IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot (R), Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: GPO)
Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot urged soldiers to adhere to the rules of engagement when confronting terrorist attackers.
“When there’s a 13-year-old girl holding scissors or a knife and there is some distance between her and the soldiers, I don’t want to see a soldier open fire and empty his magazine at a girl like that even if she is committing a very serious act,” Eisenkot told a group of high school students in Bat Yam. “Rather, I want to see that soldier use the force necessary. I think that our soldiers are professional enough and moral enough to do that.”
Eisenkot’s message to the future soldiers was clear: Maintaining the highest possible moral standards in the IDF is an imperative. Even in extreme situations soldiers have a moral obligation to carefully weigh the use of deadly force.
The chief of staff did not say it was forbidden to kill when necessary to save oneself or others. He simply was warning the students not to take lightly the value of life, even when the life at stake belongs to one’s enemy.
Maintaining strict rules of engagement is important for a number of reasons. When soldiers are asked to adhere to the highest moral standards when using lethal force they internalize a sense of purpose. They know that when they shoot they have full justification for doing so. Nothing can more demoralizing than the excessive use of force. We all have a moral conscience and none of us wants to kill unnecessarily or to serve in an army that does. Lax rules of engagement lead to demoralization and the loss of a sense of purpose. Knowledge that the IDF strives to be the most moral army in the world is a strong motivating factor for soldiers that builds morale.
Strict rules of engagement also foster discipline. A trigger- happy soldier is dangerous not just to the enemy but to his comrades. Adhering to strict rules regarding when to open fire and when not to saves lives.
Finally, maintaining high moral standards in the IDF helps Israel in the battle for world opinion. When IDF soldiers are caught on camera using excessive force or overreacting when the assailant happens to be a 13-year-old girl brandishing a pair of scissors, this reflects badly on Israel.
In contrast, when IDF soldiers behave with discipline and sensitivity this sends out a positive message.
Unfortunately, Eisenkot was attacked by right-wing politicians who seemed to be motivated more by base populism than by a genuine concern for the IDF, morality or human life.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely took Eisenkot to task for damaging Israel’s image.
“The international community very much loves to accuse Israel of using disproportionate force,” she told Channel 2. “At the end of the day the conduct of security forces has been exemplary.”
Hotovely seems to think that it would be more effective for Israel’s public diplomacy if the chief of staff were to praise the IDF and never criticize it. We beg to differ: A chief of staff who demands the highest moral standards of his soldiers and does not hesitate to criticize them when they fail to meet those standards makes a much more positive impression on would-be Israel-bashers.
Transportation Minister Israel Katz also criticized Eisenkot.
The day after the chief of staff made his comments, a teenage Palestinian stabbed to death Tuvia Yanai Weissman in a supermarket in Sha’ar Binyamin. Katz voiced his “hope” that Eisenkot’s comments did not cause “hesitation” on the part of those who confronted the terrorist.
Perhaps Katz, Hotovely and the other members of the government who attacked Eisenkot believe that by publicly criticizing him, they can transfer blame for failure to stop the wave of terrorism from themselves – the people who decide policy – to the IDF and the man who stands at its head.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support for Eisenkot, calling the debate over his comments “futile” and “political.”
“The chief of staff stated the obvious, and the soldiers and security officials operated in that manner,” Netanyahu said. “Everything said afterward was either said out of a lack of understanding, or for political attack. They are both unacceptable.”
Coping with the present wave of terrorism is not easy. It is upsetting and frustrating to all Israelis, including our political leadership. Lashing out at Eisenkot, a fine chief of staff who has done more than anyone else to battle terrorists, is not the answer to this frustration.