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.