Fighting by the book
The Israeli army instructs its soldiers in a stringent ethical code. Can US forces learn from its example?
By David B. Green, 4/20/2003
LAST JULY, AN Israel Air Force F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on Salah Shehadeh's Gaza City apartment building. Shehadeh, a Hamas commander believed responsible for hundreds of attacks on Israeli military personnel and civilians, died in the "targeted killing." So did another 14 Palestinian civilians, nine of them children.
Fourteen was also the number of Iraqi civilians initially said to have died on April 7, when a US B-1 bomber dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on the residential building in Baghdad's Mansur neighborhood where Saddam Hussein and colleagues were reported to be meeting. (Neighbors subsequently claimed that as many as 18 innocent people died in the afternoon attack.) Is this an acceptable number of innocent casualties in exchange for the death of Saddam? What about 100? Or the approximately 1,000 civilians who, according to one estimate, have died since Operation Iraqi Freedom began?
This kind of risk-to-benefit ratio is something that Israeli military planners spend a lot of time worrying about. After the Shehadeh killing, a regretful Moshe Ya'alon, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told a newspaper that faulty intelligence had led the air force to conclude, mistakenly, that the building next door to the Hamas leader's building was empty. But he also claimed that the army had passed up on several earlier opportunities to hit Shehadeh because he was with his wife or his children. Each time Shehadeh's life was spared, he directed more suicide bombings against Israel.
The grinding guerrilla warfare in the Occupied Territories is often invoked as the kind of nightmare the United States wants to avoid in Iraq. This may be why US forces entering urban venues have relied heavily on a combination of armored reconnaissance, commandoes, and air power, rather than the more risky door-to-door combat that has characterized much of Israel's fighting in the intifada.
But in at least one respect, the IDF may offer a model for US and other coalition forces in the months ahead. The IDF, unlike the US military, is guided by a single, overarching ethical code-one that existed orally for most of the army's history, but which was formalized and set to paper in the mid-1990s, and rewritten in concise, 10-point form two years ago.
Though simple in language, "The Spirit of the IDF" borrows from a multiplicity of sources-IDF tradition, Israeli and Jewish law, and international conventions -- all drawn together with the assistance of some of the country's leading moral philosophers.
At the heart of the IDF code is the concept of "purity of arms," which requires that soldiers be willing to put their own lives at stake to avoid harming noncombatants and that they respond to all attacks and threats with proportional force.
The code's 10 "values" reflect the tensions inherent in the soldier's task. On the one hand, soldiers are urged to demonstrate "a tenacity of purpose in performing missions" and a "drive to victory." On the other, they must act "out of recognition of the supreme value of human life"; never abandon comrades; "do all in [their] power to avoid causing harm to [noncombatants'] lives, bodies, dignity, and property"; and "refrain from obeying blatantly illegal orders." Incorporated into the training of all Israeli soldiers, "The Spirit of the IDF" is also made available to troops in poster, letter, and laminated pocket-sized forms.
After the 2001 code was published, the Israeli philosopher Asa Kasher, author of the 1995 version, objected to the addition of a line about "love of the homeland," calling it "silly" to talk about emotions in a code of ethics. But in general the code, like the struggle against the intifada itself, enjoys widespread support among an otherwise divided citizenry.
Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, was part of the team that worked on drafting "The Spirit of the IDF." Widely known as a member of Israel's peace camp, Halbertal insists that he still favors a unilateral withdrawal by Israel from the territories. Nonetheless, he says he no longer has faith in the Palestinians as partners for peace. Their strategy in the intifada, he argues, has been intended to erase the distinction between combatants and noncombatants on both sides, making it a war of "all against all." Israel's challenge, he says, "is to move from a war against an entire population to one against those who instigate."
