they should murder people. Secondly, if you really don't believe in proportionality, I ask again, why aren't you calling for Israel to use nuclear weapons in the Lebanon, since, after all, you claim to think that there are not any moral limits on a state's pursuit of legitimate military aims – in this case, Israel's legitimate interest in preventing Hizbullah firing rockets into northern Israel.

  2. Phil says:

    Seconded. "It’s no worse than Dresden" isn’t the strongest defence I’ve ever heard.

  3. Brian says:

    Rob and Phil,  I have never said that there are "not any moral limits on a state’s pursuit of legitimate military aims": quite the contrary, I regard it as essential that a state at war should fully honour its obligations under the Geneva Conventions on moral as well as on international law grounds.  These include not deliberately targeting civilians (an obligation which the Israelis claim they observe, and I have seen no evidence that they don’t, although it’s very obvious that neither Hezbollah nor Hamas takes any notice of it, any more than NATO did when bombing Serbia in the so-called Kosovo war).  As to proportionality, of course there is a duty on a combatant to use the minimum level of force consistent with the attainment of its military and political objectives, provided always that those objectives are legitimate, and bearing in mind that assessing the minimum force necessary is a military judgement, not a political one.  That clearly for example rules out the use of nuclear weapons by Israel in the present or recent conflict.  But it doesn’t, and can’t, impose an obligation on a state that’s acting in self-defence not to kill more of the enemy than the enemy has itself killed in its own initial aggression, which is the main point that Netanyahu was making.   (He was also making the implicit and valid point that those now angrily condemning Israel for using ‘disproportionate’ force against Hezbollah or for ‘over-reacting’ to the years of Hezbollah aggression against Israel were eerily silent when NATO was bombing television stations, factories and bridges in Belgrade and killing far more innocent civilians than the Serbs had killed in Kosovo before the NATO attack, or when the Coalition was flattening large parts of Baghdad in its initial "shock and awe" campaign in 2003, and — in the case of senior citizens — when the RAF and the US Air Force were inflicting far more lethal damage on German cities than the Luftwaffe had succeeded in inflicting on British ones in the second world war.  I don’t recall many protests denouncing the evils of disproportionality on any of those occasions.  Why?  Because on all three occasions it would have been patently irrelevant.  And so it is now. 

    As to Dresden, there’s a well-informed school of thought that argues that the city was in fact a legitimate military target at the time and that the firestorm precipitated by the initial incendiary bombs had not been foreseen, but I don’t know enough about the circumstances to be able to take a confident view one way or the other.  Having lived through and survived very many nights of relentless blitzes, I don’t recall feeling particularly indignant at the time about the terrible loss of civilian lives in Dresden.  But on the face of it, I agree that it now looks like a crime.

    Incidentally, I don’t accept that saying these things is ‘contrarian’, however much it gets up the noses of the defenders of the current conventional wisdom of the chattering classes (present company of course excepted).   The consensus among sandal-wearing Guardian readers (of whom I am one, sandals, beard and all) isn’t invariably fair, balanced and objective, even if it’s often more of all those good things than the consensus among the shiny leather shoe-wearing, double-breasted suited readers of the Daily Telegraph.

  4. Phil says:

    those now angrily condemning Israel for using ‘disproportionate’ force against Hezbollah … were eerily silent when NATO was bombing television stations, factories and bridges in Belgrade

    Speaking only for myself, I thought NATO tactics in the attack on Serbia were utterly unjustifiable; I didn’t say much about it at the time, though, because I didn’t want to risk lining up with those on the Left who opposed the aims of the war (or, in many cases, what they imagined the aims of the war to be).

    On the other hand, at least one Israeli hawk that I can name (Tommi Lapid of Shinui) was a vocal opponent of NATO’s actions against Serbia, as well as being firmly in the "IDF right or wrong" camp. Jamie has commented on a similar development in the thinking of the retired Canadian general Lewis Mackenzie.

    You pays your money and you takes your choice. Ultimately I think the most constructive approach is just to assume that everyone has blind spots and take each critique on its own merits. (Not always easy in practice, it’s true.)

  5. Tim Weakley says:


    One comment on the Dresden bombing.  Some twentyfive years ago the Radio Times printed a letter from a former member of Bomber Command aircrew describing a briefing before the Dresden raid.  With the newsreel cameras rolling, the crews were told: ‘Do NOT aim at the marketplace, because it’s crammed with refugees..’.  Then the cameras were switched off, and they were told: "Right, that was the propaganda version.  You WILL aim at the market-place, because that’s were the people are…’.  I have no reason to believe the writer was lying.

