Editor's Notes: The moralist

When your enemies do not follow the rules of war... An eye-opening interview with the man who helps set the IDF’s ethical parameters

IDF soldiers (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Asa Kasher co-authored the first IDF Code of Ethics and continues to work on the moral doctrines that shape the parameters of our army’s actions.
He has taught at the IDF colleges since the late 1970s and for a long time was the only professor talking to officers about military ethics. When the IDF decided to try writing a Code of Ethics, he was approached and appointed head of a team of generals that wrote a draft and then the final version of the 1994 code, which was approved by chief of staff Ehud Barak and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In the wake of Richard Goldstone’s belated withdrawal of the accusation that Israel deliberately targeted civilians in Operation Cast Lead, and the fresh round of moral argument the judge’s climbdown has provoked, I contacted Kasher to discuss the IDF’s ethics. I wanted to understand the thinking that underpins IDF dos and don’ts, the problematics of grappling with enemies that do not follow any such rules, and the gaping discrepancy, Goldstone’s reversal notwithstanding, between most Israelis’ certainty of the IDF’s morality and the international diplomatic, media and legal community’s relentless opprobrium.
I also wanted to put to Kasher specific criticisms of IDF actions in Gaza, including some that have been penned by columnists in this newspaper. Among them: the assertion that Israel was unwarrantedly heavy-handed in Operation Cast Lead, that the “kill ratio” of Israelis and Palestinians indicates a disproportionate Israeli response, and that we can hardly complain about Hamas fighting out of uniform and from within residential areas when it is Hamas that was under attack from an invading Israel in that operation, and it naturally defended itself as effectively as it could.
These are not criticisms, I should add, for which I feel any sympathy. But they are widely invoked, they will be raised again if, or rather when, the IDF is next drawn into conflict, and I wanted the IDF’s guiding moralist to address them.
Kasher said much that I might have anticipated, but a great deal more, too, that placed Israel’s recent wars in a context that I had not fully drawn before. I was particularly struck by his explanation for the change in IDF approach over recent years to the endangering of its soldiers – the altered balance it has drawn, prompted by Kasher, when it comes to the safety of its personnel, on the one hand, and the “non-dangerous neighbors” of terrorists, on the other.
People think, he said, “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.” When it comes to Israeli soldiers, “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, this is a democratic state that is obligated to protect its citizens. How dare I endanger him?”
Prof. Kasher, I want to talk to you about the nature of the warfare Israel has been drawn into in recent years – the fact that it’s not army against army. Israel is now fighting against enemies that maintain their offensive capabilities in the heart of residential areas, and that fire into our residential areas.
As someone central to drafting the IDF’s moral code, I want to ask you about the moral considerations that underpin the way Israel fights these wars. And I want to know whether you believe we are capable of continuing to defend ourselves, practically and morally, against enemies that often have no moral compunctions. Are we capable, that is, of surviving, protecting ourselves, without sinking to their level?
I was very struck, in 2006, when I interviewed the then-air force commander Eliezer Shkedy, and he told me the Gaza Kassam crews often took kids out with them when they went to fire on Israel. I asked him whether we regarded these children as combatants, and thus were prepared to fire at them. He was offended by the question.
He said that of course the IAF wouldn’t fire on them. What it had done, he said, was improved its accuracy so that it could target the Kassam crews more precisely without hitting the children. (“If we know that [the terrorist] is holding his son’s hand, we do not fire,” Shkedy said then. “Even if the terrorist is in the midst of firing a Kassam, and the Kassam is aimed to kill. We do not fire. You should know that.”)
I want to know whether we are still that careful, whether we’re still prepared to follow that kind of framework. I wonder whether it is moral not to fire when a Kassam crew is about to fire on Israeli civilians but a child that the crew has brought with them is too close and might therefore be hit.
But let’s begin with this question: Can we survive here, facing enemies that use immoral methods, without sinking to their levels?
Our responsibility is to maintain our moral standards. That’s a very important starting point because in matters of war it can sometimes get blurred. People are always talking about factors like international law, public opinion, the Western world – that is, outside factors that we’re supposed to match up to. No, I say we have to uphold our own standards.
What are those standards?
We take decisions that reflect our acceptance of some aspects of international law; other parts, we have not accepted. The prime question, in these fields of morals and ethics, is what I see when I look in the mirror – not when I watch the BBC.
When the enemy becomes more ruthless and harsher than it was in the past, then we have to protect ourselves in smarter and different ways, but still according to the standards that we have set for ourselves.
You can use the analogy of a police officer at a bank robbery. If he sees that the robber is holding a toy gun, he won’t shoot him. He’ll simply catch him. But if it’s a real gun, and the robber has already killed hostages and he’s about to kill more, and the only way to stop him and save the hostages is to shoot him, the policeman will shoot him.
That robber’s actions have required me to protect myself from him via harsher measures. It’s not a case of: he’ll shoot so I’ll shoot, or he’ll do terrible things so I’ll also do terrible things, or he doesn’t care about killing hostages so I won’t care about killing robbers. That’s absolutely not the point at all. He doesn’t care about killing hostages, but I do care: I don’t want to kill him unless there’s truly no alternative.
