A report entitled “Gaza Operations Investigation: Second Update” was presented by Israel to the UN this week. It is a response to accusations of “war crimes” raised by the Goldstone Report in the wake of the 22-day-long Operation Cast Lead, which began in December 2008.

Peruse the 40-page report. It is posted in English on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site. Doing so will enhance your understanding of the ethical dilemmas faced by the State of Israel in its fight against terrorism. It will also boost your appreciation for the high moral standards of the IDF’s rules of engagement.

The Al-Maqadmah mosque incident, mentioned in the report, is a case in point. On January 3, 2009, a number of Palestinian civilians were killed by an IDF missile that struck the entrance to the house of prayer in Beit Lahiya. Justice Richard Goldstone’s “Report of the UN Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict” accused Israel of possible war crimes related to these deaths. After an exhaustive investigation, however, the IDF found that the missile strike had been directed at two terrorists observed firing Kassam rockets at Israeli cities in the South. The other casualties were both unintended and unforeseeable.

A number of factors combined to cause these unfortunate fatalities. There was a “ticking bomb” element.

The two Kassam operatives, who originally positioned themselves near a hospital, had to be neutralized before they could escape to launch more rockets at Israeli civilians. IDF commanders who authorized the attack did not know that the building, which had no minaret, was a mosque. An IDF captain who found out that it was, in the brief minutes, if not seconds, after the attack was authorized but before it was carried out, did not say anything and was punished for that failure – being forbidden to continue serving in IDF posts involved in life-and-death decisions. Furthermore, the Israeli command did not know that a door that led into the mosque was open. It was shrapnel from the missile that killed civilians located inside. Finally, two IDF officers selected a more powerful missile than was authorized because the missile that had been approved was not immediately available and, with time running out, no Palestinian civilians could be seen in the area. These officers were punished for that choice as well.

THE AL-MAQADMAH mosque incident, one of 47 criminal investigations conducted by Israel, highlights the thorny moral dilemmas faced by the Jewish state when waging unconventional warfare.

Hamas launches rockets from inside densely populated civilian areas, intentionally and cynically using Gaza’s residents as human shields. Israel is faced with difficult, split-second choices in response.

Launching an offensive against Hamas in Gaza inevitably leads to the unintentional deaths of noncombatants, but refraining from action exposes Israelis to Hamas’s Kassam and mortar fire. Firing long-range missiles at Hamas terrorists embedded in residential areas precludes the need for IDF soldiers to risk their lives entering dangerous areas to eliminate terrorists in a more “surgical” fashion, but increases the chances of unintended civilian deaths.

There are no easy answers to these ethical conundrums, though it is only natural for Israel to put the lives of both its civilians and its soldiers before the lives of non-combatants on the enemy side, especially when many of these “non-combatants” directly or indirectly support terrorism. America, Britain, Germany and other Western countries with forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan behave no differently and often with fewer moral scruples.

There is always room for improvement and Israel continues to strive for it, in the process constantly adopting new measures such as the deployment of “humanitarian affairs officers” in every unit from the battalion level up, and the restriction of the use of white phosphorous.

The quest for ethical perfection is an ephemeral goal, never to be fully realized. But in its grappling with nearly insurmountable challenges, the Jewish State is proof that it is possible for democratic states to win unconventional wars against terrorists while refusing to compromise its moral integrity. The IDF handling of the Al-Maqadmah mosque incident, from start to thoroughly investigated finish, underlines this.

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