Proportionality & Hypocrisy: NATO in Kosovo vs. IDF in Gaza

Professor Martin Sherman is the 2009-2010 Hebrew Union College/University of Southern California Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor of Security Studies and International Policy.

Professor Martin Sherman is the 2009-2010 Hebrew Union College/University of Southern California Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor of Security Studies and International Policy.

Professor Sherman is the academic director of the Jerusalem Summit and a research fellow in the Security Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. He is also a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and was an academic advisor to the Herzliya Conference. Professor Sherman served for several years in operational capacities in the Israeli intelligence community and has held the post of ministerial advisor to the Israeli government.

Professor Sherman’s books include The Politics of Water in the Middle East, (1999) and Despots, Democrats and the Determinants of International Conflict, (1998). He has been published widely in journals and has edited books and policy papers on a range of strategic and foreign policy issues. His latest work focuses on Israel’s developing ties with India. Professor Sherman is a frequent television and radio commentator on foreign and security policy topics in Hebrew and English.

January 26, 2010

“There is always a cost to defeat an evil. It never comes free, unfortunately. But the cost of failure to defeat a great evil is far higher.”
-Jamie Shea, NATO Spokesman on BBC News, May 31, 1999

The international furor over the Goldstone Report and the ongoing censure of Israel over its conduct of “Operation Cast Lead” refuses to die down, even against the backdrop of the country’s remarkable humanitarian efforts in earthquake-stricken Haiti. It is this unending maelstrom of condemnation that imparts particular pertinence to the words with which the official NATO representative chose to respond to criticism regarding the numerous civilian casualties incurred by the alliance’s frequent air attacks during the war in Kosovo between March and June 1999.

Shea insisted NATO planes bombed only “legitimate designated military targets” and if civilians had died it was because NATO had been forced into military action. Adamant that “we try to do our utmost to ensure that if there are civilians around we do not attack,” he emphasized that “NATO does not target civilians…let’s be perfectly clear about that.”

Hundreds of civilians were killed by a NATO air campaign, however, code named “Operation Allied Force”-which hit residential neighborhoods, old-aged sanitariums, hospitals, open markets, columns of fleeing refugees, civilian buses and trains on bridges, and even a foreign embassy. (See Table for a summary of some of the undisputed major incidents.)

Exact figures are difficult to come by, but the undisputed minimum is almost 500 civilians deaths (with some estimates putting the toll as high as 1,500)–including women, children and the elderly, killed in about 90 documented attacks by an alliance that included the air forces of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Holland, Italy, Turkey, Spain, the UK, and the United States. Up to 150 civilians deaths were reportedly caused by the use of cluster bombs dropped on, or adjacent to, known civilian areas.

By contrast, the military losses inflicted by NATO on the Serbian forces during almost 80 days of aerial bombardment, unchallenged by any opposing air power, were remarkably low, with most estimates putting the figure at less than 170 killed.

NATO forces suffered… no combat fatalities! This was mainly due to the decision to conduct high altitude aerial attacks which greatly reduced the danger to NATO military personnel in the air, but dramatically increased it for the Serbian (and Kosovar) civilians on the ground. As opposed to realities which led to the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, moreover, the civilian populations of the countries participating in Operation Allied Force were never attacked or, even threatened in any way by Serbian forces.

The significance of all this for Israel, beset as it is by a tirade of criticism and censure regarding its military campaign in Gaza, should be starkly apparent. It raises three trenchant issues which it would fail to address to its great detriment:

  1. The Irrelevance of Proportionality in Military Engagements
  2. The Unlimited Hypocrisy of International Politics
  3. The Disastrous Incompetence of Israeli Public Diplomacy

The issue of proportionality, or rather the alleged lack thereof, has been the basis the fierce condemnation of Israel’s conduct in its military operations in Gaza because the number of Palestinians casualties far outweighs that of Israeli ones. The conduct of military operations in Kosovo by many of Israel’s present detractors, however, shows that this was never a consideration or constraint to which they felt bound. Quite the contrary, the very modus operandi they adopted such as high altitude bombing, demonstrates that they deliberately aspired to disproportionality. As noted, this ensured an almost zero casualty rate among their own combatants but inevitably resulted in less accurate targeting of alleged military objectives on the ground, exposing a virtually defenseless civilian population to far greater danger and far higher casualties.

