Purity of Arms?

The other day an axe-wielding Palestinian terrorist entered a West Bank settlement between Jerusalem and Hebron and murdered a 13-year-old boy with axe blows to his head. The same attacker wounded a 7-year old, who managed to run away. Attempts to subdue the attacker failed.

This is the first challenge for the new right-wing government installed on March 31. Prime Minister Netanyahu has of course called for the apprehension of the terrorist, and the army is on it. Meanwhile, the newly appointed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sends conflicting messages.

One day he insults Egypt, another he wants to exchange visits with them. One day he seems to reject the Annapolis peace process, another day he accepts prior cabinet decisions in support of the two-state solution. One day he comes up with a loyalty oath for all Arab-Israeli citizens, and only them, while another he tries to explain why he is not a racist.

Bemused Jewish Congressional Representatives and other American Jewish leaders are trying to figure out how to deal with this guy. Obama and Hillary Clinton are silent, but can’t be happy. But aside from laying out a carpet for Netanyahu-Lieberman, stained red with Jewish children’s blood, this attack was also fueled by the questionable moral stance of the Israeli Army in the recent Gaza action.

According to The New York Times, confirmed by major Israeli newspapers, a left-wing army commander who runs an army preparatory school wrote an unsettling article in an army publication. In it he quoted Jewish soldiers who were very disturbed by some things they had done in Gaza and, more importantly, by what they described as a permissive attitude toward IDF attacks on civilians.

It’s one thing when Amnesty International or some anti-Israel UN relief workers describe what could be war crimes committed by Israel; it’s quite another to read Israeli soldiers describing their own behavior in similar terms. If you are doubtful, read the transcript of the meeting where the soldiers told their stories. They describe a cavalier attitude in some army units toward the killing of civilians. Aviv, a squad commander, said this:

"You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write 'death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing in understanding how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most.

"One of our officers, a company commander, saw someone coming on some road, a woman, an old woman. She was walking along pretty far away, but close enough so you could take out someone you saw there. If she were suspicious, not suspicious – I don't know. In the end, he sent people up to the roof, to take her out with their weapons. From the description of this story, I simply felt it was murder in cold blood."

In another instance, a family was ordered to leave a house and did, but mistakenly went left instead of right from the front door, and the mother and two children were shot dead. There is no doubt from the transcript and from other reports that these are complex situations and that tragic mistakes are inevitable.

According to the official United Nations estimates, 14,000 buildings in Gaza were completely or partially destroyed and over 1300 people killed, 40 percent of them civilians. If we accept these estimates, the record is far better than has been the case for most armies fighting in urban conditions in recent decades, and there is an anomaly here that nobody discusses.

Consider: How do you destroy 14,000 buildings and kill five hundred people? It can only happen if the vast majority of the buildings are empty. Why were they empty? Because Israel warned people to leave them before they were destroyed. So as callous as it seems to say it, the so-called “collateral damage” was far less than could be expected.

But what is far more disturbing is the description here and elsewhere of an attitude on the part of the IDF leadership, encouraged especially by Orthodox rabbis, that may be making these errors far more numerous than they have to be. Racist graffiti scrawled by Jewish soldiers on the walls of homes. Soldiers spitting on family photographs and defecating routinely inside the houses, even on piles of clothing, and talking in a cavalier manner about the killing of large numbers of civilians.

The army’s official doctrine of ethics, Spirit of the IDF, was once famous for its concept of Tohar HaNeshek—Purity of Arms. It was said to have made the Israeli armed forces the most ethical in the world. In Israel this is now widely considered to be a thing of the past. True, there were always war crimes, but fewer than in many armies, and frequently tried and punished.

Now there may be a permissive attitude toward them, stemming from a new code of ethics—that of right-wing rabbis who see the Palestinians as nothing but permanent enemies and obstacles to resettlement of all their Holy Land. For an army once run mainly by kibbutzniks whose Zionism coexisted with social responsibility and universalist humanism, this is a sea change of large and frightening proportions.

The editors of Haaretz conclude: “The army is absorbing more and more religious extremism from the teachings of the IDF's rabbinate. It would be appropriate to investigate the problems from outside the IDF and root them out before the rot destroys the IDF and Israeli society.”

And, one might well add, American enthusiasm for Israel.

8 thoughts on “Purity of Arms?

