Israel's Moral Army.
An eye-opening interview with the man who helps set the IDF’s ethical parameters.
Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Asa Kasher co-authored the first IDF Code of Ethics and continues to work on the moral doctrines that shape the parameters of our army’s actions.
He has taught at the IDF colleges since the late 1970s and for a long time was the only professor talking to officers about military ethics. When the IDF decided to try writing a Code of Ethics, he was approached and appointed head of a team of generals that wrote a draft and then the final version of the 1994 code, which was approved by chief of staff Ehud Barak and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In the wake of Richard Goldstone’s belated withdrawal of the accusation that Israel deliberately targeted civilians in Operation Cast Lead, and the fresh round of moral argument the judge’s climbdown has provoked, I contacted Kasher to discuss the IDF’s ethics. I wanted to understand the thinking that underpins IDF dos and don’ts, the problematics of grappling with enemies that do not follow any such rules, and the gaping discrepancy, Goldstone’s reversal notwithstanding, between most Israelis’ certainty of the IDF’s morality and the international diplomatic, media and legal community’s relentless opprobrium.
I also wanted to put to Kasher specific criticisms of IDF actions in Gaza, including some that have been penned by columnists in this newspaper. Among them: the assertion that Israel was unwarrantedly heavy-handed in Operation Cast Lead, that the “kill ratio” of Israelis and Palestinians indicates a disproportionate Israeli response, and that we can hardly complain about Hamas fighting out of uniform and from within residential areas when it is Hamas that was under attack from an invading Israel in that operation, and it naturally defended itself as effectively as it could.
These are not criticisms, I should add, for which I feel any sympathy. But they are widely invoked, they will be raised again if, or rather when, the IDF is next drawn into conflict, and I wanted the IDF’s guiding moralist to address them.
Kasher said much that I might have anticipated, but a great deal more, too, that placed Israel’s recent wars in a context that I had not fully drawn before. I was particularly struck by his explanation for the change in IDF approach over recent years to the endangering of its soldiers – the altered balance it has drawn, prompted by Kasher, when it comes to the safety of its personnel, on the one hand, and the “non-dangerous neighbors” of terrorists, on the other.
People think, he said, “that soldiers are there to be put into danger, that soldiers are there to take risks, that this is their world, this is their profession. But that is so far from the reality in Israel, where most of the soldiers are in the IDF because service is mandatory.” When it comes to Israeli soldiers, “I, the state, took them out of their homes. Instead of him going to university or going to work, I put a uniform on him, I trained him, and I dispatched him. If I am going to endanger him, I owe him a very, very good answer as to why. After all, this is a democratic state that is obligated to protect its citizens. How dare I endanger him?”
Prof. Kasher, I want to talk to you about the nature of the warfare Israel has been drawn into in recent years – the fact that it’s not army against army. Israel is now fighting against enemies that maintain their offensive capabilities in the heart of residential areas, and that fire into our residential areas.
As someone central to drafting the IDF’s moral code, I want to ask you about the moral considerations that underpin the way Israel fights these wars. And I want to know whether you believe we are capable of continuing to defend ourselves, practically and morally, against enemies that often have no moral compunctions. Are we capable, that is, of surviving, protecting ourselves, without sinking to their level?
I was very struck, in 2006, when I interviewed the then-air force commander Eliezer Shkedy, and he told me the Gaza Kassam crews often took kids out with them when they went to fire on Israel. I asked him whether we regarded these children as combatants, and thus were prepared to fire at them. He was offended by the question. He said that of course the IAF wouldn’t fire on them. What it had done, he said, was improved its accuracy so that it could target the Kassam crews more precisely without hitting the children. (“If we know that [the terrorist] is holding his son’s hand, we do not fire,” Shkedy said then. “Even if the terrorist is in the midst of firing a Kassam, and the Kassam is aimed to kill. We do not fire. You should know that.”)
I want to know whether we are still that careful, whether we’re still prepared to follow that kind of framework. I wonder whether it is moral not to fire when a Kassam crew is about to fire on Israeli civilians but a child that the crew has brought with them is too close and might therefore be hit.
