In the post below this one, you’ll find my American Prospect article on Breaking the Silence’s book of testimony from soldiers who fought in Gaza last winter. There’s much more I’d like to say, but here are just a few notes in the margins:
But that’s only part of the story. The soldiers who gave testimony to Breaking the Silence repeat that the policy of “shoot first, ask no questions,” of disregarding risk to non-combatants, was set by battalion and brigade commanders. In their descriptions, that policy shaped policy on the ground. The lack of clear rules of engagement – orders on when it was permitted to open fire – stood out, and was different from what the soldiers had experienced before. Either a whole set of battalion and brigade commanders adopted the view that avoiding casualties justified any price to Gazan civilians, or that policy was set even higher up. To blame individual soldiers or lower-level commanders is to fall into tismonet hashin-gimel, the “sentry syndrome,” blaming a private to protect a general.
In fact, there’s been an intense debate among those responsible for setting the IDF’s ethical standards on soldiers’ obligations to avoid harm to enemy civilians. In an article published in Yediot Aharonot in March, Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and Tel Aviv University philosopher professor Assa Kasher argue that soldiers need endanger themselves only to protect the lives of citizens of their own country – meaning that they need take no risks to avoid harm to non-combatants on the other side. Yadlin and Kasher indicate that the army has adopted their position. In a response (unfortunately not on line), professors Moshe Halbertal and Avi Sagi reject that stance as contradicting the IDF’s 2001 code of Ethics, which Halbertal and Sagi helped write. They argue that the IDF’s own standards require soldiers to take “a certain risk” to minimize harm to civilians Halbertal and Sagi know what the ethics code says. From the testimony of soldiers, it appears that Kasher and Yadlin know what the army’s policy was in Gaza.
Politically, though, the issues are intertwined in a curious way, at least in a democracy. The public is more willing to bear the death of its soldiers, terrible as that is, when the reason for fighting is clear and justified and the goals are achievable. When Israel went to war in Lebanon three years ago, the losses to our forces caused public fury. A quarter-articulated force behind the fury was that the Olmert government entered the war hastily, with aims that couldn’t be achieved by bombing and invading Lebanon. (See the conclusions of the Winograd Report on the war.) Our soldiers not only died, they seemed to die pointlessly.
When the Olmert government chose to go to war in Gaza last winter, it left its goals vague. Was the aim to overthrow the Hamas government? To “restore deterrence,” a term left undefined? With goals unclear, the chance of success evaporates, and all losses are politically unacceptable. At some high level, it appears, the lesson learned from Lebanon was to avoid all losses to our side, even if it meant a much higher cost to those living in Gaza.
But even on the level of individual incidents, the spokesman’s response is deceptive. One allegation in the testimony is that Palestinian civilians were used as human shields.Yesterday, B’Tselem issued a press release stating that it had already provided the information that army legal authorities would need to investigate those allegations:
In light of the Israeli military’s attack against the credibility of the soldiers’ testimonies issued by “Breaking the Silence”, B’Tselem has urgently sent the Minister of Defense copies of letters previously sent to the judge advocate general, in which the organization reported grave suspicions that soldiers had used Palestinian civilians as human shields during Operation Cast Lead. The letters were based on testimonies given to B’Tselem by Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and were sent two and three weeks ago.