Words Matter: “Proportionate Response”

Politicians, military personnel, pundits, and activists around the world and across the political spectrum have referenced “proportionate response” either to justify or criticize Israel’s military response to Hamas’ October 7th attacks. This resource offers guiding questions and prompts to explore the concept of proportionate response. It is designed to generate thoughtful, probing discussion that encourages learners to dive deep into some of the questions surrounding a proportionate response, even if they don’t arrive at definitive answers.


1. There is not a universally agreed-upon definition of proportionality, and any “response” may be interpreted by different groups as proportionate or disproportionate.

2. Use of the phrases “proportionate response” and “disproportionate response” in the context of the current Israel-Gaza war may reflect (consciously or otherwise) political, historical, and/or ethical convictions.

3. “Influencers” shape notions of proportionality include international bodies, governments, social media, and mainstream media outlets.


Begin this discussion by posing a few questions:

  • How would you define the words proportionate or proportional? Note to educator: Learners should consider whether these words are always subjective or if there can be an objective standard for what is proportional.
  • What do you think is meant by the phrase “proportionate military response”? When and where have you heard this term used?
  • In what ways have you heard the phrase “proportionate response” used regarding the Israel-Hamas war? Note to educator: It might be interesting to create a list of these thoughts so that everyone can look back at it after unpacking legal and commonly used definitions.


Legal definitions of “proportionate response” leave room for subjective interpretation. According to the Lieber Institute at West Point, the definition of proportionality in international law requires:

“that the anticipated incidental loss of human life and damage to civilian objects should not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected from the destruction of a military objective.”


1. What do you understand from this definition? (Note: Stress that proportionate response refers to individual actions as opposed to overall military operations and wars.)

2. In what ways does this definition help you think about the Israel-Hamas war? Or in what ways doesn’t it?

While legal definitions of “proportionate response” exist, they are ambiguous and the term has subsequently been used differently in common parlance. For this reason, it is important to focus on how the phrase is used in popular discourse. Different people and groups have been using the term “proportionate” in many ways when referring to Israel’s response to Hamas’ October 7th attacks. 

Questions to consider:

1. What do you think people mean when they discuss proportionality in reference to the war?

2. How might you determine what would be proportional?

In determining proportionality, discuss the following considerations, or others that you choose. Challenge participants to think about the legal definitions you discussed as well as whatever feels morally acceptable to them. 

1. The role of casualty counts in deciding whether a response is proportionate. Is proportionality based on the number of wounded and/or dead?

2. The significance of collateral damage—civilian casualties, destruction of civilian infrastructure, etc. Do ends or intentions justify means?

3. The security failure of the IDF and the operational success of Hamas on October 7th. Is proportionality tied to deterrence and prevention of a future attack, or is proportionality only defined by the events to which Israel is responding?

4. Hamas’ kidnapping and holding of Israeli and other civilians. Does the notion of proportionality change when hostages’ lives are at stake?

Hamas is a recognized terrorist organization and has, since October 7th, reiterated its intention to carry out further attacks against Israeli civilians and Jews. Is proportionality also related to the ideology of a group and future promises of violence, or is it solely related to present actions?

Until this point, much of the discussion has been based on learners’ own perspectives. Challenge them to consider how different parties might interpret proportionality differently. How might the question look to Israelis? To Palestinians? To the US administration?

Make a list of parties interested in defining a “proportionate response” with regards to the current conflict. Examples might include: Israel, the U.S., the UN, the Arab League, Hamas, Israeli citizens, Palestinian civilians, American activists, media outlets, social media influencers, human rights organizations, and others.

Consider the following questions:

1. Why do you think each of these parties is interested in defining a “proportionate response”?

2. Whose definitions do you think influence American public opinion?

3. Whose definitions do you think should influence Israeli action? Whose definitions do you think actually influence Israeli action?

4. What do you think is the subtext of the usage of proportionate or disproportionate response by each of the parties listed earlier? What is achieved by labeling Israel’s military operation proportionate or disproportionate?

5. Based on everything we’ve discussed, why do you think there is no consensus on what constitutes a proportionate response? 

Note for educator: 

1. In the course of the conversation, you might return to the list formulated in the introductory discussion and ask learners to reflect on what still resonates and what doesn’t.

2. Encourage learners to unpack how labeling Israel’s military operation proportionate or disproportionate may serve to legitimize or delegitimize Israel’s military actions, its government policies, or even its existence.

3. The final question provides space for learners to reflect on why “proportionate response” is used in various—even contradictory—ways. You might formulate a list of factors influencing how or why people use the term.

Consider the following concluding questions:

1. In what ways does knowing the legal definition help you think about the current situation?

2. In what ways does understanding the common usage of the term help put your thoughts into perspective?

3. How do learners think they might use the term proportionality or respond to others using that term, given the many definitions or understandings of the word?

If there is time and/or interest, here are some additional discussion questions.

1. What is the political significance of labeling a response “proportionate”? “Disproportionate”?

2. Where do you think the need to respond proportionately comes from?

– Does Israel have a responsibility to its own people to respond?

– Does Israel have a responsibility to the people in Gaza?

– Does Israel have a responsibility to the international community?

3. Depending on someone’s perspective:

– At what point do you think Israel’s response becomes, or could become, disproportionate?

– What would you say a proportionate response looks like?

4. How do you think Israel should think about proportionality when fighting a group that embraces terrorism and does not show respect for international law?

5. Do you believe that power dynamics affect what constitutes a proportionate response?

6. Do you think there is such a thing as proportionality when it comes to the October 7th attacks?

1For a detailed discussion of legal and other definitions of proportionate response, including how the IDF assesses each action in real time, see this New York Times article from December 12, 2023 (paywall).

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