On the Ethics of Self-Defense and Warfare in Israel, Part Two

After I wrote my first post on this topic last week, I was fortunate to have the privilege of listening to Colonel Bentzi Gruber, of the IDF, speak on this topic to a group of international students at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. His talk on “Ethics in the Field” was part of the ongoing program on Judaism and Conflict Resolution, led by Rabbi Daniel Roth, who teaches courses on this and relevant topics. I had been invited to speak at Pardes the day before about my work in Interreligious Dialogue and Conflict Transformation, which is how I learned about this special lecture.

Colonel Gruber is a Jerusalem resident, who spends about half of his year serving in the Reserves of the IDF, in the Tank Corps. He has 20,000 soldiers under his command, and he had fought in 6 wars, including the last one in Gaza in summer 2014 known as “Protective Edge.” In addition, he has given hundreds of lectures on this topic, both in Israel and abroad, especially on college campuses, and is a recognized expert in his field.

Col. Gruber, who was dressed in civilian clothes and introduced himself to us as someone whowas giving this lecture therefore as a an Israeli citizen, began by saying that IDF soldiers are not tzadikim, (saints) i.e. they are not perfect, and they do make mistakes sometimes. However, in most cases, the Israel Defense Forces goes to great effort to prevent the killing of innocent people. This, in fact, was the main point of his lecture.

Nevertheless, Col. Gruber pointed out that due to the fact that soldiers in the field often have only 8 seconds to make critical life-and-death decisions—and they are sometimes very worn out, exhausted and confused—mistakes can happen. But mistakes are the exception, not the rule. And they are carefully investigated by the IDF after they occur, to draw lessons for the future.

Col. Gruber then went on to explain to us the rules of engagement in clear and certain terms.

How much force should be used? Only enough to accomplish the mission!

Don’t use force to harm non-combatants! But how do you know who is a civilian and who is a terrorist? In a war against terrorists, not a regular army with people in uniforms, the enemy often tries to trick you. For example, they travel  in ambulances, which are actually used to transport terrorists very often. Or they will use women and children as “human shields”! Nevertheless, there is a clear guideline: if you have a doubt, don’t shoot! (The soldier who shot the Palestinian in cold blood in Hebron on March 24th did just the opposite!)

Furthermore, if you neutralize (i.e, wound and not kill) your enemy, you cannot use any more force! You cannot just shoot to kill! Even if the terrorist tried to kill you! You can only use your gun, as a soldier in the IDF, to eliminate an immediate threat. Col. Gruber added emphatically:

“We don’t just go around executing people. We should not be murderers in the field. A soldier can only shoot a terrorist if he is a real threat.”

Similarly, in dealing with “collateral damage”, i.e. killing additional people, such as women and children who are being used as “human shields”, one should react only in proportion to the immediate threat. Even if one only has 8 seconds to act in the field, one should try to avoid collateral damage, or minimize it as much as possible. One does not want to kill innocent people unnecessarily. In the view—and in the experience– of Col. Gruber, the IDF spends a great deal of time and energy trying to avoid “collateral damage”, especially in urban areas.

Finally, Col Gruber related to the current debate about the soldier who apparently killed a Palestinian in cold blood in Hebron a few weeks ago, a subject that is in the news every day in Israel lately. He made his point of view very clear:

“We have to win the war and remain human beings. We cannot listen to mobs who are telling us just to kill!”

So far, so good. But in the question and answer period, Col. Gruber was not as clear or consistent.

For example, when I asked him about reports of growing abuses of the ethical standards that he outlined for us—especially those brought to our attention by groups like “Breaking the Silence”—he waffled. On the one hand, he is happy that there are human rights organizations in Israel. They help keep us aware of the need for us to remain human beings, even in warfare. On the other hand, he said, many of the stories are lies, and reports by “Breaking the Silence” and other groups are often not accurate nor are they well documented (since they don’t give the names of the soldiers who make the claims about human rights violations).

I don’t think that “Breaking the Silence” or other human rights group lie. Rather, they present candid and often very painful testimonies of terrible and indecent acts of our soldiers against innocent Palestinians which go on all the time, including raids in the middle of the night, unnecessary punishments, daily collusion with settlers, and ransacking and destroying homes. By the way, Col. Gruber said very clearly that the IDF does not support destroying homes of the families of terrorists. This is wrong, he said. The only people who want to do it are politicians who wish to get elected again.

In addition, Col. Gruber neglected to deal sufficiently with the issue of “proportionality”. Why was there so much “collateral damage” during the last Gaza War? Why were so many women and children and other human beings killed? By accident? Were they always “human shields”? I don’t think so.

The incident of the soldier in Hebron who killed a “neutralized” Palestinian even though he was not given an order to do so, continues to raise questions about the ethical practices of IDF soldiers in the field, who don’t always care about ethics when they are dealing with the enemy, and may have forgotten, intentionally or not, about the respect for human dignity that must be part of our efforts at self-defense even during times of terror and war. It is important, therefore that the IDF, with the help of its Education Division, is renewing efforts and not only teaching our soldiers the best ideals of ethics in warfare, but also the operational principles that will help our army and its soldiers be moral human beings, as much as is possible, in conditions of severe stress and compelling challenges.


About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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