Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Israeli accusations of IDF immorality

YNet reports:
The IDF did not behave morally during Operation Cast Lead, soldiers who had participated in the operation said during a post-op conference at the military academy at Oranim. The conference protocol was published Thursday.

One NCO told of the experiences that bothered him during the operation. "Prior to going into a crowded area… we had a meeting about the rules of engagement and opening fire within a city, because as you know we fired a lot of rounds and killed a lot of people in order for us not to be injured or shot at."

"When we entered a house, we were supposed to bust down the door and start shooting inside and just go up story by story… I call that murder. Each story, if we identify a person, we shoot them. I asked myself – how is this reasonable?"

The NCO also related a story about an old woman who was crossing a main route who was shot by the soldiers. "I don't know whether she was suspicious, not suspicious, I don't know her story… I do know that my officer sent people to the roof in order to take her out… It was cold-blooded murder."

Another NCO told of an incident in which a family was killed. "We had taken over the house… and the family was released and told to go right. A mother and two children got confused and went left… The sniper on the roof wasn't told that this was okay and that he shouldn't shoot… you can say he just did what he was told… he was told not to let anyone approach the left flank and he shot at them."

"I don't know whether he first shot at their feet or not (per IDF engagement instructions), but he killed them," the NCO said.

"We expected to hold a discussion about the war, in which we would hear about the personal experiences and lessons of the soldiers, but we did not expect the testimonies that we heard," Academy Head Danny Mazir told Ynet. "We were in total shock."

Mazor informed IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi of the experience. "It's definitely not easy for an institution like the IDF to hear things like this and the officers I spoke with were very surprised. Up until now, post-op investigations had not demonstrated such violations of ethics," he said.

The IDF Spokesman's Unit reported that, pursuant to Mazor's communication, "a meeting was immediately set up with Chief Education Officer Brig. General Eli Shirmeister."

"He explained that the IDF was currently in the middle of thorough investigations of these issues. The IDF has no previous information about these incidents and will investigate their accuracy. The head of the military academy was asked to transfer any additional information he receives to the IDF so that it could checked thoroughly," they said in a statement.

Later Thursday, Military Judge Advocate General Brigadier-General Avi announced he would launch a formal inquiry into the allegations. According to Mandelblit, the publications "paint a picture of unacceptable behavior, if true."
Ha'aretz plans to publish more testimonies from IDF officers in coming days.

These stories are troubling and should be taken seriously. Even though Israel's enemies will always say that Israel commits war crimes, Israel should not react to the slander but it should honestly look at her own actions and always strive to fix problems.

In the days of the first Intifada, the IDF was faced with an unprecedented situation of open revolt. Clearly, at the time, there were no standards on how to react to such a situation and some of the decisions made were (in retrospect) much more violent towards the Palestinian Arab fighter/protesters than they should have been. It is easy to criticize them now, but at the time no one knew how things would play out and it seemed to be just as valid a decision to crack down harder in the interests of cutting the revolt short rather than let it play out and possibly escalate.

The second intifada showed that Israel erred in the other direction, passively absorbing large numbers of terror attacks for two years before deciding to go on the offensive and pro-actively dismantling the terror infrastructure. Many Israeli lives were lost in those two years who might have been saved had Israel taken more decisive action earlier - and the world would have been much less forgiving.

Any war involves very tough decisions. One of the toughest, for a moral people, is to calculate the relative value of the lives of your own soldiers and your own civilians against the enemy soldiers(/fighters/terrorists) and the enemy civilians. It is just as immoral to place your own soldiers and citizens at risk to avoid hurting the enemy as it is to wantonly kill civilians in the interests of protecting your own. Jenin appears to have been a textbook case of the IDF being too worried about public opinion and not enough about the lives of its own soldiers.

Every new situation brings new challenges and issues that have not been dealt with before. The IDF was clearly prepared not to repeat mistakes made in Lebanon, but there were challenges in Gaza that they did not have against Hezbollah, most notably Hamas' decision to hide among civilians and avoid open fighting and the booby traps Hamas laid among the civilian neighborhoods, schools and houses. Hamas' strategy was to draw IDF soldiers into killing Gaza civilians as well as to kidnap more IDF soldiers. This was not, in any sense, a classic military confrontation.

The stories related above appear to have been situations that should have been foreseen and planned for, but we don't know for sure. Perhaps there was faulty intelligence that informed bad decisions, perhaps commanders ignored protocol, perhaps the IDF leaders consciously moved the moral dial more towards "save our lives and don't let yourself be kidnapped" and away from "avoid killing civilians at all costs" - a decision that might very well be justified in a world where every Gilad Shalit is worth some 500 terrorists.

The IDF has a history of learning from its mistakes, and the Palestinian Arab terrorists have a history of coming up with new creative ways to kill. Israel needs to honestly investigate every case of possible abuses and immoral behavior (including the unconscionable graffiti that some soldiers left in the houses of civilians.) There will always be new challenges, and there will always be mistakes and inconsistencies in how individual soldiers act, but an effective army needs discipline and as clear a set of rules as possible, rules that can be defended without apology.

And even though the IDF continues to behave more morally than any army in history, it should always be willing and eager to raise the bar.

UPDATE: Questions are being raised about the accusations to begin with. Jameel reports that "Channel 2 TV Army correspondent Roni Daniel stated at 6:30 PM this evening, that he personally tracked down one of the soldiers interviewed for the Haaretz article. Apparently the soldier's testimony to Haaretz wasn't based on anything he personally saw or witnessed, rather based on rumors and hearsay he heard (and the soldier wasn't even in Gaza!)" (h/t joem)

(h/t Isy - I wasn't going to blog this, and I have no time to blog, but my weakness is when people make requests...)