  1. Not completely related, but I’m curious: What do you know about a group called J Street? I read an article about them in the neoconservative magazine Commentary.

  2. For those who read Hebrew, here is an article that brings us back to an IDS committed to the purity of arms: http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1076745.html
    In it, Amos Harel reports one officer and three soldiers who were awarded medals yesterday (Apr. 5, 2009) for avoiding harm to civilians in the city of Nablus. In two incidents, armed wanted persons took refuge within their families. The wanted men were captured but their family members were unharmed.

  3. Mel,
    The concept of Tohar Ha Neshek needs to be protected with an all consuming vigilence.  Having said that  it is worth noting that IDF  casualties numbered a little more than 10 in this latest conflict and that compares to the 130+ soldiers killed in the Lebanon war of 2006.  The leadership of the IDF made a very serious effort to limit IDF casualties this time around and in so doing most likely pushed the edge of the envelope of Tohar Ha Neshek.  War essentially boils down to a few basic concepts for survial.  One of the choices is "Us or Them".  Clearly, this time around the IDF was a bit more cautious and in so doing was perhaps overly aggresive with civilians…but lets not forget it was (and still is) Israeli civilans in Sderot and elsewhere in the south who are undergoing a daily barrage of rockets leaving us with the question…us or them?

  4. These comments are most appreciated. This is a difficult issue, and the answers will not be black and white, even to what seem like the most starkly moral questions.

    Jack: J Street is a new lobbying group made up of left-leaning Jews who don’t like being represented by AIPAC, Commentary, and other standard American Jewish organs that they perceive as pulling Israel to the right rather than just straightforwardly supporting her. While I maintain my view that American Jews have not earned the right to make decisions for Israel, I am concerned that the considerable and well organized power of some right-leaning Americans, perhaps especially Orthodox Jews, have led to a situation that amounts to not just "Israel right or wrong" but "Israel right, in both senses of the word." Balance can’t be bad.

    Shlomit: I am very glad you referenced this important story, and I will continue to check Haaretz for the English translation, which so far doesn’t seem to be there. (Perhaps when you get a moment–haha–you can elaborate on the details.) There is no doubt in my mind that there are and will continue to be more cases like this one than like the ones I mentioned in the blog. But the issue that is disturbing of course is not the "bad apples" but whether there is a new attitude that has changed the balance because of the vigor of the Israeli right and it’s growing role in the army.

    Steve: An astute observation, and one made even stronger by the fact that several of the ten deaths were due to "friendly" fire. I agree it comes down in the end to "us or them," but Israel must in the long run consider the strategic value of being viewed as a state whose moral stature is above that of its neighbors–as opposed to the way it is increasingly viewed in Europe and elsewhere. This involves a more complex calculation than the one you offer, yet might save more Israeli lives in the final analysis.

    A Happy Passover, Chag Sameach, A gut Pesach to all, Mel

  5. This is not related to the article but I just ran across an piece you wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution entitled "Carter’s rogue diplomacy hinders peace."
    First of all, I would say that the world needs more dignataries like Jimmy Carter and less people like Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.  
    I guess you would consider this latest headlines in Haaretz to be something that helps peace "U.S. furious over Israel’s demolition of East Jerusalem homes" http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1072813.html.  The Israelis have demolished more than 12,000 homes of innocent Palestinians and these Jews have the nerve to portray themselves as victims.  Israel is the sore thumb of the world.  period.  Is it any wonder that in a recebt European poll that Israel was chosen as the biggest threat to world peace?  http://www.turks.us/article.php?story=20031103151152157

  6. Arab Sudan murders 300,000 in the Darfur genocide. Sri Lankan army kills tens of thousands while suppressing Tamil separatists. China crushes Tibet. Four million die in the war in Central Africa. North Korea launches missiles toward Japan and the U.S. A brutal dictator crushes the people of Zimbabwe. The junta in Burma destroys and imprisons its own people. Iran goes nuclear and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Hamas shoots rockets into Israel daily for years on end. Russia invades Georgia and slaughters thousands. Millions starve in the failed state of Somalia, which exports piracy to threaten world shipping. Nuclear Pakistan on the verge of Islamist upheaval, the province of Swat in Taliban hands and many girls murdered for going to school.

    Israel "the biggest threat to world peace"? To believe this you have to be breathtakingly ignorant, anti-Semitic, or both.