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
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
by the Jewish state when waging unconventional warfare.
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
mortar fire. Firing long-range missiles at Hamas terrorists embedded in
residential areas precludes the need for IDF soldiers to risk their
entering dangerous areas to eliminate terrorists in a more “surgical”
but increases the chances of unintended civilian deaths.
There are no
easy answers to these ethical conundrums, though it is only natural for
to put the lives of both its civilians and its soldiers before the lives
non-combatants on the enemy side, especially when many of these
directly or indirectly support terrorism. America, Britain, Germany and
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
adopting new measures such as the deployment of “humanitarian affairs
in every unit from the battalion level up, and the restriction of the
The quest for ethical perfection is an ephemeral goal,
never to be fully realized. But in its grappling with nearly
challenges, the Jewish State is proof that it is possible for democratic
to win unconventional wars against terrorists while refusing to
moral integrity. The IDF handling of the Al-Maqadmah mosque incident,
to thoroughly investigated finish, underlines this.