Fact Check

Benjamin Netanyahu and Proportionate Response

Benjamin Netanyahu's response to an interviewer who questioned the proportionality of Israel's military response.

Published Feb 23, 2009


Claim:   Transcript reproduces Benjamin Netanyahu's response to a snarky British interviewer who questioned the proportionality of Israel's military response.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, February 2009]

Even those who aren't particularly sympathetic to Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu could get a good measure of satisfaction from this interview with British Television this week. I guess it can be attributed to Minister Netanyahu's days studying history at Harvard.

The interviewer asked him: "How come so many more Palestinians have been killed in this conflict than Israelis?" (A nasty question if there ever was one!)

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

Interviewer: (Falling into the trap) "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?"


Origins:   Current events often bring forth the recirculation of older items, and so it is with this piece: Israel's armed engagement against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in early 2009

and again in mid-2014 caused this item to be presented in social media as something that occurred just "this week."

In fact, this piece originated in mid-2006, when a 34-day military conflict between Hezbollah paramilitary forces and the Israeli military took place in Lebanon and northern Israel during July and August of that year. During that period, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (he had held that position from 1996 to 1999) undertook a number of news interviews in which he responded to criticisms that Israel's military response to Hezbollah rocket attacks were disproportionate and were killing an inordinately high number of Lebanese civilians.

The item reproduced above is purportedly a portion of a transcript from a television news piece, one in which Netanyahu trapped a snarky British interviewer into getting his verbal comeuppance by providing an apt historical analogy when asked to explain why "so many more Palestinians have been killed in this conflict than Israelis." (The 2006 version referenced "Lebanese" rather than "Palestinians"; the substitution of the latter was an attempt to make this item appear current to 2009.)

We located and viewed several different television interviews conducted by British journalists with Benjamin Netanyahu during that period and found that although the latter did typically invoke the example of Britain's response to the German blitz on London during World War II (including mentions of the bombing of the German city of Dresden and Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen) as a justification for Israel's response to Hezbollah rocket attacks, we could not locate an interview that included dialogue identical (or nearly so) to this transcript, or one in which a British interviewer could be fairly described as having posed "nasty" questions and then "fallen into a trap" sprung by Netanyahu. For the most part, the interviewers asked relevant and thoughtful questions, to which Netanyahu provided serious and detailed answers.

For example, an interview conducted by Sky News presenter Mark Longhurst included the following exchange:

Netanyahu: And you can ask the question that I would ask for all those who question Israel, what would you be saying today, what would you ask Tony Blair to do — the prime minister of Britain — if London was being rocketed by hundreds, indeed thousands, of rockets? You'd be screaming your head off, saying, "Get rid of the source of that fire." And I think in this sense Israel, the Israeli public, is behaving miraculously.

Longhurst: The issue of proportionality, of course, has been raised in many capitals across the world. What would you say would have been a disproportionate response, then, to those rocket attacks?

Netanyahu: Well, I don't want to say a disproportionate response, because then I'd be criticizing Britain, but when London was rocketed, Churchill's response was to flatten German cities — Dresden was wiped out completely. And I do not criticize Churchill's government for doing that, because it was in fact a time of great urgency. The main point is that the only way that we can judge proportionality is to ask, how did other countries behave under similar circumstances? When Syria that attacks us, criticizes us, wiped out fifteen thousand civilians in the Syrian town of Hama in one afternoon, I don't think they can voice an objection.

In another Sky News interview, this one with presenter Julie Etchingham, Netanyahu provided a similar response:

Etchingham: I know you said that Israel targets guerrillas, I know that Israel is saying that it's killed about 400 Hezbollah guerrillas over the last three weeks or so, the figures I saw from Reuters news agency today — they've been keeping their own separate tally, and as you know the figures vary widely — is that 575 Lebanese have been killed, of whom 497 are civilians, so there have obviously been a lot of innocent deaths by the Israelis inside Lebanon.

Netanyahu: In effect, the only comparison we can have is what British and American pilots are doing in Afghanistan and in Iraq under similar circumstances. They've also regrettably had civilian casualties — unintentional, the numbers are quite large — and I'm saying that not in order to accuse them, but in fact to say that there is no other standard with which we can judge this except to look at another situation where thousands — about the same number of rockets — three thousand rockets [were] fired onto a western city. That was London in World War II. Churchill's response at the time was very different from our response today, or from your response in Afghanistan and in Iraq today. Churchill just bombed German cities by day [and] incinerated them by night, and of course the number of civilian casualties was enormous. I say that not in order to attack Churchill, and in fact I don't attack him, but we who have done a lot less — a lot, lot less — should not be attacked for doing a lot less than Churchill did under similar circumstances.

The closest match we could find (in content, if not in tone) to the example transcript provided above was in portions of a Netanyahu interview with Sky News anchor Martin Stanford:

Stanford: You'll be aware of the criticism ... that Israel has made its point; it is now overdoing it. It has been too violent in what it is reaping on south Lebanon. How do you respond to those criticisms?

Netanyahu: I think that it's a peculiar criticism coming from the countries that know better, because when London was rocketed by V-2s during the blitz, the response was, shall we say, a thousand times greater ... no, I think it was probably ten thousand times greater. When New York was rocketed by makeshift rockets, basically improvised aircraft used as rockets, the response was to go halfway across the world, wipe out the Taliban regime, and conquer Iraq, and in both cases British and American troops, and the troops of other countries, tried to ferret out the terrorists who were, as in the case of Lebanon, hiding in civilian areas, so civilian casualties are accrued because the terrorists — Hezbollah terrorists — not only hide, not only target civilians, but also hide behind civilians, and responsible governments — whether it's Britain, the United States, the other governments that joined in, or Israel itself now — do not give immunity to terrorists simply because they hide among civilians, [but] we try to minimize civilian casualties.

Stanford: Is it a tacit admission ... that whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the military campaign, the PR war, the words of persuasion, haven't actually hit home, and the rest of the world remains critical of Israel?

Netanyahu: I think that we have to continue to fight this battle of truth, the battle for public opinion, all the time. You know, there is a double standard, even a triple standard, that is being applied here. In 1944, the British Royal Air Force went to target the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, a target — a legitimate military target — embedded in a civilian population. The British pilots missed, and 83 children were — Danish children — were horribly burned in a children's hospital right next to the Gestapo headquarters. That didn't make the British pilots terrorists; it didn't make the British response disproportionate or wrong. It was an accident of war that accompanies any war, and especially when your targets are embedded in civilian areas.

Last updated:   10 August 2014

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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