Cutting through the bullshit.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

On the front lines

In a wonderful article on ZNet the other day, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, cites ‘the late Israeli philosopher Ruth Manor’ who wrote of the IDF’s ethics doctrine, ‘the Code specifies that the solider should spare human life except when it conflicts with the success of the military mission at hand...’

Khalidi elucidates,

In its own words, the ethical code states that the military serviceman "will place himself or others at risk solely to the extent required to carry out his mission." This wording clearly undermines the claim that the preservation of human life is a supreme value in the military code.

Taken in isolation, this is a possible interpretation. But in the context of the following paragraph – the one headed ‘Purity of arms’, which I’ve had occasion to quote before – it strikes me as implausible.

Human Life - The IDF servicemen and women will act in a judicious and safe manner in all they do, out of recognition of the supreme value of human life. During combat they will endanger themselves and their comrades only to the extent required to carry out their mission.

Purity of Arms - The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

I think it’s clear that the intent is to enjoin soldiers to minimise risk to themselves within the parameters of the mission, but to eschew violence against noncombatants altogether. Of course, that’s what armies always say they do, even as they drop bombs on urban targets.

An interesting point, however, that Khalidi doesn’t mention is that the ‘Purity of arms’ clause condones using ‘their weapons and force to harm human beings who are’ prisoners of war. Now Article 3 (1) of the ‘Third Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War’ is unequivocal on this matter,

Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

So it turns out that even in articulating the principle of ‘purity of arms’, Israel is content to thumb its nose at the alleged norms of warfare. It wouldn’t be surprising if the hasbara brigade were to exert their casuistical skills to determine that those they capture are not technically within the meaning of the Convention’s definition of prisoners of war. But that would be irrelevant, as the doctrine countenances violence against PoWs, however defined.

The main issue Khalidi discusses, however, is

a follow-up document, which was adopted recently by the Israeli army, goes well beyond this--not only does it subordinate the value of human life to the success of the military mission, it also subordinates the value of the enemy's civilian lives to those of one's own combatants.

Asa Kasher, professor of philosophy and linguistics at Tel Aviv University, and Major General Amos Yadlin, currently head of Israeli military intelligence, have developed a new approach in their 2005 article ‘Military Ethics of Fighting Terror: An Israeli Perspective’ (Journal of Military Ethics 4 (2005), pp.3-32). [Kasher and Yadlin have another couple of articles apparently on related topics: ‘Assassination and Preventive Killing’ (SAIS Review - Volume 25, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2005, pp. 41-57) and ‘Military Ethics of Fighting Terror: Principles’ (Philosophia 34 (1) (2006)). The first two of these articles are apparently only available by subscription – nudge, nudge; wink, wink.]

Kasher [TAU photo]

Among the innovations Khalidi discusses is that ‘...we define ‘act of terror' in a way that makes it possible for the victims of such an act to be combatants, even exclusively so’. For reference, here is the definition of an ‘act of terror’ articulated in the 2006 article:

an act, carried out by individuals or organizations, not on the behalf of any state, for the purpose of killing or otherwise injuring persons, insofar as they are members of a particular population, in order to instill fear among the members of that population (‘terrorize’ them), so as to cause them to change the nature of the related regime or of the related government or of policies implemented by related institutions, whether for political or ideological (including religious) reasons.

Another is that ‘They enunciate a moral doctrine that attaches greater value to the lives of their own combatants than the lives of non-combatants’. Dismissing ‘many centuries of theorizing about jus in bello (laws concerning acceptable conduct in war)’, Kasher and Yadlin write,

We reject such conceptions, because we consider them to be immoral. A combatant is a citizen in uniform. In Israel, quite often he is a conscript or on reserve duty. His blood is as red and thick as that of citizens who are not in uniform. His life is as precious as the life of anyone else.

In a February interview with Ha’aretz’s Amos Harel that Khalidi cites, Kasher says,

Sending a soldier there to fight terrorists is justified, but why should I force him to endanger himself much more than that so that the terrorist's neighbor isn't killed? I don't have an answer for that. From the standpoint of the state of Israel, the neighbor is much less important. I owe the soldier more. If it's between the soldier and the terrorist's neighbor, the priority is the soldier. Any country would do the same.

In other words, in the view of these philosophers, an individual or a group resisting occupation is not justified in targeting occupation soldiers, but a state is justified in targeting unarmed civilians just because they live in proximity to ‘suspected terrorists’. Kasher and Yadlin’s 2006 article in Philosophia is much more nuanced than this, resting on a cascade of definitions and an elaborate, but unelaborated, risk analysis mechanism. But I think Khalidi captures the gist of it fairly.

Yadlin [Wikipedia]
Khalidi recalls ‘the moral basis of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants in wartime’, pointing out that combatants ‘are armed, prepared for combat, and capable of defending themselves militarily’and ‘have intentionally embarked on acts of violence and are actively seeking to endanger others’. It may be worth emphasising the other side of the coin – we civilians do not threaten combatants and are defenceless against them, even if we deliberately act as ‘human shields’.

But according to Kasher,

The concept of proportionality has also changed. There is no logic in comparing the number of civilians and armed fighters killed on the Palestinian side, or comparing the number of Israelis killed by Qassam rockets to the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza.

What I find particularly frightening is that, echoing the sentiments of Bush’s anonymous ‘senior advisor’ on ‘the reality-based community’, Kasher told Harel,

The Geneva Conventions...were appropriate for classic warfare, where one army fought another. But in our time the whole business of rules of fair combat has been pushed aside. There are international efforts underway to revise the rules to accommodate the war against terrorism...We in Israel are in a key position in the development of law in this field because we are on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. This is gradually being recognized both in the Israeli legal system and abroad...What we are doing is becoming the law...


  1. christian h.22 May, 2009 09:30

    Ernie, I suspect a translation error. The likely meaning is "...non-combatants and prisoners of war", both to be included in the category of people violence should not be used against. I find it hard to believe that the IDF would include an open violation of the laws of war in their public guidelines. Why do so? They continually violate them anyway.

  2. Thanks, christian, well spotted. I think that's fairly plausible. My Hebrew isn't nearly good enough to navigate the Hebrew website. And yet, I gather the English may have the same standing as the Hebrew, although it seems ambiguous. In any case, the doctrine has been up for quite some time and hasn't been corrected. It does indeed seem kind of dumb to flaunt their open contempt for The International COmmunity. But then, it wouldn't be the first time by any means. I believe it was in 1948 that Moshe Sharett (nee Shertok) told the UN that the refugees were their problem. I believe this was among the 'declarations and explanations made by the representatives of the Government of Israel' mentioned in the UNGA resolution (273) admitting Israel to membership. Anyhow, maybe someone who isn't as linguistically challenged as me will clarify the matter.

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  4. I have just deleted a number of Japanese comments that I gather from google translate were advertising sex tourism.

    No adverts, please.