All of this serves to underscore vividly the crass hypocrisy of Israel’s critics. For their code of conduct hardly gives them the high moral ground with regard to their code of combat. Indeed, in stark contrast to NATO’s willful disregard for enemy civilians, the IDF has often placed Israeli soldiers in mortal peril to prevent Palestinian civilians from being harmed. Israel’s use of military might, furthermore, has invariably been in response a tangible threat, or actual assault, on its citizens. This, however, was not the case for military strikes carried out by NATO forces against the Serbs, who as mentioned previously, constituted no threat whatsoever to any civilian population outside the confines of the former Yugoslavia-certainly not to those in any of the countries participating in the alliance. Any claim that Serbian brutality justified NATO’s harsh actions can be swiftly countered by pointing to the cruel atrocities perpetrated against Serbs by Kosovars once Serbian forces had been neutralized by NATO. Indeed, the inter-ethnic civil war in the Balkans was encloaked in heavy moral ambiguity in which it was far easier to determine which party was “strong” and which “weak” rather than which was “good” and which “bad.” [1] Moreover, if brutality is a justification for the use of disproportionate force then surely there are few more deserving targets than the Islamist terror organizations such as Hamas, however regrettable the inevitable collateral damage might be.

The blatant disregard for any semblance of proportionality by democratic belligerents and the shameless hypocrisy of their self-righteous and misplaced criticism of Israel highlight a crucial deficiency-often diagnosed and equally often neglected-in the overall structure of its international strategy: the incompetence, indeed impotence, of Israeli diplomacy, particularly its Public Diplomacy.

For the documented data on the conduct of the war in Kosovo by the world’s leading democracies should provide ample material with which to resolutely rebuff much of the pompous tirade of condemnation being hurled at Israel today. Sadly, however, this has not happened and, although Israel’s media management during the Gaza operation showed a marked improvement relative to the appalling performance during the 2006 Lebanon War, it still appears to be trapped in mindset of unbecoming apologetics and mired in a misplaced timidity that undermine its credibility and persuasiveness.

For Israel to prevail in the crucial battle for public opinion it must go on the offensive. It must convey a confidence and a conviction in the fundamental moral validity of the nation’s actions. It must not shy away from resolutely repelling unjustified slander and from reprimanding malicious slanderers.

It should not shrink from convening all the NATO country ambassadors in a public forum, open to the international media, and sternly point out how unacceptable “stone throwing” is for residents of “glass houses”, how inadvisable it is for “pots” to accuse “kettles” of being black, and to firmly demand, in appropriately discreet diplomatic terms, that they “put a sock in it.”

It should not refrain from confronting unprincipled foreign correspondents who concoct malevolent fabrications against Israel and unambiguously convey to them that gross lack of professional integrity and balance will not be tolerated, that excessive abuse of journalistic privilege will result in its withdrawal. It should be made clear to those in the international media who reside in Israel but insist in portraying it in an unfair and unfounded light that they will have to cover events in the region while residing in some Arab country where they presumably will find society less objectionable and less defective.

It must emphasize that although it is true that criticism of Israeli policy is not necessarily anti-Semitism, the massive and enduring application of double standard toward the Jewish state regarding alleged human rights abuses while glossing over far more horrendous cases elsewhere, makes anti-Semitism a increasingly plausible explanation for such conduct. Indeed this is an explanation which can no longer be blithely dismissed and is one that needs to be convincingly refuted…or acknowledged and accepted

The Israeli government must not hold back the resources required to assertively-even coercively-replace political correctness with political truth in the international discourse on the Middle East in general and on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in particular.[2] It must bring these truths to the attention of political opinion-makers and of politically aware publics across the globe-if need be by circumventing hostile and obstructive editorial bias by means of prominent, paid infomercials in major media channels.

Only measures such as these will allow Israel to gain the upper hand in the battle for public opinion, to prevent it being the victim of unjust, unjustified and unjustifiable double standards, and to ensure that military operations in Gaza and Kosovo are not judged by wildly disparate criteria.


[1] “Moral ambiguity” should be distinguished from “moral relativism” where no party is deemed”good” or “bad”.
[2] Today, the budget for Public Diplomacy is ludicrously small. As MK Michael Eitan pointed out, it totals less than the advertising budgets that some Israeli food manufactures spend to promote their sales of snacks and fast foods. Ha’aretz, May 22, 2002.