Wednesday, December 12, 2012

IDF Ethics by Sarah Friedman

A few weeks ago I went to a MASA-sponsored security & diplomacy-themed shabbaton, run by Kol Voice Seminars, an educational company run by British olim. I had signed up for it weeks earlier, unsure what to expect, and was both excited and newly hesitant as the weekend began, two days since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, the almost-war. My experience with this type of presentation has not been one of nuance or balance, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

One perspective I’d never heard in detail was from Colonel (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, who speaks about the IDF ethical code. He arrived straight from eight days on a base in the south, gave a well-practiced and half-heartening, half-discouraging lecture, and left us with the oddest business card I’ve ever seen, featuring a rainbow leading to a tank.

He opened by poking legitimate fun at Egyptians blaming a shark attack on the Israel Defense Forces, but on a related and more serious note he said that Israel can’t seem to avoid losing the PR war. I agree: Israel does make political and military moves deserving of criticism, but it also does and is a lot of great things, and those don’t make it into the news often enough. Israel transgressions – real, exaggerated, or imaginary (like the shark) – make for more popular news. It was encouraging to hear, then, about the IDF’s institutional concern for the ethical implications of its actions, disconnected from PR value, for better or for worse.

Col. Gruber outlined the principles the IDF trains it soldiers to use in real-time decision-making:

  1. Necessity – use only the force required to complete mission
  2. Distinction – don’t harm innocents (difficult against terrorists, who do not wear uniforms like regular soldiers). He said that during Operation Pillar of Defense the IDF hit 1600 targets and refrained from hitting an additional 400 because of doubts.
  3. Proportionality – killing civilians is acceptable when preventing an imminent threat, but not when targeting a terrorist for past wrongs. (Weary from battle preparations, he added: “I am not doing a party when I kill a terrorist. … When you come back from the field after destroying villages, you bring it back home with you.”)

He showed us video of a Hamas member picking up an unwilling child to cross the street with so the IDF wouldn’t shoot. He told us that 98 percent of the medical visits from Gaza to Israel were approved in 2009 and that 95 percent of electricity in Gaza comes from Ashkelon, Israel, up from 35 percent in 2009. He denied a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, saying that civilians are not his enemies, and estimated that of the 1.8 million residents, 40,000 are terrorists. It’s difficult to judge the reliability of presented information when the perspective is clearly one-sided, even if it’s one I’m inclined to trust, but I guess that’s part of the PR war he lamented.

Throughout the presentation, I kept thinking about the actual implications of these ethics. We live in a Jewish state, by Jewish principles (though if two Jews have three opinions, it’s a certainty that not everyone will be happy with the Jewish principles applied), but what happens if a mistake is made? He never mentioned circumstances that might lead to the code not being followed – though it’s not difficult for me to imagine things going occasionally awry among scared 18-year-olds with guns – but he did describe the fear and overwhelmingness of warfare. Col. Gruber said that carrying 60+ pounds for four hours during a mission makes soldiers lose half their brain power, helpfully adding: “put on your helmet and you’re almost an idiot.” (I don’t know how much speculation, observation, or science contributed to that assertion, but I think it’s how I would feel, too.)

In response to a questioner who asked if it wouldn’t have been better to attack Gaza with great force and wipe out the threat completely, Col. Gruber said that this problem can only be managed, not solved – pointing to the fact that after Cast Lead in 2008-9 only six months passed before rockets were shot into Israel again. I don’t agree that the political situation is hopeless (yet), so I was happily surprised when he emphasized that we also need to teach both sides not to hate each other. I wonder if that is possible in a managed situation – when Palestinians grow up stateless, disenfranchised, and Israelis grow up in a hostile neighborhood fearing attacks from all sides. But it revives my optimism that the Israeli military strives to operate ethically, even if the PR war is hopeless; and I hope the Israeli political system can also follow a pragmatic ethical code, intended to preserve the Jewish, democratic nature of the state, even when the political future looks hopeless.