Halbertal: IDF Does its Best Despite Challenges
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by Amanda Koehn
Moshe Halbertal, an Israeli philosopher, professor and co-author of the Israeli Army Code of Ethics, told a local audience that he believes the Israel Defense Forces has fought a war on terror without brutalizing its forces, however, there are challenges and missteps regarding Israeli politicians’ messaging and dealing with the situation at the Gaza border.
“On the whole, the IDF ... has managed to fight a complex war on terror without brutalizing its soldiers and its forces,” he said. “It’s managed to do it successfully and some of it is because of that work we are trying to do. That means that we still have work to do because the challenge is ongoing.”
Halbertal made the comments at a Jewish Federation of Cleveland event June 7 at the Mandel Jewish Community Center Stonehill Auditorium in Beachwood. “Ethics, International Law and the IDF,” was attended by about 25 people and Halbertal also spoke June 6 at another larger Federation event “Israel as a Jewish Democratic State.”
Ethics code crash course
Halbertal is a professor in law, ethics and Jewish thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and New York University in New York City and is the author of several books. He and colleagues worked on editing the Israeli ethics code around 2000, he said, which included considering the challenges of today’s “asymmetrical war” in Israel, where enemies can’t be distinguished from civilians and operate in civilian environments, and “attack indiscriminately our civilians.”
“The moral burden on young men and women are huge in this type of war,” he said of Israeli soldiers. “You want them to go there, you want them to win the war to protect the country, but you want them to also do it in a way that they can be proud of themselves as human beings. That they didn’t destroy their humanity in the process.”
He relayed what he considers the major the ethical principles that should guide soldiers’ judgment. The first is necessity – to use force only for the purpose of a mission, which he said distinguishes soldiers from “a group of thugs.”
“If you have to break a door to a home, or break the wall ... that doesn’t mean you can break the TV,” he said.
The second principal is distinction – aim fire only at those posing a threat and not civilians, he said, adding that “the worst thing a country can do is an intentional killing of civilians.”
The third principal is responsibility, which he said means soldiers must do everything they can to minimize collateral harm to civilians.
“That means picking the right time of attack when you know there won’t be many civilians around, that means using a precision weapon, that means good intelligence, that means, by the way, sometimes risking your own forces – calculated risk – in order not to harm civilians,” he said.
He also noted the value of proportionality – that when collateral harm is expected, soldiers must ask themselves whether it is proportional to the military achievement possible.
On the common self-praise that the IDF is the most “moral army in the world,” Halbertal said, “It might be true, but it’s not a big achievement.”
While Halbertal was not at the border during the recent Gaza protests that according to JTA have left more than
100 Palestinians dead, he said his sources told him IDF soldiers only were ordered to shoot those who posed a threat, not civilians trying to cross the border.
“The case was that those civilians there were with people with arms, throwing grenades, throwing explosives and saying ... ‘we are going to cross the border and kidnap soldiers,’” he said.
He said snipers were given orders to shoot only those who appeared to pose a threat. Of the 62 Palestinians killed
May 14-15, 50 were associated with Hamas, a Hamas official said, as reported by The Times of Israel.
“That means someone was actually very careful there,” he said.
However, he said in his view, the military needs to produce means to better disperse crowds without killing. Also, he said Israel needs to better help the Gaza economy to make “the other side feel they have something to lose. Because people who have nothing to lose are dangerous with good reasons.”
He also responded to an audience question on the U.N.’s attitude toward Israel, saying it was important Israeli officials “explain what you are doing in real time, to admit errors and to be fully transparent.”
Later responding to an audience question, he added, “I think politically we should have dealt with Gaza completely different from what we are doing.”
He said one such issue is people misunderstand Israeli politicians making hard-line claims about protecting sovereignty to imply civilians were killed just for trying to cross the border, which is false.
“What we have to do is a serious transparent account which is not shying from criticism as well,” he said. “But it’s far more balanced and serious than the stuff that goes around,” later adding that Israeli politicians are not “speaking to an echo chamber,” but rather the world is listening.
Specifically, he said when asked about the moral actions of the military, he’s seen Israeli politicians reiterate that their aim is to protect their own and seem unconcerned with Palestinian casualties, which he said is a mistake.
“I said to myself, if he were smart, he should say, ‘you know something, I feel very bad that civilians on the other side are dying. We do a lot of effort to minimize it, and third, we have to protect our own,” he said. “It would be completely different.”