The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.”
– Description of “purity of arms” from the Israel Defense Forces’ official doctrine of ethics, The Spirit of the IDF, copied from Wikipedia
It was June 6, 1982 and I was a young dad with two small children, enjoying a low-key Shabbat in our home in Ramat Poleg, Netanya, when the knock on the door came and I was pulled into miluim service in the reconnaissance unit of the northern paratrooper reserve brigade. As many olim understand, without any family in Israel, this meant leaving my wife alone as I disappeared for an unforeseen amount of time.
As most of you know, the final act that triggered the First Lebanon War was the tragic shooting of Ambassador Shlomo Argov, Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, by members of Abu Nidal’s faction of the Fatah movement. Obviously, all of us in Israel were shocked that terrorists would shoot an Israeli ambassador in the middle of the city of London.
As the sun set and Shabbat ended, I was rolling into Lebanon with my brothers in arms. Our first assignment was to enter the town of Tyre for mop-up operations, ensuring that no terrorists had remained behind. Our unit was assigned with the mission of patrolling the main street of Tyre, with three of us placed on the roof of one of the buildings in order to cover and protect our unit below as they searched for terrorists who may have hidden themselves among the civilian population.
Even though it’s now 36 years later, the memories of that experience are still fresh in my mind; all I have to do is to close my eyes and I’m taken back to that rooftop, keeping a watchful eye on the building across the street. Watching for any movement. Ensuring that my comrades and I get out of there safely.
It’s a tense time and our senses are all working in overdrive when we see movement behind one of the curtains covering a window about 100 meters away. We tense up even more and on instinct our fingers press the triggers just enough to get off a quick shot if we need to. However, we also have in mind that we have been given the very strictest orders not to shoot unless we can identify our target 100%. This is an area mainly populated by civilians and our first order is to protect civilian life wherever and whenever possible.
We are frozen in time, hardly daring to breathe, our fingers straining on the triggers two thirds of the way. A few seconds later a very elderly civilian comes out from behind that curtain waving a white flag. Our fingers relax.
All these years later, the lesson I learned that day still resonates.
The value of the purity of arms and the very critical balance between the need to take action to protect and the need to resist in order to protect civilians has never been clearer than on that day.
Only after the war could I really internalize how lucky I was to be part of the Jewish army in the State of Israel that cares about its soldiers, while at the same time, caring about innocent civilians where and when we can.
I truly believe that this important value has been passed on to today’s younger generation of elite combat soldiers, who face the dilemma of defending our country and its people while protecting the poor civilians on the other side. I shudder to think of how any other army in the world would react to having to fight terrorists hiding behind human shields, but our young men and women abide by the purity of arms and do whatever possible to protect the sanctity of human life on both sides. Now, more than ever, as Hamas terrorists carrying light weapons, Molotov cocktails and knives wish to harm the soldiers protecting our border and strive to enter Kibbutzim and Moshavim in order to kill innocent civilians, I take my hat off to our youngsters guarding the fence to keep us safe.
Back to my story: Many years later, I found myself at IDC Herzliya and working with Prof. Uriel Reichman, its president and founder, and Gideon Argov, son of Amb. Shlomo Argov z”l, and being honored to be part of the team establishing the Argov Program for Leadership and Diplomacy at IDC Herzliya. I have since learned more about Amb. Argov and what a class act he was.
For me, it’s also about coming full circle — from practicing the sensitivity of Zionist humanism 36 years ago while on that rooftop in Lebanon, to now, when each year I meet the students taking part in this course named for this wonderful man. It gives me great pleasure knowing that the values that dictated his life’s actions are being instilled in the students of the Argov program.