Gideon Israel
Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center

The IDF’s Achilles’ heel

The new Knesset has been sworn in and the uncertainty that reigns in the North continues. The strategic challenges that will face the new Israeli government spanning from Iran to Syria to Gaza – and possibly Egypt – are slowly extinguishing any hope of a peaceful term. In the Book of Judges our prophets spoke of a time when the land rested for forty and sometimes even eighty years; we would settle for fifteen, even ten years. However, the reality of Israel’s security situation crashes down upon it like an angry wave, and leaves it no choice but to stand fast. This being the case, and the probability of our military forces being called upon again to quell our enemies destructive schemes in the near future, it is already appropriate to discuss a topic that will no doubt arise in the next military conflict: The IDF’s Moral Code. In doing this, let us will begin by revisiting Operation Pillar Defense.

In executing the operation, the political echelon decided that it would not employ a ground invasion into Gaza. Whether this decision was correct is difficult to assess, especially since the motives of Operation Pillar of Defense remain extremely ambiguous. In the midst of the operation, during a radio interview, former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz noted that unless the IDF stays in Gaza indefinitely, it would be unrealistic to think that a ground operation would completely halt rocket attacks. In other words, there is no such thing as defeating the enemy and then leaving. This thesis is incomprehensible – why is this war different from wars of the past? Since when does a country need to conquer another’s territory in order to defeat the enemy?

Yet, we agree with the conclusion of Halutz’s remarks – but for a completely different reason. A ground operation would have exacted a high price of IDF soldiers, not because of their inability to fight, or because of their lack of training. Rather, the IDF’s moral code cripples its ability to wage a successful war against our enemies, and thus encourages new and more threatening rounds of violence and the continued battering of Israeli citizens.

The IDFs fighting techniques, tactics and even strategy have been hijacked by a purity of arms hyper-morality. On the one hand, this endangers our soldiers and produces unnecessary casualties. On the other hand, it drives strategy to continuing antiseptic decisions, such as responses limited to intelligence-based targeted air strikes and drone attacks.

Israel’s political and military leadership craft policy and wage war with the intention of winning the hearts and minds of The New York Times and the European elites. The IDF’s rules of engagement have been designed to avoid harming enemy civilians, not to win wars, not to ensure the morality of our soldiers’ conduct, and certainly not to ensure the safety of our brave sons, brothers, husbands and friends who fight for us.

In Operation Cast Lead in 2008, the first casualty of the war was Dvir Emanuelof (z”l) of the Golani brigade. OC General Avi Mizrachi paid a condolence visit to the family amidst the war. His conversation with Dalia Emanuelof, Dvir’s mother, was relayed by Dr. Daniel Polisar, an executive at the Shalem Center, who was present at the house:

Dalia turned to General Mizrahi and asked why Israel could not fight [by] bombing aggressively against enemy fighters in populated areas. There was no bitterness in her voice at the IDF for having endangered her son’s life by its regard for Palestinian civilians, nor any desire for revenge – only the concerned tones of an Israeli mother anxious to protect the sons of other Israeli mothers.


The general answered thoughtfully…that the IDF’s strength is integrally tied to maintaining its humanity and morality. Soldiers are united in part because they know that regardless of religious or political differences, they share a common moral code. Alluding to the widely-held view that Hamas’s military leadership is hiding under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, he said that he wouldn’t give an order to bomb the hospital from the air, because there are certain things one simply doesn’t do. This is an obligation, he stressed, that the IDF has as a Jewish army.


From the reactions in the room, it was clear that while everyone identified with Dalia’s question, they accepted the answer—and were impressed that the officer used this opportunity to reinforce the Jewish values binding all of us together.

General Mizrachi’s answer was sincere and heartfelt. Dr. Polisar wrote that this helped him answer a question posed to him by a high school student in America: If Hamas was eager for Palestinian non-combatants to be killed, while the IDF did its best to prevent such casualties, how could Israel hope to win? Polisar’s reply:

…on the tactical level it can be a handicap to love life when your opponent loves death. But in the end, it is that love of life that will enable us to prevail… Though our principles limit the IDF’s effectiveness, they provide us with intangibles that more than compensate – the confidence and the strength to pursue our aims secure in the knowledge we are acting justly, and the unity that comes from a society acting in accordance with its most cherished values.

This answer, though heartwarming and emotionally charged, beckons the profound question of how to conduct a war morally.

Here is a different moral imperative we propose for Israel’s military and political leadership:

Protect our troops’ lives before the enemy’s. Complete wars as quickly as possible in order to save our own troops, by using overwhelming force. Our boys’ loving mothers and fathers have entrusted us with the lives of those to whom they have given life. It is a sacred trust that we shall respect in the context of another moral imperative we proudly proclaim, which is the total defeat of the enemy. For we know that anything short of the defeat of both the military and political institutions of our enemies will only lead to continued war and death on both sides. Victory is the merciful and moral course.

Conversely, “sending a message” or “demonstrating the capability of the IDF” or “making the enemy pay a high price” are veils for half measures that only lead to more death and violence in the future than would otherwise be possible or necessary.

Empirical evidence over the past twenty years has shown that we are no longer willing to defeat our enemies. Why is that? The attacks on us are continuous: Suicide bombings, kidnappings, missile attacks and so on.  Why has Israel time and again settled for “striking a blow” or “sending a message”? Why is it that General Mizrachi’s answer to Dalia Emanueloff, or Daniel Polisar’s insight, warm so many Israeli hearts rather than make us outraged? Do we relate better to Jewish death and suffering than to Jewish power and victory? Is it because our psychological and emotional comfort zone is in the former, not the latter?