This robber is threatening people’s lives, so we will shoot him if there is no other alternative. If we can catch him without firing on him at all, excellent. If we can catch him by injuring him, without killing him, excellent. If there’s no alternative, it’s a tragedy to hit him, but that’s what has to be done.
And that broadly is what is happening with our enemies today. If our enemy would fight on the battlefield, on open ground, in uniform, carrying his weapons openly, then it would be a case of an army facing off against a force that behaved like an army, and children and other non-dangerous people would not get hurt. But the enemy has changed the way it fights. So we have no choice. We have to protect ourselves as necessary.
Now there’s a basis to what we have to do: We are a democratic state. And that means two things. One, we are obligated to effectively protect our citizens from all danger. So we have a police force, to protect against crime. A Health Ministry, to protect against medical dangers. A Transportation Ministry, against the dangers on the roads. And we have a Defense Ministry, to protect us against the dangers our enemies represent.
The state cannot evade this obligation. It can’t say, “I am busy, I have more important things to do.” There is nothing more important than protecting citizens’ lives. Nothing.
A democratic state wants to deal with all kinds of other things, all kinds of agreements, citizens’ rights, elections, free media and so on. Okay, fine. But to enjoy all or any of that, you have to be alive. Before you get to any of that, to protect any of that, you have to protect my life. 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.
This applies even in our interactions with terrorists. I am respecting the terrorist’s dignity when I ask myself, “Do I have to kill him or can I stop him without killing him?”
And I certainly have to respect the human dignity of the terrorists’ nondangerous neighbors – who are not a threat. We always talk about “innocents,” but “innocence” is not the issue here. The issue here is whether they are dangerous. So the correct translation is “non-dangerous.”
As in, non-threatening?
Yes, that’s the significance. If they are “not dangerous,” that means I don’t have even the beginning of a moral right to harm them deliberately.
Okay, so that’s some of the theory. Now relate that to Operation Cast Lead.
Fine. We have to protect our citizens and we have to respect human dignity. But when it comes to a war like Operation Cast Lead, those two imperatives are likely to clash. I am obligated to protect my citizens, but I have no way to protect them without the non-dangerous neighbors of the terrorists becoming caught up in the conflict. What am I to do?
Two things: First, you decide what is more important in the given situation. And second, you do whatever you can so that the damage to the other side is as small as possible: Maximizing effective defense of the citizens; minimizing collateral damage.
How do I decide which of the conflicting imperatives is more important? People don’t like this idea, because they don’t understand it: They think it is immoral to give priority to the defense of the citizens of your state over the protection of the lives of the neighbors of the terrorists. They don’t understand that the world is built in such a way that responsibility is divided.
Please elaborate.
We are responsible for the residents of the State of Israel. Canada is responsible for the residents of Canada. Australia, for Australia. And that’s just fine. We are not responsible for the lives of Canadians in the same way as we are for the lives of Israelis and vice versa. This is completely accepted and completely moral and no one questions this. We don’t have one world government that is responsible for everything. We have states with their own responsibilities.
Now from this stems the fact that when you have clash of imperatives, this responsibility for one’s own citizens takes precedence over the other responsibility to the non-dangerous neighbors. This isn’t anything to do with us being Israel, or Jews. The same applies to the United States or to Canada or to any other country.
I cannot evade my prime responsibility to protect the well-being of the citizens of my country. Now, among all the means I could use to protect them, I will choose those that are better morally – better from the point of view of the effectiveness of the protection and the minimalization of the damage to the neighbors of the terrorists.
And what do we do to minimize the harm done to the neighbors of the terrorists?
We can’t separate the terrorist from his neighbors. We can’t force the terrorists to move away, because they don’t want to move away. That’s their whole strategy: To be there. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they want to work from within. The terrorists have erased the difference between combatants and non-combatants.
They live in residential areas. They operate from within residential areas. They attack civilians. And they won’t leave when I tell them to leave. No one has the power to move them from where they are without conquering the entire area, which requires special justifications.
But if we can’t force the terrorist out, we can make the effort to move his neighbors. He won’t move away from his neighbors, but maybe his neighbors will move away from him. And experience shows that this kind of effort succeeds. That is, very many non-dangerous neighbors do move away from terrorists if they are warned.
So Israel, the IDF, carries out very intensive warning operations. Unprecedented. There are those who don’t like the term, “the most moral army in the world.” I think it’s a very complex phrase, and one has to make all kinds of professional diagnoses. You can’t just blithely invoke it. But let’s look at that claim in this particular context.
Who tries harder than we do to warn the neighbors [to leave a conflict zone]? Who does it better than we do? I don’t know if the public realizes this, but we recently carried out precisely such an act of warning – by publishing a map of Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon. Israel released details of hundreds of villages where Hezbollah has a position deep inside the village. From there, they’ll fire on us if and when they want to, and we will have to protect ourselves. That means we’ll have to fire into the village.
