It started off this morning with a tweet;

Even I rolled my eyes at this one. Of all the massacres and evil perpetrated against Israel I was loath to to hear, talk or learn about one perpetrated by my own. But then, like a fool, I clicked on the wikipedia link anyway and the plot thickened.

On this day in 1956 Israeli Magav (Border Guard) soldiers killed 48 Arab civilians. In all honesty with all the death and massacres that have been endured and perpetrated here in Israel and the Middle East (there’s a far larger one happening as I write these words) one that happened 57 years ago is no more or less likely to elicit anything from me than one that happened 10 years or 100 years ago.

But this one is different.

The legal ruling emanating from the court case surrounding the Kfar Qassim massacre changed the IDF code of conduct forever after. It established a way of viewing orders that gave added weight to the Purity of Arms of the IDF; namely that every soldier has the right, even the duty to refuse to obey an order they find to be an “illegal order”.

This all stems from the concept of a “Superior Order”, a legal defense dealt with in a major way during the Nuremberg Trials. The superior order is where the defendant claims that they were merely following orders in perpetrating their crime and therefore should be absolved of the charges against them. It is the defense adopted by Adolph Eichmann in his trial in Jerusalem. Lieutenant Dohan, commanding the force that murdered the civilians in 1956, used this defense also.

In the case of the Kfar Qassim massacre the border guards had been ordered to impose a curfew on the residents of the village. The senior officer of the region declared that anyone in breach of curfew should be shot. This was imposed while many residents were working in the fields, upon their return home they were shot out of hand despite having had no idea that such a curfew had been imposed upon them.

In the trial that followed the court ruled that the orders given that were so clearly beyond the pale that the soldier actually was obliged not to follow them but to ignore them. Judge Benjamin Halevy issued a ruling that has reverberated around the world in cases of this kind, he said that;

“The distinguishing mark of a manifestly illegal order is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: ‘Prohibited!’.

The essence of his words were incorporated into the values of the IDF where they have remained ever since. Halevy went on to be one of the 3 judges at the Eichmann trial and eventually to a seat in the Knesset.

I shudder to think of the number of times I technically could have murdered Palestinians in the West Bank and claimed that I was simply following exactly this curfew order. It was clear to me that the order was there to protect my safety and that common sense and nuance had to be invoked in the enforcement of it.

I have no doubt that Halevy and the sober rationale he produced for seeing the black flag over blanket orders filtered its way through to me serving in the IDF 46 years later and others serving today. Rulings such as this created soldiers who could tell the difference between an order they should obey and one they shouldn’t.

It’s worth remembering just how much blood was shed for this to become a part of the doctrine of the IDF and soldiers who found themselves incapable of distinguishing when they should pull the trigger and when they should not.
The Values of the IDF: 

Tenacity of Purpose in Performing Missions and Drive to Victory – The IDF servicemen and women will fight and conduct themselves with courage in the face of all dangers and obstacles; They will persevere in their missions resolutely and thoughtfully even to the point of endangering their lives.

Responsibility – The IDF serviceman or woman will see themselves as active participants in the defense of the state, its citizens and residents. They will carry out their duties at all times with initiative, involvement and diligence with common sense and within the framework of their authority, while prepared to bear responsibility for their conduct.

Credibility – The IDF servicemen and women shall present things objectively, completely and precisely, in planning, performing and reporting. They will act in such a manner that their peers and commanders can rely upon them in performing their tasks.

Personal Example – The IDF servicemen and women will comport themselves as required of them, and will demand of themselves as they demand of others, out of recognition of their ability and responsibility within the military and without to serve as a deserving role model.

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.

Professionalism – The IDF servicemen and women will acquire the professional knowledge and skills required to perform their tasks, and will implement them while striving continuously to perfect their personal and collective achievements.

Discipline – The IDF servicemen and women will strive to the best of their ability to fully and successfully complete all that is required of them according to orders and their spirit. IDF soldiers will be meticulous in giving only lawful orders, and shall refrain from obeying blatantly illegal orders.

Comradeship – The IDF servicemen and women will act out of fraternity and devotion to their comrades, and will always go to their assistance when they need their help or depend on them, despite any danger or difficulty, even to the point of risking their lives.

Sense of Mission – The IDF soldiers view their service in the IDF as a mission; They will be ready to give their all in order to defend the state, its citizens and residents. This is due to the fact that they are representatives of the IDF who act on the basis and in the framework of the authority given to them in accordance with IDF orders.