Are we still shtetl-dwellers and dhimmis, unable to conceive of our right to life itself as equal, let alone premier? This makes us ever more incapable of defending ourselves from external and internal threats. The IDF rules of engagement are based on the immoral value that our lives – those of our soldiers – are of less value than those of our enemies – specifically enemy civilians. And yes, in the aggregate, the civilians are our enemy too. Wars are waged by societies, not only their armies.  It also explains how we have permitted 30,000 citizens to be bombed for twelve years.

George Will noted in Newsweek that in the first 59 months of World War Two, 2.8 million German soldiers and civilians died; in the last nine months 4.8 million died – over 530,000 per month. While there certainly are moral complexities to the Allied conduct of the war, in the aggregate their battle tactics reflected a moral strategy. America refused to lose more of its soldiers at the expense of enemy civilians. America fulfilled its moral obligation to its own troops and their families, while pursuing the equally moral obligation of fighting on until victory. Victory did not mean pushing the Germans back to Germany. Victory meant overrunning Germany, destroying the institutions which bred its folly and killing or arresting its military and political leadership. Everybody knew that without Germany’s total defeat it would re-emerge with continuing fury and violence. America chose to aggressively bomb industrial infrastructure and more, despite the predicted infliction of civilian casualties, rather than lose more of its sons than necessary in the invasion.

Our understanding of General Mizrachi’s answer is that we are great because we are willing to take casualties to save the lives of the enemy. He didn’t say that explicitly, but everybody knows that is the subtext. Nobody says it but everybody wonders which of the IDF casualties – the deaths and dismemberments – would have been prevented had we as a country and the IDF as a fighting force had a different relationship to the value of life, the morality of war and morality itself. Everybody knows that for some of our Israeli casualties we could have made a trade: More Palestinian property destruction and more Palestinian loss of life in exchange for the life or limb of a brave IDF soldier. Please tell us which Jewish casualty was worth it. Or Druze casualty? Or Bedouin?

Which one of these casualties’ mothers are we willing to look in the eye and say: “We could have saved your son’s life. He did not have to die. We chose to expose his unit to added risk in order to preserve the lives of enemy civilians. We believe the sacrifice of your son’s life under these conditions was more moral than taking the lives of enemy civilians. The ultimate sacrifice your son made was worth it from our view of the greater good and our moral solidarity, as well as our standing in the press and diplomatically. We are very sorry for your loss.”  Kinda rings hollow, don’t you think?

Yet what are we to expect from ourselves, a society willing to have 30,000 of its citizens bombed for ten years, watching death and terror follow death and terror in the forsaken town of Sderot? From a country that had pathetic shows of solidarity like shopping days in Sderot? Here’s the message: We so appreciate that your children have not played outside for ten years, that you live each day and night in terror, that so many of you have been killed and wounded, that we shall shop on Friday to show we care; then we’ll go back to Tel Aviv…Sleep well.

The message cannot be clearer:  Israeli lives are less important than those of our enemies. We will not attack Gaza, will not stop the missiles. But what we will do is call our fellow citizens brave heroes when they die, and tell heartwarming stories of how Jews come together as Jews with so much compassion. Through its actions, Israel unequivocally communicates to the world that it believes it is okay for Jews to die by terror missiles, and be terrorized by them.

And should yet another ground invasion proceed, what are its aims?  Will more lives be saved in the long run by maximal military and political objectives, or by sending signals and taking half measures that will leave the enemy’s leadership and hostile infrastructure intact?

Thus, General Mizrachi’s response sounds nice, feels good, but is brutal in its ultimate exactions. After the phone calls stop, the visitors dissipate, and the emotional warmth of the condolences wear off, reality sets in; Mrs. Emanuelof is left without her son for the rest of her life, every single day, day and night, every Shabbat, every Yom Tov, every Chag, every simcha, forever!

Many Israelis and others will take these comments to reducto ad absurdum, exclaiming that we can’t simply gun down and bomb more than a million Palestinians and that we advocate as such. Many will say that our very purpose as Jews is reflected in the IDF’s current extreme – nay,  extremist – aversion to enemy civilian casualties. We think not, not in its current configuration. A moral army, a Jewish army, does everything possible to avoid and minimize civilian casualties……..but only up to the line where our own soldiers’ lives will not be sacrificed on the altar of hyper-morality. We have crossed that line; we are living on the wrong side of it. Jewish ethics do not ask us to die for our enemies’ sins, or to die in an effort to curry favor with hostile Western elites.

The IDF’s strength doesn’t come from the frightening and demoralizing rules of engagement imposed on our brave soldiers. The strength comes from the fact that most soldiers, secular and religious, understand that we have returned to our homeland and that we have an army whose purpose is to defend Jewish lives, something that hasn’t been possible for two thousand years. The IDF is a moral army because most soldiers serving in the IDF are good and moral people.

It’s time to change IDF’s rules of engagement.  It’s time to for a full fledged public discussion on what’s driven the IDF to institute such a self-defeating, immoral “moral code.”  It’s time to fully reveal how such purity of arms increases death and feeds into the counterproductive tactics, limited objectives and inane strategies that have characterized Israel’s military undertakings for the past 25 years.

This article was co-written with Martin Ingall.

About the Author
Gideon Israel is the Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center which focuses on strengthening US-Israel relations through mutually beneficial policy projects.