David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post, never fails to impress me. His Friday columns, sometimes commentary and insight, sometimes incisive interviews, always inform, always lend perspective to the complexities of life in Israel. But last Friday’s interview with Asa Kasher, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University who has advised the IDF and co-written its Code of Ethics, may well be the best thing he’s done yet. (While I didn’t agree with everything Kasher says, JoeSettler on the Muqata blog has a more detailed critique of Kasher which is worth reading for an alternate perspective.)
One often hears supporters of Israel boast that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. But what does it mean to be a “moral army”, and further still, the “most moral army in the world”? Horovitz and Kasher’s conversation (which took up nearly three full pages—no advertising—of the paper; it’s good to be the editor) fleshes out that claim. Here is the article link, but as it is very long, I’ll treat you to a few highlights.
A state is obligated to ensure effective protection of its citizens’ lives. In fact, it’s more than just life. It is an obligation to ensure the citizens’ well-being and their capacity to go about their lives. A citizen of a state must be able to live normally. To send the kids to school in the morning. To go shopping. To go to work. To go out in the evening. A routine way of life. Nothing extraordinary. The state is obliged to protect that.
At the same time, the moral foundation of a democratic state is respect for human dignity. Human dignity must be respected in all circumstances. And to respect human dignity in all circumstances means, among other things, to be sensitive to human life in all circumstances. Not just the lives of the citizens of your state. Everybody.
One important distinction Kasher makes is between “innocent” civilians and “non-dangerous” civilians. In any Arab territory where Israel’s enemies dig in, there are likely to be Arab civilians who support the work of Israel’s enemies. They may willingly give over their property to the terrorists, help and sustain them, or do nothing more than agree with their methods and their goals. As long as they are not actively firing on Israel, they are considered “non-dangerous” and harming them must be avoided as much as possible. This does not make these people innocent, but it does distinguish between their intentions and their actions.
In addition to being highly conscious of the necessity to maintain human dignity and disrupt the lives of civilians as little as possible while fighting combatants in their midst, Kasher and the IDF have reevaluated their attitude toward putting Israeli soldiers in harm’s way. In the past, as in an action carried out in Jenin in 2002, where soldiers were sent into a highly dangerous situation to try to avoid civilian casualties. As a result, 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush there. Kasher looks back on that decision as a mistake, and has this to say about the new thinking regarding sending soldiers into potentially deadly situations:
But if a neighbor (a civilian living in a terrorist-infested area) doesn’t want to leave, he turns himself into the human shield of the terrorist. He has become part of the war. And I’m sorry, but I may have to harm him when I try to stop the terrorist. I’ll do my best not to. But it may be that in the absence of all other alternatives, I may hurt him. I certainly don’t see a good reason to endanger the lives of soldiers in a case like that.
Sometimes people don’t understand this. They think of soldiers as, well, instruments. They think that soldiers are there to be put into danger, that soldiers are there to take risks, that this is their world, this is their profession. But that is so far from the reality in Israel, where most of the soldiers are in the IDF because service is mandatory and reserve service is mandatory. Even with a standing army, you have to take moral considerations into account. But that is obviously the case when service is compulsory: I, the state, sent them into battle. I, the state, took them out of their homes. Instead of him going to university or going to work, I put a uniform on him, I trained him, and I dispatched him. If I am going to endanger him, I owe him a very, very good answer as to why. After all, as I said, this is a democratic state that is obligated to protect its citizens. How dare I endanger him?
. . .
And why did we send them to that particular theoretical house we’ve been discussing? Because there were armed terrorists in it who were attacking Israel. There was no choice. But now you want to send soldiers into that house just in case, by chance, there’s still someone inside, who doesn’t want to leave. You want me to send in soldiers to pull him out? Why? Why do I owe him that? I have issued so many warnings and this man has refused to come out. I haven’t got a strong enough reason to tell that soldier he has to go in. This man has been warned five times and decided not to leave. Therefore he took the danger upon himself. After all those warnings, one has to act against the terrorists and those of his neighbors who have decided not to leave, and not endanger the lives of the soldiers.
Kasher also adds that timing plays a large role in deciding when to act to combat terrorists:
I can always ask myself, in all kinds of circumstances, maybe there’s a different way to stop this terrorist or that attack. Maybe I have more time. If there’s time, if there’s an alternative means, then that’s fine. When he was IDF chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon once said that he prevented a targeted strike at [Hamas military commander Salah] Shehadeh when his daughter was right next to him. (Shehadeh was eventually killed in a targeted strike in 2002, in which 14 other people were killed, including his wife and nine children. Then prime minister Sharon later said he would have aborted the operation had it been realized that it would cause those other fatalities.) Ya’alon evidently knew there would be another opportunity and that he could take the risk of waiting longer to strike. It wasn’t now or never.