  6. Rob says:

    I don’t think the Geneva Conventions are the end of what can be said about the moral limits of the conduct of war, and I am also skeptical about the force of any moral limits which are to be judged solely by those to who they apply ("bearing in mind assessing the minimum force necessary is a military judgement" and "such a level of force as it deems necessary to achieve its… military objectives": one is reminded of Clemenceau). But fine. The limited question of the Geneva Conventions though: I think Israel has probably broken articles 17, 18, 21, 30 and 49 and possibly has broken articles 23 and 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (the reason for the uncertainty is that I’m not an international lawyer, so I don’t know anything about the interpretation of the articles, and I don’t know exactly what has happened on the ground).  Articles 17 and 30 relate to the free passage of the wounded, the sick and medical supplies; articles 18 and 21 relate to the safety of hospitals and associated vehicles; while article 49 deals with forcible removal from occupied territory (49 might be a bit more difficult to show than the others, but saying you’re going to clear everyone from south of the Litani looks like at least threatening/intending to break it). Article 33 is about collective punishment, which the bombing of the Lebanon looks like to me, but I can see might be contentious, while article 23 also provides for the free movement of medical supplies and food, but only under a variety of conditions, which could have been being breached.

    And for the record, Dresden was a war crime, the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo conflict was a war crime, the conduct of Coalition forces in Iraq involves a number of war crimes. I wasn’t there for the first, I’m not sure I what I thought about the second having been more concerned with my A-Levels at the time, and have been fairly obviously unhappy about the last. Other people may be hypocrities or they may have changed their minds. At least as you’ve laid those charges, I don’t think I am.

  7. Joe says:


    Israel's alleged breaches of the Laws of War must be judged in the context of Hizbollah's actions.  Specifically, the use of civilian non-combatants and neutral areas as staging areas for their attacks on Israel, and places to store their munitions.  Further, it needs to be remembered, unlike a military organization, Hizbollah does not distinguish its personnel or its vehicles from civilian ones (i.e. uniforms and marked vehicles).  By employing these tactics, Hizbollah invites the IDF/IAF to target "civilian" infrastructure and vehicles.

    It should be noted that Israel has provided numerous examples of unmarked vehicles carrying weapons into Lebanon from Syria.  Further, there is ample evidence of rocket fire from next to apartment buildings, including the one destroyed in the infamous Qana incident.  And we have the testimony of the Canadian UN soldier killed by an Israeli stike, commenting on how Hizbollah was firing their weapons from "in and around" the UN compound.

    It is right to question each and every instance where Israel has attacked, killed or destroyed Lebanese people and infrastructure.  Israel should justify the necessity of each action, and explain their errors where they made them.  But you cannot talk about Israeli guilt absent the context of its actions.

    I also suggest you read this article, : 

    "The [Lebanese] government review shows that Israel has largely avoided some types of targets: major power plants, water treatment facilities, telephone systems, central government buildings and most factories. The bombing has focused on Shiite areas of southern Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs."Although roads and bridges have been hit all over the capital, most of the damage in Beirut has been limited to a single square mile of the southern suburbs: the neighborhoods of Bir Abed and Hrat Hreik. An almost daily barrage of missiles, bombs and gunship artillery has systematically removed Hezbollah's headquarters, its schools, clinics, sports centers and homes, along with the homes of thousands of civilians who live nearby…. 

    "A survey compiled by his organization, based on inspections in central and northern Lebanon and telephone calls to engineers and municipal officials in the ravaged south, showed the worst damage to the traffic system, with more than 120 bridges destroyed and $83 million in damage to roadways….

    "The three airports in Lebanon sustained damage totaling $55 million, but terminal buildings were spared and the biggest repairs will be to runways and fuel storage reservoirs, authorities said.

    "Power plants also were spared, although a large fuel tank serving the Jiye generating plant south of Beirut was hit…"

    Civilian infrastructure left largely intact, bombing limited to one square mile of Hizbollah-controlled Beirut.  Hardly the levelling of Beirut that Mike would have us believe occurred. 

    Brian adds:  The LA Times article that you cite is an interesting corrective to some of the airy generalisations appearing in the media and the blogosphere.  On the legal issues raised by Rob, it's worth reading an authoritative account of the Israeli government's legal defence against the charges being levelled against it: see (and I suspect many other bloggers and commentators) lack both the legal expertise and the knowledge of the facts on the ground required to judge whether this defence is sound or flawed, convincing or otherwise.  But it's worth reading, even by laymen. 

    Please now also see (including comments on it). 

