Missing medals

We must recognize when our soldiers sacrifice their lives in order to protect enemy civilians.

IDF Troops walking 298 (photo credit: AP)
IDF Troops walking 298
(photo credit: AP)
The battle over Bint Jbail, in which eight IDF soldiers were killed on Wednesday, produced many stories of heroism. Maj. Ro'i Klein, 31 and father of two children, died when he jumped on a live grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Many others risked their lives to extract the bodies of their fallen comrades. Some of these soldiers should receive medals of valor. They also deserve, however, another medal that they will not receive, partly because this other form of heroism is barely noted, let alone appropriately recognized. Let's us call this non-existent medal a "Geneva medal" - to be awarded to soldiers whose deaths, wounds, or extreme risks to their lives came about as part of an attempt to minimize civilian casualties on the enemy's side, in the spirit of the Geneva conventions. That the the soldiers of Golani Battalion 51 who entered Bint Jbail on foot deserve such medals is evident when the simple question is asked: why were they there? Bint Jbail was Hizbullah's "capital" in Lebanon. It is a city where before this war thousands of people lived, and where Hizbullah buried numerous bunkers in residential areas. Israel warned the civilians there to leave and attempted to hit Hizbullah while minimizing the harm to those civilians who remained. But from the air, there was a limit to how much Hizbullah could be separated from the civilians it was hiding behind. This is especially so since Hizbullah, it has been widely reported, has been physically preventing civilians from fleeing at gunpoint. This situation presented Israel with four choices: bomb without warning, to maximize the element of surprise; bomb after warning civilians to leave; send in elite ground forces only for the purpose of guiding airstrikes; and send in troops on the ground to drag enemy fighters out and engage them face to face. The IDF chose the last option. This choice placed our own soldiers in maximum danger, in part out of conventional military effectiveness considerations, but also clearly to minimize casualties among civilians who refused to flee or were held hostage by Hizbullah. This is, understandably, a controversial choice at home. Moshe Keynan, the father of a soldier killed in another conflict, expressed the views of many: "We need to worry about our kids returning to their parents ... not how we look on BBC." Even the author of the IDF's Code of Ethics, Professor Asa Kasher, told The Jerusalem Post this week that it may be morally justified to obliterate areas with a high concentration of terrorists, even if civilian casualties result. The debate over where to strike the balance between military effectiveness and sparing civilian lives will continue in the IDF and in our society. There are no simple answers. And yet it must be recognized when our soldiers do in fact sacrifice their lives because a choice has been made to err on the side of protecting enemy civilians. This recognition should come first and foremost from those who are most vocally urging such a choice upon on us. Almost every statement by Western leaders during this war has included a call for Israeli "restraint." (A Google search for "Israel" and "disproportionate" produces almost five million results.) Israel, however, has not used napalm against villages like the United States did in Vietnam. An encyclopedia description of French fighting in Algeria - "Uncounted thousands of Muslim civilians lost their lives in French army ratissages, bombing raids, and vigilante reprisals" - does not suggest greater sensitivity than Israel has shown. It is not fair to the IDF, or to the memory of our fallen soldiers, to suggest that they were sent in harm's way in the vain hope of pleasing any country, let alone the BBC. We would like to think that our army would behave differently than others even absent international hectoring. Still, it rankles that not a single government which has accused us of disproportionality has noted, much less praised, Israel for making concrete sacrifices in order to spare the lives of civilians used as human shields by our enemies. And this is not only an injustice to Israel. It also encourages those fighting Israel to continue using this barbaric tactic, thereby endangering the very civilians the international community claims to be trying to protect.