The challenge is a serious one. Last month, the IDF acknowledged that 18 percent of the nearly 2,000 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since the uprising began in September 2000 were civilians with no connection to acts of terror. (Israeli deaths from Palestinian attacks have exceeded 730, two-thirds of them civilian.) The army is convinced that its stringent rules of engagement have kept the figures far lower than they could have been, and Israelis have no doubt that their forces have a better record of keeping civilians out of harm's way than the United States in Baghdad or Afghanistan-and certainly better than Russia in Chechnya.
Writing in the journal Dissent last fall, the political philosopher Michael Walzer, author of "Just and Unjust Wars" (1977), called the contrast between Israeli conduct in the intifada and Russian tactics in Chechnya "striking." "The crucial mark of that contrast," he explained, "is the very small number of civilian casualties in the Palestinian cities despite the fierceness of the fighting."
In a mid-March interview with the daily tabloid Ma'ariv, Chief of Staff Ya'alon referred to an intelligence officer who had prevented the air force from attacking a Palestinian target by withholding necessary information. The officer had believed, mistakenly, that the operation would put civilians at risk. "From the moral point of view, he deserves a commendation," commented Ya'alon. "From the operational one, he deserved to be removed from his post." The chief of staff added that he was "proud that we have officers" who take their moral responsibility so seriously.
Others, however, argue that the military has become increasingly insensitive to abuses of force. Though initial, and widely publicized, reports about a civilian massacre in the Jenin refugee camp last April were later dispelled by the United Nations and many human-rights groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have continued to charge the IDF with "war crimes," including delaying the arrival of medical care during the 10-day battle and the use of "human shields." The IDF was in fact using Palestinian noncombatants for a number of tasks that potentially put them in danger, a practice they gave up only after the Israeli Supreme Court intervened.
But the army maintained a practice known as the "neighbor procedure," in which Palestinians are ordered to approach buildings where suspected terrorists are holed up and convince them to give themselves up. The army argues that the Palestinians used in this manner are not "human shields," that the practice is in fact intended to reduce tensions, and that under its written procedure no one can be forced to serve as a messenger in this manner. Israeli human-rights groups are still pressing the Supreme Court to outlaw the practice.
Lior Yavne, the spokesperson for B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, sees the enforcement of its own rules as one of the army's greatest failings. "Since the start of the intifada," he notes, "there have been about 300 investigations by the military police of misuse of weapons, and only four or five indictments-and none of these ended in a conviction with a punishment. This is far more important than the poster hanging in the barracks with the ethical code. When the army doesn't investigate... soldiers know that they won't be punished for their wrongdoings."
Still, interviews with men who finished their regular service recently suggest that many have internalized the principles in the ethical code.
Ze'ev, an infantry officer who asked for only his first name to be used, describes a two-month stakeout of a Palestinian village in the West Bank. "Every night there was shooting from the village, heavy gunfire. When you see a person with a gun, there's no question what you have to do. But when you see not three or four, but rather 40 people, with a single rifle, which moves around, you have to pick your targets carefully."
Ze'ev recounts an incident in which a comrade had his commander's authorization to shoot an armed combatant below the knees-to wound, not to kill. The soldier shot twice, the second time after the enemy had fallen to the ground, and ended up killing a young boy with a rifle. The child had been part of a group that was firing on the Israelis, says Ze'ev, "but at that moment, the kid wasn't one of them." He adds, in apparent contradiction to Lior Yavne's charge, "The soldier was sent to jail, and thrown out of his unit"-though the claim cannot be verified.
Ze'ev says that behaving with restraint under fire "is not a mission impossible." He adds, "If you have any sense of moral behavior, and you think for a second, there shouldn't be any problem sticking to the things that are in the code."
But not everyone in the IDF thinks it's that simple. Elazar Stern, a brigadier general and chief of the IDF Education Corps, is aware of the moral ambiguities inherent in a soldier's job. "Part of what the nation demands of us," he says, "is a willingness to have our heads toss and turn on the pillow several times at night. And if you're lucky, in the end you'll know that you did the right thing."
David B. Green is a senior editor at The Jerusalem Report.