  8. matt says:

    Game, set and match to Bibi?
    Let's face it, the UK was in a battle for national survival and faced utter destruction from a country and a party that intended to  cause the world to fall "…in to the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister by the lights of a perverted science".
    By contrast Israel as the regional super power faces no such battle for survival (as it did in past contests) and was looking for an excuse to attempt to disarm Hizbollah.
    Needles to say the policy has failed. As far as I can tell:

    • Hizbollah is now far more popular within Lebanon and the wider Arab world.
    • The diplomatic pressure that can be exerted on other powers as a result of the threat of an IDF strike has been reduced as a result of the failure of  meeting the strategic  goal of overwhelming and destroying Hizbollah as a military and political force within Lebanon
    • Iran's hand in its nuclear negotiations have been strengthened as it can be seen to fight wars in the region through it's proxies more or less at will.
    • The West's strategic goal of a Lebanon that is not a satellite of Syria has been set back.

    This has been a disaster for an untried Prime Minister of a newly minted party and therefore I agree that BiBi is likely to be PM before long.



    Brian comments:  Just two dissenting points:  (1) It seems to me, and apparently also to a great many Israelis (very understandably), that there is indeed a real and credible threat to Israel's existence as a state, and that it's impossible to make any realistic judgement of Israeli actions in the past five weeks unless you view them in that context;  and (2) it's far too soon to declare that Israel's campaign has been a failure, with the lasting consequences that you list, when UN Security Council resolution 1701 has almost exactly the same objectives as those of the Israeli action.  Whether those objectives are achieved (which would represent a success for Israel and the negation of the consequences which you list) or whether they are not achieved (which would represent a victory for Hezbollah and a defeat for Israel, Lebanon, the UN, and all hope of peace in the foreseeable future) depends entirely on the extent to which resolution 1701 is implemented in the next weeks and months.  Neither you nor I can possibly forecast with any confidence whether the resolution will be fully implemented, partially implemented, or not implemented at all.  (Please see

  9. Phil says:


    It seems to me, and apparently also to a great many Israelis (very understandably), that there is indeed a real and credible threat to Israel’s existence as a state

    There we must part company. If I believed that the existence of the state of Israel was under threat in this way, I’d view both the Israeli government’s actions and the public mood which supports them much more favourably than I do – although even in that case IDF tactics would not be above criticism. My position remains:

    If Israel’s apologists genuinely believe the country is engaged in a fight for survival at this moment, they’re self-deceived to the point of insanity. If they don’t believe that but think that what’s going on now should be understood by reference to a completely hypothetical worst-case scenario, they’re grossly dishonest. Perhaps even more important, the ‘fight for survival’ argument is being used to divert attention from what the Israeli government and army are actually doing; in other words, it’s being made to do work that it couldn’t do even if it was valid. 

  10. Rob says:


    articles 17 and 30 are unconditional as to military use, and articles 18 and 21 have conditions, but there is a quite specific process, involving external assessors, for removing the obligation to obey them, so whatever Hizbullah has done is irrelevant to whether Israel has committed war crimes, if it Israel has indeed bombed hospitals or ambulances, and refused access to cvilians south of the Litani.

  11. Joe says:

    Rob your description of the relevant articles of the Geneva convention are not strictly speaking accurate.

    Article 1 7

    The Parties to the conflict shall endeavour to conclude local agreements for the removal from besieged or encircled areas, of wounded, sick, infirm, and aged persons, children and maternity cases, and for the passage of ministers of all religions, medical personnel and medical equipment on their way to such areas.

    Article 18

    Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.

    States which are Parties to a conflict shall provide all civilian hospitals with certificates showing that they are civilian hospitals and that the buildings which they occupy are not used for any purpose which would deprive these hospitals of protection in accordance with Article 19.

    Civilian hospitals shall be marked by means of the emblem provided for in Article 38 of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of August 12, 1949, but only if so authorized by the State.

    The Parties to the conflict shall, in so far as military considerations permit, take the necessary steps to make the distinctive emblems indicating civilian hospitals clearly visible to the enemy land, air and naval forces in order to obviate the possibility of any hostile action.

    In view of the dangers to which hospitals may be exposed by being close to military objectives, it is recommended that such hospitals be situated as far as possible from such objectives.

    Article 19The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit

    , outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded.

    The fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants which have not yet been handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy.

    Article 21

    Convoys of vehicles or hospital trains on land or specially provided vessels on sea, conveying wounded and sick civilians, the infirm and maternity cases, shall be respected and protected in the same manner as the hospitals provided for in Article 18, and shall be marked, with the consent of the State, by the display of the distinctive emblem provided for in Article 38 of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of August 12, 1949.

    Article 28The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.

    Article 30

    Protected persons shall have every facility for making application to the Protecting Powers, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the National Red Cross (Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun) Society of the country where they may be, as well as to any organization that might assist them.

    These several organizations shall be granted all facilities for that purpose by the authorities, within the bounds set by military or security considerations.

