On the Ethics of Self-Defense in Warfare in Isael

For the past week the case of the soldier who apparently shot and killed a Palestinian young man who was already severely wounded has been causing much concern and debate within the media and among political leaders and the public in Israel. It is a very disturbing debate that is raising fundamental ethical issues about the ethics of self-defense and the morality of Israeli soldiers operating in very trying circumstances in the complex and often chaotic “theatre” of “The Territories” (the West Bank, or what some call “Judea and Samaria”).

As of today, it appears that the Israeli military prosecution believes that the evidence collected so far on the soldier is strong enough to support an indictment. Despite the fact that competing claims have arisen (some of which on the part of the defendant and his lawyer appear to be fabricated), the chief military prosecutor, Colonel Sharon Zagagi-Pinhas, was quoted in this morning’s HaAretz newspaper as saying during the hearing that

It is impossible to accept (the soldier’s claim) that he acted out of a threat to life or because of operational necessity, but it clearly emerges that his shooting of the terrorist was deliberate shooting that he decided to carry out without an operational need, and all of this when the terrorist was subdued and still alive… Coldly and not out of a threat that the terrorist posed in our opinion, he shoots the terrorist in the head. Two officers, a platoon commander and a company commander, stand next to the terrorist during the shooting. He doesn’t shout out to them, he doesn’t warm them against the terrorist. Neither of them acts in a similar way to the respondent and shows signs of action under danger.

While the facts of the case will be worked out in court and a verdict will be rendered, the public debate has already been very strange and even somewhat surrealistic. A dangerous and demented popular campaign has been launched by leaders of the Israeli right-of-center parties, not to mention some “leaders” of the center-right parties, which is turning this young soldier into a national hero! And far-right groups like Lahava—an extreme anti-Arab and anti-modern Jewish group –and La Familia, the fan club of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, are joining the fray in noisy demonstrations outside the military courthouse in south central Israel in recent days.

Even more frightening is the fact that the public sentiment among Jewish Israelis, as demonstrated in recent polls, is clearly in favor of the poor soldier who according to his narrative was acting in self-defense on the assumption that the wounded terrorist may have been wearing a suicide bomb! Even though this has been solidly disputed by the Israeli major who is head of the central command, the facts are becoming less and less important in this case.

What has happened to the ethics of warfare in Israeli society? What has become of the famous concept of Tohar Haneshek, “The Purity of Arms”, which has been a guiding ethical principal of warfare for the Israel Defense Forces for decades?  This principle –which has meant that our soldiers were instructed to be as ethical as possible in warfare—seems to have been eroded in practice in recent years, and certainly in recent months during this new uprising of stabbings, in which so many Palestinians have been killed when they could have been just as easily wounded and captured.

Why is this happening?

Firstly, there is tacit support from right-wing politicians and their fearful followers. Some of these so-called “leaders” have been inciting their followers to violence all the time, with little or no concern for the repercussions or their irresponsible rhetoric. This incitement is going on every day, not only via the mainstream media but also and especially on social media.

Secondly, there is “religious” support from extremist rabbis, including and especially the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, who has been quoted as saying many outrageous things in the press in Israel lately about his ideas that allow no place for non-Jews within Israel. Other settler rabbis, with even more extremist anti-Arab views, have joyfully joined in to incite their followers.

Thirdly, or perhaps firstly, the ongoing occupation in the West Bank –which large numbers of Israeli Jews, although not the majority, support–has made the killing of other human beings who are perceived and portrayed only as “terrorists” or “killers” as acceptable, even in cold blood. Our young soldiers are put in very difficult, almost impossible situations, so often, which forces them to defend this indefensible occupation by acting unethically, especially in situations of perceived great danger.

Fourth, there is a pervasive sense of victimhood, among large numbers of Israeli Jews, who only see themselves as the victims in this conflict, and once again in another “intifada” (uprising). This sense of victimhood has led to a loss of empathy for other human beings who are suffering, which leads to denial and apathy concerning many wrongdoings and a resistance to serious self-searching and ethical accountability. All of this has led to a growing denial of human rights for Palestinians, who are simply not viewed as humans but rather as “terrorists” who need to be “neutralized” in self-defensive.

Fortunately, the head of the Israeli Defense Forces and the Minister of Defense are trying—despite growing populist anti-Palestinian sentiment—to hold the line and to uphold basic ethical principles in the Israeli army, even in what is often “self-defense”.  I believe that these people need to be praised and supported since they are endeavoring to uphold ethical principles in a complex and complicated ongoing unresolved conflict.

And we need more rabbis in Israel and abroad—not just liberal ones—to speak up about the ethics of warfare and the morality of self-defense. Otherwise, the Israeli public will think that only the radical extremist version of Judaism is the only one alive and well in Israeli society.

As we prepare for the celebration of Passover, let us be mindful of the commandment to treat the stranger in our midst fairly, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were slaves, so we of all people ought to know not to enslave or oppress another people now that we have power and are in control.

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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