The Moral Debate in the Israeli Military


When Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, recently told three leading Israeli newspapers that the lives of innocent Palestinians were being crippled by Israeli crackdowns, curfews and roadblocks, a dramatic split with the extreme hawkish style of Ariel Sharon’s leadership was illustrated. Yaalon’s statements about the military tactics not serving Israel’s strategic interests also revealed that the Israeli military is not as unified in their approach about how to deal with the Palestinian uprising for freedom.

In fact, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who opposes any softening of Israel’s harsh military restrictions and who repeatedly overruled Yaalon at security meetings, was reportedly livid that Yaalon would go public with his concerns.

But Yaalon’s comments were not the first major ripple to come from inside the Israeli military establishment. In September, 27 Israeli pilots sent a letter to the Israeli Air force commander declaring their refusal to carry out track-and-kill operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“We, who have been educated to love the state of Israel…refuse to continue harming innocent civilians,” one of the pilots later told Israel’s Channel 2 television.

Despite a threat of punishment — ironically by Yaalon, who had called the letter illegitimate and forbidden — it was another layer of defiance toward Israeli government policies by the military segment of society.

And who can forget the hundreds of principled army reservists who have refused to “serve in an army of occupation.” Numerous prison sentences have been handed out in response.

Yair Halper, now 20, was one of those “refuseniks.” Here are some excerpts from a poignant letter he wrote in October, 2001 while preparing for incarceration:

“I see the Israeli army as a mechanism that hosts everything I oppose in its ranks. Every soldier contributes in his/her way to the perpetuation of not only the complete disregard for Palestinian human rights, but also the continuing fortification and confirmation of Military Israel.

“The army brainwashes its soldiers to receive a brutal and inhumane mentality and makes the single soldier lose his/her individuality. I will not join a system that does not value human rights and that continues to rape, control and occupy the Palestinian territories.

“As naive and clichéd as it sounds, I know of only one way to live my life and that is by being true to myself, holding fast to my beliefs and principles and living by what they dictate to me. Yes, I am willing and will be proud to sit in jail for what I see right.”

The importance of the actions of the refuseniks can not be overstated. Consider the comments of Ariel Sharon’s spokesperson, Ranaan Gissin, at a 2002 press conference. He was asked about revelations reported in a January 25, 2002 article, “At the Gates of Yassergrad” by Ha’aretz’s Amir Oren. An Israeli officer had admitted that Israeli soldiers were studying methods used by German Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. One would think that the shock of such a revelation would result in damage control. But Gissin was unconcerned. "Some officers may have been looking at that. They thought that it was similar, because you would be fighting street-by-street against the Palestinian Authority," Gissen said. In fact, "the real problem is those who refuse to serve."

But world-renowned military expert Martin Van Creveld told Yerushalyim’s Giora Ayalon in March, 2002 otherwise. “We get up in the morning and can’t look at ourselves in the mirror, and the refusing (to serve) – which by the way began in the Lebanon War –” is testimony to this. . . the refusing to serve is a symptom of an army which is falling apart, and it is the best thing that happened to us. Perhaps as a result of it, we will finally get out of these horrible territories.”

Many Israeli schools and homes, of course, will continue to churn out soldiers who look at Palestinians as sub-human — as they have for decades.

From pairing up Palestinians and forcing them to fight each other to telling a woman she has to drink cleaning fluid at gunpoint, the horrors and abuse by Israeli soldiers are rife in the Occupied Territories. And as the uprising continues, the measures have become more brutal and desperate.

But all indications point to the fact that more in the Israeli military establishment are finally getting the simple concept that brutality and ruthlessness are not going to extinguish the Palestinian desire for freedom. Perhaps, a profound and meaningful moral debate within this establishment will now take center stage, and humane conditions conducive for meaningful dialogue can finally transpire.