But let’s begin with this question: Can we survive here, facing enemies that use immoral methods, without sinking to their levels?
Our responsibility is to maintain our moral standards. That’s a very important starting point because in matters of war it can sometimes get blurred. People are always talking about factors like international law, public opinion, the Western world – that is, outside factors that we’re supposed to match up to. No, I say we have to uphold our own standards.
What are those standards?
We take decisions that reflect our acceptance of some aspects of international law; other parts, we have not accepted. The prime question, in these fields of morals and ethics, is what I see when I look in the mirror – not when I watch the BBC.
When the enemy becomes more ruthless and harsher than it was in the past, then we have to protect ourselves in smarter and different ways, but still according to the standards that we have set for ourselves.
You can use the analogy of a police officer at a bank robbery. If he sees that the robber is holding a toy gun, he won’t shoot him. He’ll simply catch him. But if it’s a real gun, and the robber has already killed hostages and he’s about to kill more, and the only way to stop him and save the hostages is to shoot him, the policeman will shoot him.
That robber’s actions have required me to protect myself from him via harsher measures. It’s not a case of: he’ll shoot so I’ll shoot, or he’ll do terrible things so I’ll also do terrible things, or he doesn’t care about killing hostages so I won’t care about killing robbers. That’s absolutely not the point at all. He doesn’t care about killing hostages, but I do care: I don’t want to kill him unless there’s truly no alternative.
This robber is threatening people’s lives, so we will shoot him if there is no other alternative. If we can catch him without firing on him at all, excellent. If we can catch him by injuring him, without killing him, excellent. If there’s no alternative, it’s a tragedy to hit him, but that’s what has to be done.
We have no choice. We have to protect ourselves as necessary.
And that broadly is what is happening with our enemies today. If our enemy would fight on the battlefield, on open ground, in uniform, carrying his weapons openly, then it would be a case of an army facing off against a force that behaved like an army, and children and other non-dangerous people would not get hurt. But the enemy has changed the way it fights. So we have no choice. We have to protect ourselves as necessary.
Now there’s a basis to what we have to do: We are a democratic state. And that means two things. One, we are obligated to effectively protect our citizens from all danger. So we have a police force, to protect against crime. A Health Ministry, to protect against medical dangers. A Transportation Ministry, against the dangers on the roads. And we have a Defense Ministry, to protect us against the dangers our enemies represent.
The state cannot evade this obligation. It can’t say, “I am busy, I have more important things to do.” There is nothing more important than protecting citizens’ lives. Nothing.
A democratic state wants to deal with all kinds of other things, all kinds of agreements, citizens’ rights, elections, free media and so on. Okay, fine. But to enjoy all or any of that, you have to be alive. Before you get to any of that, to protect any of that, you have to protect my life. A state is obligated to ensure effective protection of its citizens’ lives. In fact, it’s more than just life. It is an obligation to ensure the citizens’ well-being and their capacity to go about their lives. A citizen of a state must be able to live normally. To send the kids to school in the morning. To go shopping. To go to work. To go out in the evening. A routine way of life. Nothing extraordinary. The state is obliged to protect that.
At the same time, the moral foundation of a democratic state is respect for human dignity. Human dignity must be respected in all circumstances. And to respect human dignity in all circumstances means, among other things, to be sensitive to human life in all circumstances. Not just the lives of the citizens of your state. Everybody.
This applies even in our interactions with terrorists. I am respecting the terrorist’s dignity when I ask myself, “Do I have to kill him or can I stop him without killing him?”
And I certainly have to respect the human dignity of the terrorists’ nondangerous neighbors – who are not a threat. We always talk about “innocents,” but “innocence” is not the issue here. The issue here is whether they are dangerous. So the correct translation is “non-dangerous.”
As in, non-threatening?
Yes, that’s the significance. If they are “not dangerous,” that means I don’t have even the beginning of a moral right to harm them deliberately.