The publication of this map is a warning: We know, it says, that Hezbollah is intertwining its terrorists with non-dangerous neighbors. Understand that to protect ourselves in this situation will mean endangering the populace. The populace has to know that it is in a dangerous situation.
What to do in this dangerous situation? We don’t know. We’re telling those non-dangerous neighbors to give it some thought. Try to kick out Hezbollah? That is apparently very difficult. Move away from the Hezbollah position? Perhaps that is possible. Get away when the time comes? That may sound theoretical at present, but when the time comes, who knows? The fact is, this is an advance warning.
Now let’s come to Operation Cast Lead in this context. We distributed leaflets [to Gaza civilians, telling them that they should leave a potential conflict zone]. It may be that we can do that better – distribute better leaflets, more detailed, with more precise guidance on how to get away. We broke into their radio and TV broadcasts to give them announcements, to warn them. That can be done still more effectively.
We made phone calls to 160,000 phone numbers. No one in the world has ever done anything like that, ever. And it’s clear why that is effective. It’s not a piece of paper that was dropped in my neighborhood. The phone rang in my own pocket! Yes, it was a recorded message, because it’s impossible to make personal calls on that scale. But still, this was my number they dialed. It was a warning directed personally to me, not some kind of general warning.
And finally, we had the “tap on the roof” approach. The IDF used nonlethal weaponry, fired onto the roofs [of buildings being used by terrorists]. That weaponry makes a lot of noise. It constituted a very strong, noisy hint: We’re close, but you still have the chance to get out.
What we don’t use is nohal shachen (the “neighbor protocol”). I recently read comments by a British general, a commander in Afghanistan...
Gen. Richard Kemp?
No, this was someone else, saying at a press conference, how moral his forces are. And then he described their policy, which was nohal shachen, as the symbol of the morality of British soldiers.
What did he say, specifically, that they do?
He said that when they are facing a terrorist hiding out in a building with non-dangerous neighbors, they make one of the neighbors telephone or speak through a loudspeaker to the Taliban terrorist who is in this building, and say that rather than killing him and the neighbors and destroying the house, he should surrender and that he’ll be taken away with various guarantees. This British commander was very proud of this ostensibly humane procedure – a procedure that the courts here forbid us to do. We don’t do it.
We issue warnings in an unprecedented way – not one warning, but many. We make enormous efforts to get the neighbors away from the terrorists.
Now there’s one more thing that maybe we could do, and there’s an argument surrounding it: send soldiers into the building. Send in soldiers to check that maybe someone has stayed. I am against this. Very against this.
So there’s a difference between what we did in Jenin [during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, where 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush] and what we did in Gaza?
Yes, we changed our approach. The approach is more appropriate now. I think what we did in Jenin was a mistake. There was a primitive conception that “it’s all right to endanger soldiers.” Every time there was a dilemma like this – soldiers here and non-soldiers on the other side – the soldiers were endangered.
Why was that wrong?
You need, to a certain limit, to warn the people to get out. At a certain point, the warnings are over and there are two possibilities. That people have stayed because they don’t want to leave or because they can’t leave. If they can’t leave, despite all the warnings, despite the possibilities to get them out, even to send ambulances to get them out, that’s interesting to me, and we’ll come back to that.
But if a neighbor 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?
Even in uniform, he is still considered one of those citizens that the state is obliged to protect?
Yes, he is one of the citizens that I have an obligation to protect. But somebody has to do the protecting. So each generation produces its soldiers. Now it’s this generation. Before that it was their parents. After this, it will be their children. Their turn. Their generation.
But even now that it’s this generation, that these are the people in uniform, I need a very strong reason to send them somewhere dangerous.
Why do I conscript them to the army? Two words: No choice. Given the threats around us, a volunteer, standing army would not be sufficient.
And why did we send them to Gaza? Because for eight years before Operation Cast Lead, we tried all the other options. It didn’t help. There was no choice. We sent the army to Gaza because there was no choice.
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.
And what, now, of the issue of civilians who are prevented by the terrorists from leaving a conflict zone?
This has to be handled in a graduated fashion. I’ll explain. Let’s imagine a fictitious situation, whereby the terrorists have forced 20 children onto the roofs of every single building in Gaza that has been marked as a target because it has terrorists in it. That’s what I see in my reconnaissance photographs. Every single roof is covered with children.
That means that I can’t fire on those buildings. But they’re firing at me from those buildings. There are 20 children on the roof, and from the house the terrorists are firing. It’s the same in every house. If I can’t fire on any house because there are children on the roof, I have lost my capacity to protect myself. There is nothing I can do.
Always in those circumstances, people say, “Well, make peace.” Fine. Great. I want peace. We have to seek peace. But right now I’m facing these houses and they’re firing at me. Talking about a peace conference now is not really the point. Or people say, as with the cop facing the murderous bank robber, “Don’t shoot him. We need to clean up the neighborhood so that the people have jobs and don’t turn to crime.” Again, great, yes, that’s true. We have to create a situation where there aren’t criminals in that neighborhood, but right now I’ve got an armed robber in the bank and he’s threatening to kill his hostages. So, right now I have to protect the citizens of my state, and if I don’t fire at any of the houses that have children on the roof, then I won’t be able to protect my civilians. And that’s unthinkable, out of the question.