In response to the charge of “disproportionality,” particularly surrounding Israel’s prosecution of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, he has this to say:
The world in general doesn’t have a clue what proportionality is. Proportionality, first of all, is not about numbers. The question of proportionality, according to international law, is whether the military benefit justifies the collateral damage. And secondly, also according to international law, it is a consideration for the commander in the field, because only the commander in the field can make the judgment: What does he gain from what he’s about to do and what is the collateral damage he is likely to cause? With Israel, we fire and two minutes later, the UN secretary-general is already accusing us of using disproportionate force. On what basis does he make that assumption? How can he possibly know?
With flotillas forming to bring “humanitarian aid” to Gaza, an Iranian arms shipment recently intercepted in the Mediterranean, and accusations that Gaza is an “open air prison,” Kasher points out the following:
Since they are arming themselves relentlessly, via weapons-laden ships, via the tunnels, my self-defense requires those controls. I don’t want to have to depend on Iron Dome to shoot down the missile. I want the missile not to reach Gaza from Iran in the first place. So I maintain the sea blockade, which is unquestionably legitimate according to all the laws of war at sea, to prevent them from bringing in the weaponry. And the same goes for the land crossings. We don’t allow free access, because it is likely to endanger us.
We have “effective control” at the borders – on what goes in and out. But we don’t have effective control inside. Hamas is the de facto government of Gaza; Hamas has effective control there. And therefore Hamas is responsible for the fact that there are terrorists mixed in with their non-dangerous neighbors. They carry the responsibility for that.
International law is constantly invoked against Israel, which is accused of violating it every time it takes measures to protect its citizens from the threats of terrorism (despite the fact that at security conferences on targeted killings and other military matters, no country’s representatives have disagreed with Kasher’s views, including the Red Cross). Kasher explains how the current landscape of warfare diverges from the assumptions behind international law:
International law was created … amid assumptions that war was a case of army against army. Uniformed forces. Civilians at the side. In those circumstances, what’s accepted internationally is acceptable to us. By and large people respect this. These are laws that apply to classic war situations.
But now, when we are in a war with organizations, not states, all the assumptions collapse. Why are states signed up to international treaties? For reasons of political prudence, not high morality: If I don’t harm his civilians, he won’t harm my civilians, and we’ll both benefit. If I won’t kill his prisoners, he won’t kill my prisoners; I won’t fire chemical weapons at him, and he won’t fire chemical weapons at me. It’s all reciprocity.
But now, in our situations, there is no reciprocity. Israel is always trying to minimize the collateral damage it causes its enemies, and its enemies are always trying to maximize the damage – not collateral; they are really aiming for the citizens.
This takes us back to where this interview started: It doesn’t mean Israel will now act in the way its enemies do. But you see now that Israel has to act according to its interests and its standards, and not according to some kind of picture that is common to Israeli and its enemies. This whole notion of reciprocity has disappeared.
The powers that be outside Israel are always urging Israel to take “risks for peace,” to exchange land for a promise of a change in behavior (usually with a despotic, corrupt, non-representative government acting without a popular mandate which can easily be overthrown, as we saw recently with Egypt), and to trust Israel’s security to apathetic parties like UNIFIL in Lebanon, which has done nothing to protect Israel’s security as Hizbullah has carried out terror attacks and steadily rearmed itself in Southern Lebanon. Kasher’s views on Israel’s need to defend itself, despite all this urging to risk our security is in the following statement:
I was born here and my parents came here long before World War II. I didn’t go through the Holocaust. My wife did. My wife is a survivor. What lesson do I learn from World War II? That we cannot rely on anybody else. That when it’s time to protect ourselves, there’s no one else we can rely on. And we have no exemption, ever, from thinking about how best to protect ourselves. And if the enemy puts children on all the roofs of the buildings from which it fires on us, we will not capitulate to them. It’s a tragic situation, but we won’t capitulate.
There is much more to this article than I’ve excerpted here, and for those wishing to educate themselves on the way war is being prosecuted against terrorist, non-national entities, on the IDF, its decision-making and its operations, and on the ethics involved in current conflicts, this is the best thing I’ve come across ever.