Okay, so that’s some of the theory. Now relate that to Operation Cast Lead.
Fine. We have to protect our citizens and we have to respect human dignity. But when it comes to a war like Operation Cast Lead, those two imperatives are likely to clash. I am obligated to protect my citizens, but I have no way to protect them without the non-dangerous neighbors of the terrorists becoming caught up in the conflict. What am I to do?
Two things: First, you decide what is more important in the given situation. And second, you do whatever you can so that the damage to the other side is as small as possible: Maximizing effective defense of the citizens; minimizing collateral damage.
How do I decide which of the conflicting imperatives is more important? People don’t like this idea, because they don’t understand it: They think it is immoral to give priority to the defense of the citizens of your state over the protection of the lives of the neighbors of the terrorists. They don’t understand that the world is built in such a way that responsibility is divided.
We are responsible for the residents of the State of Israel. Canada is responsible for the residents of Canada. Australia, for Australia. And that’s just fine. We are not responsible for the lives of Canadians in the same way as we are for the lives of Israelis and vice versa. This is completely accepted and completely moral and no one questions this. We don’t have one world government that is responsible for everything. We have states with their own responsibilities.
Now from this stems the fact that when you have clash of imperatives, this responsibility for one’s own citizens takes precedence over the other responsibility to the non-dangerous neighbors. This isn’t anything to do with us being Israel, or Jews. The same applies to the United States or to Canada or to any other country.
I cannot evade my prime responsibility to protect the well-being of the citizens of my country. Now, among all the means I could use to protect them, I will choose those that are better morally – better from the point of view of the effectiveness of the protection and the minimalization of the damage to the neighbors of the terrorists.
And what do we do to minimize the harm done to the neighbors of the terrorists?
We can’t separate the terrorist from his neighbors. We can’t force the terrorists to move away, because they don’t want to move away. That’s their whole strategy: To be there. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they want to work from within. The terrorists have erased the difference between combatants and non-combatants.
They live in residential areas. They operate from within residential areas. They attack civilians. And they won’t leave when I tell them to leave. No one has the power to move them from where they are without conquering the entire area, which requires special justifications.
If we can’t force the terrorist out, we can make the effort to move his neighbors.
But if we can’t force the terrorist out, we can make the effort to move his neighbors. He won’t move away from his neighbors, but maybe his neighbors will move away from him. And experience shows that this kind of effort succeeds. That is, very many non-dangerous neighbors do move away from terrorists if they are warned.
So Israel, the IDF, carries out very intensive warning operations. Unprecedented. There are those who don’t like the term, “the most moral army in the world.” I think it’s a very complex phrase, and one has to make all kinds of professional diagnoses. You can’t just blithely invoke it. But let’s look at that claim in this particular context.
Who tries harder than we do to warn the neighbors [to leave a conflict zone]? Who does it better than we do? I don’t know if the public realizes this, but we recently carried out precisely such an act of warning – by publishing a map of Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon. Israel released details of hundreds of villages where Hezbollah has a position deep inside the village. From there, they’ll fire on us if and when they want to, and we will have to protect ourselves. That means we’ll have to fire into the village.
The publication of this map is a warning: We know, it says, that Hezbollah is intertwining its terrorists with non-dangerous neighbors. Understand that to protect ourselves in this situation will mean endangering the populace. The populace has to know that it is in a dangerous situation.
What to do in this dangerous situation? We don’t know. We’re telling those non-dangerous neighbors to give it some thought. Try to kick out Hezbollah? That is apparently very difficult. Move away from the Hezbollah position? Perhaps that is possible. Get away when the time comes? That may sound theoretical at present, but when the time comes, who knows? The fact is, this is an advance warning.
Now let’s come to Operation Cast Lead in this context. We distributed leaflets [to Gaza civilians, telling them that they should leave a potential conflict zone]. It may be that we can do that better – distribute better leaflets, more detailed, with more precise guidance on how to get away. We broke into their radio and TV broadcasts to give them announcements, to warn them. That can be done still more effectively.