So, what I have to do, and it’s tragic however you look at it, is fire at one of those houses. The first place that they fire at me from, even though there are children on the roof, I will immediately fire on it, and some of those children will be killed – because I have no choice, because I have no other means to protect myself. The terrorists took away from me the normal means of self-defense. It’s out of the question that I not protect myself, so I hope the terrorists will take the children off the roofs, and I will wait for them to take the children off the roofs in order to defend myself against the terrorists, but if they don’t take the children off the roofs, I will continue. I have no choice. A state cannot say “I will allow my citizens to be killed because the enemy has placed children on all the roofs and I will not kill children.”
That brings me back to what you mentioned at the very beginning about your interview with former air force commander Shkedy and the circumstances when Israel will fire and won’t fire.
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.
But when it’s now or never, there is no choice. I wouldn’t sleep after giving an order which involved killing not only terrorists but also the daughter of a terrorist. If there is a choice, you have to use it because of your imperative to respect human dignity. But sometimes there’s no choice.
Is Israel facing more and more such dilemmas? Are there more and more situations in which commanders would find it hard to sleep?
We will always be obligated to protect our citizens. We will never relinquish that obligation. This is very profound. This is Israel. This is the state of the Jewish people.
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.

This also requires leadership that is capable of explaining to the soldiers why they have to do this – why they have to do something totally counter-intuitive.
Absolutely. And the package of measures that we take to minimize the harm to those who are not dangerous to us is truly without equal anywhere else.
When we carry out targeted killings, the approvals process is exhaustive. Then there’s a stage when it goes through “operational research.” A model of the situation is created in order to determine the most appropriate weaponry, the most appropriate plane to use, the most appropriate angle so that there’s a high likelihood that the terrorist will be hit but that the collateral damage will be as low as possible. And what Shkedy told you about targeted strikes is confirmed in the statistics. The numbers for collateral damage in such strikes are very, very small nowadays.
Now let’s say, in one such strike against a key terrorist, the pilot has fired his missile and in those few seconds before it hits the pilot suddenly sees a school bus appear on the scene. He doesn’t need anyone’s permission to abort the mission and detonate the missile elsewhere, harmlessly. He decides not to attack, in order not to cause collateral damage.
Obviously they would never seek out a yellow school bus, as was done a few days ago [in the Hamas missile attack near Kibbutz Sa’ad in which Daniel Viflik, 16, was killed]. We make immense efforts to minimize the damage on the other side, to minimize the harm to people who do not constitute a threat.
These Palestinians and Hezbollah, they’re playing this win-win game and it’s depressing to see. If Israel doesn’t fire at them, they’re very happy, and I can understand that. But if Israel does fire on them, and children are hurt, they’re also happy. They celebrate. I believe that these losses destroy the mothers and the fathers. But the community is ostensibly happy: “Great, we’ve got something nasty to say against Israel. Israel kills children.”
And you have this whole community, including parts of the international media and some Israelis, who look at these episodes with one eye. This community sees only the poor children who have been killed. And they really are pitiful children. What’s the emerging narrative? That Israel kills children and doesn’t care about it. Such aggressors. Such barbarians. And all the thousand things we do precisely to avoid such situations are ignored.
This community and various international political bodies tell us, “Yes, you’re entitled to defend yourselves. We can’t take that away from you. The right to self-defense is in the charter of the United Nations. So yes, you have to protect yourselves. But you mustn’t harm anybody who isn’t dangerous.” There is no such reality. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan.
Well, they ask that Israel not be disproportionate, that it not be too heavy-handed.
It’s good that you mentioned that. 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?
And, finally, this whole concept of proportionality exists in international law only in situations where you know that you’re going to harm non-dangerous people. It’s not relevant in other circumstances. This is designed for situations where noncombatants will be hurt and in those circumstances the commander in the field must weigh the benefits and the damage. The questions of proportionality are clear only at the extremes. Between those extremes, only the commander in the field can weigh the balance. It’s very hard to give him a formula.
I want to put to you some of the criticisms that have been raised about why and how the IDF conducted Operation Cast Lead, including objections raised by columnists in this newspaper. It’s been asserted that we, Israel, invaded their territory, and they were defending themselves against us. The kill ratio, of approximately 100 to 1, has been highlighted as ostensible evidence of the IDF’s disproportionate use of force. It’s been argued that, of course Hamas didn’t engage in open, conventional conflict with us – army to army, in uniform – because they would have lost. Their only chance was to fight from within residential areas. And it’s been asserted, again as evidence of an ostensible Israeli overreaction, that while Israel sustained a little over two dozen fatalities from their attacks on us between 2005 and 2008, their losses in that period totaled 1,250.
