Purity of Arms

Since Israel commenced Operation Protective Edge, the country’s Army has often been depicted as a bloodthirsty group that’s set on attacking innocent women and children whose biggest crime was being born in the Gaza strip). Believe it or not, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) isn’t interested in provoking violence at all.


I know because I served in the IDF Paratrooper brigade from 1997 to 2000 and spent a year in counter-terrorism duty where Southern Lebanon meets the Israel border. I went through IDF commander school and multiple other IDF courses. I also served as a reservist during operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and saw combat in Jenin and Tul Karem.


By name, the Israel Defense force is pretty much self-explanatory. It’s an Army that defends the citizens of Israel.  It is not an offensive Army that sends troops to faraway lands or engages in crusades to take over the world. It doesn’t even start up with its neighbors. It has never commenced a major military engagement without facing an existential threat or direct attack on its citizens.


In fact, Israel only chooses to get involved in crises beyond its borders when it can use its expertise to help. After the Haiti earthquakes in 2010, Israel set up a high-tech field hospital that boasted operating rooms and an ICU and it recently dispensed intelligence experts to help find the more than 200 abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria.


The truth is, if Israel weren’t located in an area surrounded by extremists hell-bent on its destruction, there would be no need to have an army as Israelis by definition prefer to live in peace and tranquility.


The IDF adheres to a strict code of ethics that are driven home at every available opportunity from the moment you enter the Army until you finish your service. The one aspect I’d like to focus on is “Purity of Arms,” which dictates how a soldier should use his weapons and was the focus of every IDF briefing I ever attended.


The IDF defines Purity of Arms as follows:

“ 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.”


The IDF takes Purity of Arms so seriously that it is a part of the daily routine. Prior to tackling something as mundane as guard duty, Army law dictates that a commanding officer must brief the soldiers on “opening fire protocol” and make sure that it is very clear when and how a soldier can use his weapon. Failure to brief soldiers under your command results in a jail sentence and immediate demotion in rank.


When faced with an assailant — whose intentions appear to be to inflict harm on the solider or others – the IDF soldier must first offer up a loud verbal command to stop. He then makes a secondary verbal challenge to stop, which is followed by a loud chambering of a round in the soldier’s weapon. The soldier then fires a warning shot in the air. If all of the above fail to deter the assailant, the soldier is authorized to fire in a non-lethal manner towards the attacker’s legs. Surely this isn’t the militarily effective way of conducting oneself, but it certainly is a moral one.  


Such caution often gives the enemy an incredible and frightening advantage by allowing enemy combatants the ability to escape into its vast network of tunnels that snake throughout Gaza. Such escapes allow them to attempt their attacks at a later date, further extracting a heavy IDF death toll.


During my service — even when were being fired at from multiple locations — before being granted permission to return fire we had to verify that there were no civilians in the area. Only after the verification was exhaustively completed were we authorized to return fire and seek out the enemy. Everyone with a gun or other weapon was cognizant of this reality from the F-16s above to the naval forces at sea to our infantry teams on the ground.


Prior to attacking any potential target areas — from which missiles are being on Israel’s cities — the IDF defies common military theology due to its adherence to Purity of Arms. It completely removes the advantage of tactical surprise by first dropping leaflets, second by calling and text-messaging the local inhabitants and thirdly by firing warning shots. You don’t have to be a combat veteran to understand that this completely negates any military doctrine where achieving the element of surprise with your enemy is paramount.


I know how terrifying this can be.


In January of 2000 my unit and I were pinned down by Hezbollah mortar fire in Southern Lebanon near the village of Markaba — with wounded soldiers among us — for over 10 hours. We had attack helicopters on the radio who could not fire and neutralize the threat because the mortars were set up in the school yard of a kindergarten. We had to evacuate under fire putting the children’s lives before our own and those of our wounded.


The IDF is facing similar issues now with Hamas deliberately placing their rocket launchers among the civilian population in schools, hospitals and mosques.



It’s not just concealed weapons Israeli soldiers have to be wary of. The military must watch out for Hamas’ booby traps intended to kill IDF soldiers and their own people. In Gaza, Hamas often attaches trip-wires to doors, so if you open the wrong one, you don’t just kill yourself and your team members, you also kill the children playing behind the door. Still, the IDF doesn’t turn a blind eye, we neutralize the explosives and save those children.


No other Army in the world goes to such great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. The US Army certainly didn’t on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, which were very similar in nature to the guerilla warfare tactics the IDF faces in Gaza. Thus the hypocrisy of the Obama administration calling for  “restraint” is certainly uncalled for.


So why would Israel, whose soldiers are already gravely in harm’s way completely obliterate their tactical surprise? From a military perspective it makes no sense.


It’s simple. Israel and the IDF value human life so greatly that it is willing to significantly increase the risk factor for its own soldiers to avoid accidental civilian casualties.


The IDF consists of two main bodies, the standing Army which is made up of conscripts age 18-21 and the reserves who are veterans of the standing Army who serve until they are 45 years old. These aren’t career soldiers who make a life out of the Army — rather they are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces with productive, separate lives from the Army. The IDF is widely known as a “citizen’s Army” because it is composed of the people of Israel. They are part of the Army because without them the enemies of Israel would overrun the country.


Imagine your close relative receives a call in the middle of the night to report to the Army, leaving their family under the threat of rockets, to enter Gaza with no element of surprise. How would you react to this harsh reality? You’d probably want your loved one to have every advantage on the battlefield but Israel takes the moral high ground and will sacrifice its own people before those of the enemy. Personifying once again that Purity of Arms is forever a part of the moral fabric of the Israel Defense forces.  


The IDF doesn’t just limit its use of weaponry. It also makes painstaking efforts to help victims in Gaza.


Right now, there are field hospitals set up by the IDF to help injured Gazans. IDF medics even saved the life of a failed suicide bomber who’d injured himself while attempting to kill them. (You need a link for failed suicide bomber)


For thousands of years, our people, the “Children of Israel”, have held to a tradition whose sole purpose is peace. Maimonides, called the greatest Jewish scholar since Moses, explained, “Great is peace, as the whole Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world, as it is stated, ‘Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace”

About the Author
Menachem Landau lived in Israel and served as an IDF paratrooper from 1997-2000. Currently living in NY with his wife and family, he is a specialty finance entrepreneur.
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