The Israel Defense Forces’ moral code of warfare

About 60 years ago I was a member of the Jewish underground in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. I was a member of the Hagana, and in 1944 I was conscripted into the Palmach, the Hagana’s standing unit that was at the command of the elected institutions of the Jewish Yishuv, or community.

In 1945 I was dispatched on my first military action, a demonstrative act of sabotage at 10 locations along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railroad. We considered our military struggle to be a legitimate one: we sought to end the British Mandate and establish an independent and sovereign Hebrew state. In the short term we had two objectives: we demanded annulment of the "White Paper" and the British lands act, along with entry into the country of hundreds of thousands of Jews who had survived the Nazi extermination camps.

We were convinced that we were waging a legitimate and moral struggle. The British called it acts of terrorism. It was a classic example of the difficulty of finding an agreed definition. To my mind the definition was pure and simple: the key to distinguishing between a legitimate struggle and acts of terrorism is not the strategic objectives of the perpetrator; rather, it lies in the tactics of warfare and the targets that are hit.

Recently we were once again confronted with this issue in the case of a letter signed by 27 Israel Air Force (IAF) pilots, who declared that they would refuse in future to take part in military actions against targets located in populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They refused to engage in any offensive action that could inadvertently end up in injury to innocent civilians.

I can understand the writers’ spirit. But I completely reject their collective refusal to obey orders. This refusal is primarily political, not moral.

Since the insane slaughter carried out by Border Patrol soldiers in Qafr Qassem (October 1956), the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has openly defined what constitutes a clearly illegal command. According to this definition, not only is it unnecessary to carry out such a command, but anyone who does carry it out cannot claim immunity because he was "only obeying orders".

I share the IAF pilots’ political outlook. I too want the Israeli occupation to end, with the vast majority of the settlements removed and a political agreement accepted by both sides. Yet despite the 36 years that have elapsed since June 1967, there was nothing illegal or immoral about the IDF conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and we should not confuse a political debate with illegal acts of disobedience.

Unlike Palestinian terrorism that is consciously, deliberately and almost exclusively directed against innocent Israeli civilians, not a single military task assigned to the Israeli security forces has been consciously and with forethought intended to injure civilians. Sadly, the hiding places of Palestinian terrorists are almost always located in the midst of heavily populated urban areas.

Some 60 years ago, at the height of World War II, we witnessed countless military acts that were deliberately directed against innocent civilian populations. Nazi Germany started it when its planes indiscriminately bombed the cities of Poland, and continued with similar bombings of cities in Holland, Belgium and France, followed by the brutal blitz of British cities. The Allies’ acts of revenge in bombing Germany and later Japan were no different. Both were clearly illegal acts under the IDF’s code of ethics.

I have been involved in Israel’s wars since November 29, 1947. All these wars, without exception, were hard and cruel. Yet I am proud that I never was concerned over an issue involving our moral code of warfare. There were–and I fear will be in future–unintended acts of aggression; not a few soldiers at the local level have exceeded orders and violated recognized moral norms. But never was a command given to strike deliberately at civilians.

Despite my differences of opinion with the government’s policies, I’m satisfied that this same government maintains the moral code of warfare of the IDF and of the people of Israel at a high level.