Editorial: Ethics in the war zone

Education, not scare tactics, should be used with soldiers who are courageous and selfless enough to risk their lives in combat to protect their country.

soldiers sunset good 298 (photo credit: IDF)
soldiers sunset good 298
(photo credit: IDF)
Two infantry sergeants from the IDF’s Givati infantry brigade face up to a three-year prison sentence for using a Palestinian boy as a human shield.
On January 15, 2009, in the middle of Operation Cast Lead, the two soldiers were searching a building in the Gaza City suburb of Tel al-Hawa while facing gunfire from Hamas militants, when they came across bags and suitcases suspected of being booby-trapped.
The two soldiers ordered a boy, who had gathered with family and neighbors in a bomb shelter, to open the bags. Apparently the two soldiers were motivated by the desire to protect themselves from a possible explosion.
“The boy, who feared for his fate and was under duress, wet his pants,” wrote the three-judge military court that convicted the two IDF soldiers. “The option of using a civilian, especially a child, was not among the legitimate options at the defendants’ disposal,” the judges wrote. “Combat is no excuse for applying improper force.”
THE JUDGES’ ruling is commendable. IDF soldiers are and should be held to the highest moral standards even when Hamas and other enemies of Israel are not. The IDF’s scrupulous adherence to war ethics gives Israel the incalculable advantage of justness of purpose. This is true even when terrorists cynically exploit Israeli morality to gain the upper hand on the battlefield. Hamas systematically uses Gaza’s civilian population as human shields and purposefully blurs distinctions between militants and non-combatants. The bags discovered by the soldiers could very well have been booby-trapped.
Hamas has no qualms about killing its own people along with IDF soldiers.
Within this context the two soldiers’ behavior, forbidden by both international war conventions and the IDF’s own rules of engagement, can at least be understood, if not condoned, as a failed attempt to meet the nearly insurmountable challenges of fighting asymmetric, unconventional warfare in densely populated residential areas.
Judging from recent reports of purported “boredom killings” carried out by US forces in Afghanistan and documented revenge killings by allied troops in Iraq, other western armies fare no better, and sometimes much worse, than the IDF in such combat settings.
And if we are brutally honest with ourselves – especially those of us with children, relatives or loved ones serving in IDF combat units – we would have a hard time blaming a soldier, faced with a life threatening situation, who chooses to endanger the civilian population of the enemy rather than himself.
In the specific case of the two Givati soldiers, there were other options besides endangering themselves or Palestinians – options such as evacuating the entire building or blowing up the suspicious bags from a distance.
While the two soldiers should be disciplined, they should not be used as an example “so that others will see and be instilled with fear” as the IDF prosecutor’s office argued after the conviction was handed down.
Education, not scare tactics, should be used with soldiers who are courageous and selfless enough to risk their lives in combat to protect their country. Nor should the soldiers be obligated to serve a prison sentence.
A suspended sentence that could be enacted in the case of future infractions is ample enough.
THE CASE of the two Givati soldiers should be used as an opportunity to restate the IDF’s high ethical level and its capacity for self-criticism.
In recent years the IDF has augmented the ranks of the Military Police Investigative Department and has drafted more civilian attorneys into reserve duty to serve as military prosecutors. Judicial officers are consulted before and during the planning stage of counter-insurgency strikes. More emphasis has been placed on war ethics education, including the inculcation of the Spirit of the IDF [ruah tzahal] among troops, which includes an injunction not “to employ their weapons and power in order to harm non-combatants.”
There is always room for improvement. And the handling of the case of the two Givati soldiers underlines that the IDF is committed to precisely that improvement.