First of all, it’s absolutely ridiculous, and I have no other word, to say that we invaded their territory and therefore they were defending themselves from us, as though we stormed in out of the clear blue sky and they were protecting themselves. The true picture is that they attacked Israel non-stop and Israel was defending itself from their relentless attacks. If they had not relentlessly attacked us, the IDF would not have gone in.
Yes, but they offered a kind of cease-fire at the last moment.
But they always breach their ceasefires. They fire on us and then they declare a cease-fire so that we won’t be able to protect ourselves against their next attack, against their next attack on a school bus. Out of the question.
Self-defense does not only mean the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Self-defense constitutes a lot of other things as well. Iron Dome-style is a case of, okay, he fired on me, I intercepted the missile in mid-air and so he didn’t succeed in hurting me. That’s great. But self-defense means that I need to silence him – to cause him not to attack me next time, in a few moments, with the means that he’s used to attack me now.
I have to deny him the capacity to do that?
Yes. Not in the widest sense of what that might entail, but by means that are appropriate for the situation.
Look at the Second Lebanon War. It began with the kidnapping of soldiers and the killing of soldiers. Does that mean that I am allowed only to kidnap or kill a few Hezbollah soldiers? No. I have to ensure that Hezbollah is not able now or in the near future to carry out a similar action. Self-defense extends to attacking the source of the attack he has just carried out and from which he would be able to attack me again in a moment. If I don’t take action, he will presumably attack me again. He always wants to attack me. I have no reason to think that there will only be one Kassam or Katyusha. He’ll fire another.
So, coming back to Cast Lead, this was certainly not our invasion and their defense. When facing the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union in World War II, did the Germans have the moral right to self-defense because those armies invaded their country? The entire invasion of the allies into Germany was self-defense against Nazi Germany. To claim that, in Gaza, they are defending themselves against our invasion is really a not-serious objection.
Now, as to the matter of kill ratio. That’s not the point. It’s not a sporting contest. You ask yourself, “What is he doing to me?” – not in terms of the damage but in terms of the danger.
Look at what happened with the recent attack on the school bus. Only one child was killed. “Only one.” One too many. But if the terrorist had fired five minutes earlier, there would have been dozens of children killed. The fact is that there’s a danger to the lives of children traveling in a school bus on the roads of Israel. That [most of the children] were lucky this time, that one child was killed and the rest not, does not enter the equation.
Let’s say I have the ultimate Iron Dome system and nobody is being killed from their attacks. Am I therefore barred from attacking those who are firing on me? Of course not. I have to be concerned for a dangerous situation in which Iron Dome doesn’t work, or doesn’t work properly, or I don’t have enough Iron Dome batteries in service. I need to silence the source of the danger and therefore I am permitted to attack it.
As for the numbers of those killed on the other side, that needs to be examined without any connection to how many were killed on our side. Hamas today admits to having lost very high numbers of people who were directly connected to Hamas. All those “policemen” [killed in IAF attacks at the start of Cast Lead] were not policemen in the Western sense of the word. Those weren’t people employed to give speeding tickets. Information published soon after Cast Lead detailed their combat deployment, the role each of them was to play when the IDF came in. This was a support force for the Hamas army. We hit them legitimately.
Now, there were 200 people who were not dangerous who were killed.
Just 200?
Yes, 200 who had no link to Hamas. All the rest had a clear tie to Hamas. And each of the cases in which those 200 were killed must be checked. Those 200 are, of course, 200 too many. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have carried out the operations of Cast Lead as we did. But it does mean that if there’s a Cast Lead II, we’ll have to use approaches that mean there won’t be the 200 – that there’ll be the fewer the better.
We can learn from each of the circumstances in which the 200 were killed. On the margins, some of those deaths stemmed from a lack of professionalism, where a soldier didn’t do what he should have done. Obviously there are things to correct.
But I would stress that to have the military police question hundreds of soldiers after an operation like this, while I understand the political effect, is not good for the army. It won’t save lives. You have to rely on the probes that the army itself carries out.
People think the ideal treatment is to send in the toughest police investigators and mete out the heaviest punishments. You can give any punishment you like. But it won’t solve problems that stem from a lack of professionalism, or mistakes in judgment, or misunderstandings, that cause people to get killed. Some of our soldiers were also killed, by our own fire. No one on our side wanted to kill our own soldiers, but it happened. They were killed. So obviously there are things to correct on the level of professionalism. Simply punishing people won’t help in any way.
Internal army investigations are the correct forum for addressing this, initially at least. If it turns out to be necessary, you have a military prosecutor and it becomes a legal matter.
There was a case in the military courts of two Givati soldiers, from a combat engineering unit, who took a Palestinian kid and told him to open a suspicious bag. What’s extraordinary about this story – and I’ve read all the court papers – is that these soldiers were standing right next to him. If the kid had set off an explosive, they would also have been killed. And when the kid could not open the bag, they fired at it. Again, if it had exploded, they would all have been killed. And these were soldiers whose military expertise was in handling explosives. So this was a failure of judgment by soldiers who hadn’t slept, I was told, for three days. Unprofessional work.