We made phone calls to 160,000 phone numbers. No one in the world has ever done anything like that, ever. And it’s clear why that is effective. It’s not a piece of paper that was dropped in my neighborhood. The phone rang in my own pocket! Yes, it was a recorded message, because it’s impossible to make personal calls on that scale. But still, this was my number they dialed. It was a warning directed personally to me, not some kind of general warning.
And finally, we had the “tap on the roof” approach. The IDF used nonlethal weaponry, fired onto the roofs [of buildings being used by terrorists]. That weaponry makes a lot of noise. It constituted a very strong, noisy hint: We’re close, but you still have the chance to get out.
What we don’t use is nohal shachen (the “neighbor protocol”). I recently read comments by a British general, a commander in Afghanistan...
Gen. Richard Kemp?
No, this was someone else, saying at a press conference, how moral his forces are. And then he described their policy, which was nohal shachen, as the symbol of the morality of British soldiers.
What did he say, specifically, that they do?
He said that when they are facing a terrorist hiding out in a building with non-dangerous neighbors, they make one of the neighbors telephone or speak through a loudspeaker to the Taliban terrorist who is in this building, and say that rather than killing him and the neighbors and destroying the house, he should surrender and that he’ll be taken away with various guarantees. This British commander was very proud of this ostensibly humane procedure – a procedure that the courts here forbid us to do. We don’t do it.
We issue warnings in an unprecedented way – not one warning, but many. We make enormous efforts to get the neighbors away from the terrorists.
Now there’s one more thing that maybe we could do, and there’s an argument surrounding it: send soldiers into the building. Send in soldiers to check that maybe someone has stayed. I am against this. Very against this.
So there’s a difference between what we did in Jenin [during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, where 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush] and what we did in Gaza?
Yes, we changed our approach. The approach is more appropriate now. I think what we did in Jenin was a mistake. There was a primitive conception that “it’s all right to endanger soldiers.” Every time there was a dilemma like this – soldiers here and non-soldiers on the other side – the soldiers were endangered.
Why was that wrong?
You need, to a certain limit, to warn the people to get out. At a certain point, the warnings are over and there are two possibilities. That people have stayed because they don’t want to leave or because they can’t leave. If they can’t leave, despite all the warnings, despite the possibilities to get them out, even to send ambulances to get them out, that’s interesting to me, and we’ll come back to that.
But if a neighbor doesn’t want to leave, he turns himself into the human shield of the terrorist. He has become part of the war. And I’m sorry, but I may have to harm him when I try to stop the terrorist. I’ll do my best not to. But it may be that in the absence of all other alternatives, I may hurt him. I certainly don’t see a good reason to endanger the lives of soldiers in a case like that.
Sometimes people don’t understand this. They think of soldiers as, well, instruments. They think that soldiers are there to be put into danger, that soldiers are there to take risks, that this is their world, this is their profession. But that is so far from the reality in Israel, where most of the soldiers are in the IDF because service is mandatory and reserve service is mandatory. Even with a standing army, you have to take moral considerations into account. But that is obviously the case when service is compulsory: I, the state, sent them into battle. I, the state, took them out of their homes. Instead of him going to university or going to work, I put a uniform on him, I trained him, and I dispatched him. If I am going to endanger him, I owe him a very, very good answer as to why. After all, as I said, this is a democratic state that is obligated to protect its citizens. How dare I endanger him?
Even in uniform, he is still considered one of those citizens that the state is obliged to protect?
Yes, he is one of the citizens that I have an obligation to protect. But somebody has to do the protecting. So each generation produces its soldiers. Now it’s this generation. Before that it was their parents. After this, it will be their children. Their turn. Their generation.
But even now that it’s this generation, that these are the people in uniform, I need a very strong reason to send them somewhere dangerous.
Why do I conscript them to the army? Two words: No choice. Given the threats around us, a volunteer, standing army would not be sufficient.
And why did we send them to Gaza? Because for eight years before Operation Cast Lead, we tried all the other options. It didn’t help. There was no choice. We sent the army to Gaza because there was no choice.