    Apart from the visits of the delegates of the Protecting Powers and of the International Committee of the Red Cross, provided for by Article 143, the Detaining or Occupying Powers shall facilitate as much as possible visits to protected persons by the representatives of other organizations whose object is to give spiritual aid or material relief to such persons.

    On the Basis of the above, it is reasonable to conclude that if Hizbollah violates the neutrality of the "protected parties" and Israel deems action to be of military necessity than it is permited to act.  Thus if Hizbollah stores of fires munitions from inside a Hospital, that hospital is not longer protedted.  No-one disputes that Israel gave target warnings in these cases.

    Further, if Hizbollah uses marked UN and red cross vehicles in order to transport men or material, then the neutrality of these vehicles is also violated.

    I agree that Israel has to make the case of military neccesity, had to provide adiequate warning (which is acknowledged) and not act recklessly, but if Israel does (and has0 demonstrated Hizbollah’s vilation of protected parties neutrality, the presence of the protected parties does not render the postion immune from Israeli response. 

  12. Rob says:


    Alright, it was late, and I couldn’t be bothered the damn things again – 30 is not unconditional to military use. But every facility is quite a high threshold, I’d imagine. As for 18 and 21, although the convention is quite strict about military use of hospitals and so on, I’d imagine – and I’d stress I’m not an international lawyer here – that it has to be consistent with 17, which is not conditional on non-military use: you can’t be endeavouring to conclude local agreements to secure the free movement of the sick, the wounded, the elderly, children, ministers of all religions, medical personnel and medical equipment, if you destroy places where these people and things would come from or go to, or the vehicles in which they would be transported. And the second annex does contain details of a lengthy procedure involving external assessors (with the weird alternative of just not bothering and refusing to recognise them as hospitals, presumably subject to the restrictions mentioned in article 19: as I say, I’m not an international lawyer, but I’d guess that interpretations of the requirements of article 19 would relate them to those of the independent process specified in the annex, which mentions a five day time limit). Finally, article 28 is irrelevant as to the articles I mentioned, since hospitals and associated vehicles are protected as objects or locations in addition to the protection they would receive as containing protected persons, and articles 17 and 30 don’t protect specific individuals, but rights of a population in general.

  13. Joe says:

    Simply put, protected people and spaces are only portected as long as they are neurtal.  Once neurtrality is violated they are no longer protected!

    If Hizbollah uses ambulances, hospital, civilan transports, UN bases for military purposes they are no longer neutral.

    That said, Israel must establish in fact that this is true in each specific case and respond proportionatley to the military needs.  I.e., Israel cannot simply bomb a car because it is traveling on a road, they must have a reasonable certainty that the specific car is performing a military function.

    On the other hand, if there are unmarked cars that are performing a military transport amongst cars that are being used for the normal civilian uses, the military transport is a valid target, and the collateral damage is (partly) the responsibility of Hizbollah for using the protected parties as shields. 

    Partly because Israel has to weigh the risk of their action against the military necessity, the need to protect their own civilians, the likelyhood of colateral damage and the possibility of a course of action that would result in fewer non-combatant deaths.

    In my opinion, the weight of evidence is that will occasional incedents may have occured in which reckless action was taken , on the whole Israel behaved in a very restrained manor.  Media reports to the contrary.

  14. Joe says:

    To rephrase myself, the convention is clear that hospitals etc are only protected so long as they restirct themselves to their intended "humanitarian" duties and are not the origin of  "acts harmfull to the ememy" .  This is the plain meaning of the convention.

    Niether person nor place are immune from action if they are used as the base of military operation.

  15. Rob says:


    "neither person nor place are immune from action if they are used as the base of military operation"

    Well, no. Hospitals lose their  immunity "only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded."  Exactly what counts as  "due warning" and a "reasonable time limit" I would suggest should be understood with reference to the annex I mentioned, and specifically the five day limit and external observers it discusses. Further, that has no bearing on articles 17 or 30.

  16. di says:

    Whon conducted the interview with Netanyahu and was it on Newsnight? I was away at the time & Newsnight's web page was last up-dated on July 25, 2006!

    Thank you

    Brian replies: I said in my original post that "I haven't been able to track down details of the exact date or time of the interview, which BBC channel it was on or who the BBC interviewer was" (I was away at the time, too).  Can anyone else help?

  17. mazal tov says:

    thank you for posting this interesting discussion – i was searching for qualification of this quote circulating now in 2009 on the internet. i wish to share with you the full audio of this interview (mp3) found on this blog post:

    Brian writes: I very much appreciate this comment and its link to such a fascinating clip (the Netanyahu-Humphrys interview) with its eerily contemporary relevance. I have accordingly put its substance into a new post: please see

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