Now, of course, this was inexcusable. They were rightly tried and punished for taking and using the child in this way. But the main problem was that they acted unprofessionally. That’s what needs to be corrected.
I want to return to those Hamas policemen who were killed on day one of Cast Lead. On that day they weren’t engaging in terrorism. They were at a graduation ceremony. And yet you say it was morally acceptable to kill them?
When you enter a place, you have to think about not only who is firing on you, but on who will be firing on you. That’s the rationale behind the laws of war. In this case, those forces certainly had the potential to hurt the IDF. Gaza is a very small place. This is Hamas. These were the forces that were helping Hamas. And therefore it was clear that tomorrow they would be joining up with the forces trying to hurt the IDF.
What about the argument that Hamas would obviously be defeated by the IDF in a conventional war and therefore its only chance is to fight from within residential areas?
Listen, we’re not living in the Middle Ages. These are not wars between knights, where it’s not fair if one has a big spear and the other has a little dagger. This is about the obligation to provide effective protection for my citizens. The fact that you are weak militarily does not exempt you from the measures I have to take to protect my citizens.
If you take steps toward peace, then we won’t be firing at each other. So, at a diplomatic level, I will tell you that I want peace. But there was a disengagement. I left your area altogether. What do you want from me? Israel left completely. It wasn’t easy. Part of the public felt terrible pain. Personally, it didn’t pain me to leave areas that we conquered in 1967. But to see that after 30 years we were destroying all the homes and pulling out the children who were born there, my heart ached for those children.
So we left, and what have we got? The Hamas Charter, which says you have to destroy Israel. Gilad Schalit, and no allowing the Red Cross to get near him.
Israel will protect itself in the light of the way that it is attacked. If the enemy doesn’t have tanks, then it won’t be a battle of armored forces against armored forces. But it will be a battle, and I will protect myself against whatever you use to attack me. The fact that you don’t have tanks and planes does not justify terrorism. That’s no moral justification. Moral justification is not a function of the means you have. It relates to the limitations on the means that you use.

And yet there is a lot of international empathy for the notion raised, among others, by Ted Turner a few years ago, that they have no weapons apart from their bodies. (“The Palestinians are fighting with human suicide bombers, that’s all they have,” said the CNN founder in 2002.)
Well, they could make peace. When did the suicide bombers start? After Ehud Barak made his offers to Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton [in 2000], and Arafat rejected them. If negotiations fail that doesn’t mean you say, “It’s over, now we have to start shooting.” If negotiations fail, you prepare better for the next round of negotiations. It’s okay for Arafat to say “no” at some stage. That’s how negotiations work. You can say no over and over, but you keep negotiating. Instead of that, that the suicide bombers start coming? Why is there sympathy for that?
People sympathize with that until it happens to them. When it happens to them, they all change. All those countries – Britain, Spain, Sweden – the moment they face terrorism, they change.
But they don’t change. In Britain, for example, after the 2005 London quadruple suicide bombing, people blamed Tony Blair. They said Britain was being attacked because he was too supportive of Israel or too supportive of George Bush in Iraq...
But in practice, in Britain too you now have the Terrorism Act which allows them to do all kinds of things to fight terrorism. Britain is actually the most similar to us because it lived with Irish terrorism for so many years.
But I still don’t see any empathy for Israel.
In my dealings with the representatives of foreign armies, I don’t come up against any opposition to the principles I’ve set out for you. No opposition, except maybe among the Dutch. The Dutch don’t think of themselves as an army – more as a force for policing peace.
Yet international public opinion is hostile, and that influences political opinion, which impacts the international climate, which ultimately can limit Israel’s capacity to protect itself...
Let’s dissect that concept of public opinion and governments and the international climate. Governments follow their own interests. When they have an interest in criticizing us, they criticize us. When they have an interest in defending us, they defend us.
When the Goldstone Report was published, I immediately said that we had nothing to fear from the point of view of implementing international law – because we are more moderate than the rest of the world, and if those were the standards, we would not be able to do anything to protect ourselves, but neither would the US or NATO or anyone else in Iraq or Afghanistan. And therefore the US and NATO could not allow that report to have a practical impact. Now that Goldstone’s written his article, shifting a little, that’s even more the case.
Would Israel have carried out all these investigations without Goldstone?
Yes. And look how few indictments were served in the end. It would have been the same without Goldstone.
So you have these governments whose actions are a function of their interests. You have the Human Rights Council of the United Nations – excuse me, but if people don’t think this is all about politics, just look at this body, which was chaired by Libya and 80 percent of whose decisions are against us. Everyone’s talking differently about Libya today, but this Libya they’re all attacking now is the same Libya that acted against us all the time.
And you have all this talk about occupation, as though we’re the only people on earth in this situation. The situation of occupation is very problematic. But China has been in Tibet for longer. And the former Soviet Union, in those islands north of Japan – also longer. And the world makes no fuss. There are no demonstrations anywhere about the fact that those Japanese islands are under Russian sovereignty. China has raped Tibet, killing monks and nuns, destroying the Tibetan monasteries. No fuss.