And why did we send them to that particular theoretical house we’ve been discussing? Because there were armed terrorists in it who were attacking Israel. There was no choice. But now you want to send soldiers into that house just in case, by chance, there’s still someone inside, who doesn’t want to leave. You want me to send in soldiers to pull him out? Why? Why do I owe him that? I have issued so many warnings and this man has refused to come out. I haven’t got a strong enough reason to tell that soldier he has to go in. This man has been warned five times and decided not to leave. Therefore he took the danger upon himself. After all those warnings, one has to act against the terrorists and those of his neighbors who have decided not to leave, and not endanger the lives of the soldiers.
And what, now, of the issue of civilians who are prevented by the terrorists from leaving a conflict zone?
This has to be handled in a graduated fashion. I’ll explain. Let’s imagine a fictitious situation, whereby the terrorists have forced 20 children onto the roofs of every single building in Gaza that has been marked as a target because it has terrorists in it. That’s what I see in my reconnaissance photographs. Every single roof is covered with children.
That means that I can’t fire on those buildings. But they’re firing at me from those buildings. There are 20 children on the roof, and from the house the terrorists are firing. It’s the same in every house. If I can’t fire on any house because there are children on the roof, I have lost my capacity to protect myself. There is nothing I can do.
We have to seek peace. But right now I’m facing these houses and they’re firing at me.
Always in those circumstances, people say, “Well, make peace.” Fine. Great. I want peace. We have to seek peace. But right now I’m facing these houses and they’re firing at me. Talking about a peace conference now is not really the point. Or people say, as with the cop facing the murderous bank robber, “Don’t shoot him. We need to clean up the neighborhood so that the people have jobs and don’t turn to crime.” Again, great, yes, that’s true. We have to create a situation where there aren’t criminals in that neighborhood, but right now I’ve got an armed robber in the bank and he’s threatening to kill his hostages. So, right now I have to protect the citizens of my state, and if I don’t fire at any of the houses that have children on the roof, then I won’t be able to protect my civilians. And that’s unthinkable, out of the question.
So, what I have to do, and it’s tragic however you look at it, is fire at one of those houses. The first place that they fire at me from, even though there are children on the roof, I will immediately fire on it, and some of those children will be killed – because I have no choice, because I have no other means to protect myself. The terrorists took away from me the normal means of self-defense. It’s out of the question that I not protect myself, so I hope the terrorists will take the children off the roofs, and I will wait for them to take the children off the roofs in order to defend myself against the terrorists, but if they don’t take the children off the roofs, I will continue. I have no choice. A state cannot say “I will allow my citizens to be killed because the enemy has placed children on all the roofs and I will not kill children.”
That brings me back to what you mentioned at the very beginning about your interview with former air force commander Shkedy and the circumstances when Israel will fire and won’t fire.
I can always ask myself, in all kinds of circumstances, maybe there’s a different way to stop this terrorist or that attack. Maybe I have more time. If there’s time, if there’s an alternative means, then that’s fine. When he was IDF chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon once said that he prevented a targeted strike at [Hamas military commander Salah] Shehadeh when his daughter was right next to him. (Shehadeh was eventually killed in a targeted strike in 2002, in which 14 other people were killed, including his wife and nine children. Then-prime minister Sharon later said he would have aborted the operation had it been realized that it would cause those other fatalities.) Ya’alon evidently knew there would be another opportunity and that he could take the risk of waiting longer to strike. It wasn’t now or never.
But when it’s now or never, there is no choice. I wouldn’t sleep after giving an order which involved killing not only terrorists but also the daughter of a terrorist. If there is a choice, you have to use it because of your imperative to respect human dignity. But sometimes there’s no choice.
Is Israel facing more and more such dilemmas? Are there more and more situations in which commanders would find it hard to sleep?
We will always be obligated to protect our citizens. We will never relinquish that obligation. This is very profound. This is Israel. This is the state of the Jewish people.
I was born here and my parents came here long before World War II. I didn’t go through the Holocaust. My wife did. My wife is a survivor. What lesson do I learn from World War II? That we cannot rely on anybody else. That when it’s time to protect ourselves, there’s no one else we can rely on. And we have no exemption, ever, from thinking about how best to protect ourselves. And if the enemy puts children on all the roofs of the buildings from which it fires on us, we will not capitulate to them. It’s a tragic situation, but we won’t capitulate.
This also requires leadership that is capable of explaining to the soldiers why they have to do this – why they have to do something totally counter-intuitive.
Absolutely. And the package of measures that we take to minimize the harm to those who are not dangerous to us is truly without equal anywhere else.
When we carry out targeted killings, the approvals process is exhaustive. Then there’s a stage when it goes through “operational research.” A model of the situation is created in order to determine the most appropriate weaponry, the most appropriate plane to use, the most appropriate angle so that there’s a high likelihood that the terrorist will be hit but that the collateral damage will be as low as possible. And what Shkedy told you about targeted strikes is confirmed in the statistics. The numbers for collateral damage in such strikes are very, very small nowadays.
Now let’s say, in one such strike against a key terrorist, the pilot has fired his missile and in those few seconds before it hits the pilot suddenly sees a school bus appear on the scene. He doesn’t need anyone’s permission to abort the mission and detonate the missile elsewhere, harmlessly. He decides not to attack, in order not to cause collateral damage.
Obviously they would never seek out a yellow school bus, as was done a few days ago [in the Hamas missile attack near Kibbutz Sa’ad in which Daniel Viflik, 16, was killed]. We make immense efforts to minimize the damage on the other side, to minimize the harm to people who do not constitute a threat.
These Palestinians and Hezbollah, they’re playing this win-win game and it’s depressing to see. If Israel doesn’t fire at them, they’re very happy, and I can understand that. But if Israel does fire on them, and children are hurt, they’re also happy. They celebrate. I believe that these losses destroy the mothers and the fathers. But the community is ostensibly happy: “Great, we’ve got something nasty to say against Israel. Israel kills children.”
And you have this whole community, including parts of the international media and some Israelis, who look at these episodes with one eye. This community sees only the poor children who have been killed. And they really are pitiful children. What’s the emerging narrative? That Israel kills children and doesn’t care about it. Such aggressors. Such barbarians. And all the thousand things we do precisely to avoid such situations are ignored.
This community and various international political bodies tell us, “Yes, you’re entitled to defend yourselves. We can’t take that away from you. The right to self-defense is in the charter of the United Nations. So yes, you have to protect yourselves. But you mustn’t harm anybody who isn’t dangerous.” There is no such reality. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan.
Well, they ask that Israel not be disproportionate, that it not be too heavy-handed.
It’s good that you mentioned that. The world in general doesn’t have a clue what proportionality is. Proportionality, first of all, is not about numbers. The question of proportionality, according to international law, is whether the military benefit justifies the collateral damage. And secondly, also according to international law, it is a consideration for the commander in the field, because only the commander in the field can make the judgment: What does he gain from what he’s about to do and what is the collateral damage he is likely to cause? With Israel, we fire and two minutes later, the UN secretary- general is already accusing us of using disproportionate force. On what basis does he make that assumption? How can he possibly know?
And, finally, this whole concept of proportionality exists in international law only in situations where you know that you’re going to harm non-dangerous people. It’s not relevant in other circumstances. This is designed for situations where noncombatants will be hurt and in those circumstances the commander in the field must weigh the benefits and the damage. The questions of proportionality are clear only at the extremes. Between those extremes, only the commander in the field can weigh the balance. It’s very hard to give him a formula.
I want to put to you some of the criticisms that have been raised about why and how the IDF conducted Operation Cast Lead, including objections raised by columnists in this newspaper. It’s been asserted that we, Israel, invaded their territory, and they were defending themselves against us. The kill ratio, of approximately 100 to 1, has been highlighted as ostensible evidence of the IDF’s disproportionate use of force. It’s been argued that, of course H