It’s all a function of politics. Speaking out against us, it’s because of political interests. And by the way, criticizing us isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism. It can be a function of other issues, of oil issues, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, I don’t know – all kinds of considerations.
As for the international media being largely against us, there are lots of explanations for that. You have to recognize it, and put it in proportion. How important is it what The Guardian says? Now, with the Conservative government in England, who cares what the Guardian says? Does it influence the prime minister? That’s hard to believe. It might matter a bit more shortly before elections. The public, at the margins, may be influenced by the newspapers, but the importance of newspapers in influencing politicians is limited.
Why is it deemed important what the newspapers say? Because they influence public opinion? And why is public opinion important? We have no genuine access to the public’s real opinions. We don’t know exactly what the public is thinking. And you’d have to prove to me that it is important. The public’s influence on politicians is limited.

But the fact is that Israel feels itself increasingly isolated, and there are potential practical implications.
Really? What potential for practical consequences? We as Jews – and I understand this, but we have to stop it – are acutely sensitive to every attack on us. Not only when it’s anti-Semitism or anti-Israel. Even when someone attacks us for this or that government’s politics. The lights go on. “They’re attacking us.” It seems to us to be absolutely terrible. I understand that feeling. We don’t have a history of being loved by everyone. Quite the reverse. But some perspective is required. Obviously we have to be active on all fronts. The international media is a front. So you have the IDF Spokesman. You have the Ministry of Public Diplomacy. Everyone must do what they can to improve this situation. But it’s not that important.
Look what happened after Operation Cast Lead. European leaders and the US president came here. That was a sign of solidarity with Israel. So I don’t think there’s a danger of us becoming [a pariah state] like South Africa.
Practical consequences: This fall, the Palestinians may well take a resolution to the UN General Assembly seeking statehood. And over 100, 120, 130, I don’t know, nations will support it, possibly backed by a “uniting for peace” resolution that carries the potential for non-binding sanctions and boycotts.
First, I don’t know what practical implications there would be. Second, we know that in situations like this we sometimes only have the US and Micronesia with us, and we’ll survive. And third, and most important, we do have to work on the question of Palestinian statehood. With more alacrity than we are doing.
I don’t need to wait for a Bar-Ilan speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and for all kinds of interesting observations from prime minister Sharon, to recognize that it is essential that there be a Palestinian state. The State of Israel, in its Proclamation of Independence, recognized the Palestinian state. It declared that “the right of the Jewish people to establish their state is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” Like all other nations! The Zionist mainstream supported the Partition decision, which provided for a state for the Jews and a state for the Palestinians. We recognized a Palestinian state from the very start.
That’s nothing new. That’s not doing a favor to anyone. The question is under what circumstances will a Palestinian state be established. I don’t have to help in the establishment of something that wants to wipe me out. But that the Palestinians have the right to be a people in their own state, in their territory somewhere between the river and the sea, goes without saying.
I want to come back to the objections to what the IDF did in Gaza. You note that we pulled out all our people, but the objection is that we didn’t free Gaza. We still prevent products going in. We still control the borders. We haven’t given them full control.
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.
Apart from that, we take care that there not be a humanitarian disaster in Gaza from the point of view of food and medicines and needs.

Is existing international law on wars appropriate for the kinds of situations we’ve been discussing, or does it need amending?
International law was created for other purposes. It 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.
And then there’s the question of the practicalities underpinning the rules of war, which requires distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants. It used to be very simple: soldiers have uniforms, with US Army or Marines or IDF written on them. Weapons are carried openly. You’re either in uniform or you’re not. It’s very crude. And it works. It’s clear who are the soldiers and who are not.
Now, it’s a mish-mash. Now, you have citizens with good intentions and citizens with bad intentions. No one can tell you to preserve the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. We preserved it effectively, because it was easy to draw the distinction. Not any more.
I’m not saying we need to change the rules of war. But we need to widen them. Don’t cancel anything, but understand that in these new wars, you need something else. Something else that rests on the same moral basis: to “alleviate the calamities of war,” as someone put it in an international document two hundred years ago.
How do you alleviate the calamities of war? First of all, have no war at all, if possible. But if war erupts, let’s ask ourselves how to realize those principles, how to protect ourselves and warn the non-dangerous neighbors, alleviating the calamities of wars. We need doctrines, in the spirit of international law, that tell us what to do in certain circumstances that are not the classic war situations. And remember, these certain circumstances are always changing. We need a doctrine that is appropriate for every situation.
In the first years of the 2000s, we fought against a civilian organization that dispatched suicide bombers from a political entity – the Palestinian Authority – but not from a state.
Then we had the Second Lebanon War, with Hezbollah, a semi-military organization, supported by the Iranian and Syrian armies, sitting on the territory of the state of Lebanon, and some of its activities were terrorism, and some were guerrilla activities against soldiers.
Then came Operation Cast Lead. Again, not against a state – the PA is in charge, but it’s not a state – but against a semi-military organization, getting support from the same places, from Iran and from Syria, and it is the de facto government. Which was not the case in the two previous cases.
And now, if there’s a Third Lebanon War, Hezbollah sits in the Lebanese government. It is no longer a militia sitting in south Lebanon. It is a party in the Lebanese government. So if it fires on us, we’ll need a different doctrine covering what to do. The Lebanese government includes a party that has a militia that is firing on you. It’s not the Lebanese Army that is attacking you, but you are being attacked by a force that is in the government.
These appropriate doctrines must be informed by the same spirit: we are a democratic state, we must protect our citizens, we respect human dignity, we must minimize collateral damage in every effective means...

And people are working to produce these new doctrines?
[Former IDF Military Intelligence chief] Amos Yadlin and I wrote a doctrine that dealt with targeted killings, in the mid-2000s. Every army that fights needs its doctrine.
Are people working on other aspects?
People are comparing notes. And every international situation is different. But if I look at the way democratic states are grappling with their situations, it’s very similar. So there’s a kind of process. There are treaties that the world has signed up to – Geneva, Hague and so on. And then there is customary international law. The world is full of non-democratic state bodies which don’t interest me. But it seems that the democratic world...

Is following practical doctrines that are very similar?
Yes. I was in Germany not long ago, at a conference on targeted killings. It was an audience of officers. One speaker was a fourstar German general. One was from the International Red Cross. And I was there to detail the Israeli reality. And I presented the approach we have discussed regarding targeted strikes, which Yadlin and I and many others developed in the mid-2000s. The audience accepted it. The man from the Red Cross didn’t object to it.
In the subsequent working groups, the German general said he understood the Israelis. They were in a different situation from the Germans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Germans were forced to operate in similar circumstances to Israel, they would do the same. And remember that today’s Germany is super-democratic.
I hear the same thing everywhere in democratic states. I’ve been to something like 15 of them, from India to Canada. There is no one who will say I don’t have to protect my civilians and to minimize the damage [to the other side]. There is no one who will say I must not harm the other side and minimize the damage to my civilians. No one will say that. No one. Nowhere.
Have there been things that Israel has done, that the IDF has done, that do trouble you?
We do need to greatly improve our professionalism – not only in terms of operating weaponry, but in terms of better understanding the principles I’ve set here.
I’ll give you an example: I heard a certain person say, during Operation Cast Lead, that we have to cause the other side to understand that ba’al habayit hishtagea – that Israel has “gone crazy.” That’s absolutely unacceptable. In fact, we have to cause them to appreciate the very opposite: that Israel is anything but crazy. That Israel acts aggressively only because it has no choice. It hits people only because it has to. It hits non-dangerous people only in a case of collateral damage, while making immense efforts not to harm them.
And if some minister or other says something so unacceptable, because he is irresponsible or because he lacks understanding, that doesn’t mean our soldiers should think that. Their commanders need to explain this to them. They need to understand this.
If the degree of understanding of the key principles I’ve laid out here was greater, it is possible that there would have been fewer than 200 fatalities among the non-dangerous people who were killed in Operation Cast Lead. We don’t explain enough and we don’t understand enough. People perform better when they understand what they are doing.
What do you think of the Israeli media’s coverage of Operation Cast Lead and of the local NGOs, including the rush to highlight the subsequently discredited Rabin military academy allegations in March 2009 that soldiers had deliberately targeted civilians?
Local media is guilty of sensationalism and a lack of responsibility. Haaretz has an agenda and skews everything in the service of that agenda. And others, like Yediot and Ma’ariv, are just sensationalist. There is no connection even between their headlines and the content.
I read the protocol of that discussion in the Rabin academy. I also read everything that the Breaking the Silence soldiers said. I read the full document. That full document emerged only after the international media came to me for a response to the alleged summary that had come out a few days earlier. From that summary, you might have thought they had exposed a huge wave, a tsunami, of war crimes, which it was very hard to believe could be possible. And in fact, it wasn’t possible. Everything was skewed in that report. This is a political body with a political agenda which is legitimate, but it uses methods in my opinion that are not legitimate in terms of media ethics and NGO ethics.
As for B’Tselem, and international NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, they all have double standards. For them, there is the poor, pitiful side and the strong side. Testimony that comes from the pitiful side is taken at face value. Whatever comes from the strong side is tainted – “it’s a spokesman, it’s a whitewash.” Radical suspicion for one side and virtually an unlimited readiness to accept everything that comes from the other. That’s a double standard and it creates an utterly skewed picture. I don’t rely on them.
On the other hand, it doesn’t matter where an accusation comes from, the IDF must take a look at it. The IDF must look into every story from B’Tselem, every story from Machsom Watch, every story from Amnesty International. Not because I rely on them. I don’t. But you don’t have to rely on them to do your work properly. Look into every story. There’s a tiny, microscopic proportion that has some basis, so look, check, find out..