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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Interview with IDF ethicist

The Jerusalem Post has a very long, but worthwhile, interview with the man who helped draft the IDF's ethical codes, Asa Kasher. Excerpts:

Our responsibility is to maintain our moral standards. That’s a very important starting point because in matters of war it can sometimes get blurred. People are always talking about factors like international law, public opinion, the Western world – that is, outside factors that we’re supposed to match up to. No, I say we have to uphold our own standards.

What are those standards?

We take decisions that reflect our acceptance of some aspects of international law; other parts, we have not accepted. The prime question, in these fields of morals and ethics, is what I see when I look in the mirror – not when I watch the BBC.

When the enemy becomes more ruthless and harsher than it was in the past, then we have to protect ourselves in smarter and different ways, but still according to the standards that we have set for ourselves.

You can use the analogy of a police officer at a bank robbery. If he sees that the robber is holding a toy gun, he won’t shoot him. He’ll simply catch him. But if it’s a real gun, and the robber has already killed hostages and he’s about to kill more, and the only way to stop him and save the hostages is to shoot him, the policeman will shoot him.

That robber’s actions have required me to protect myself from him via harsher measures. It’s not a case of: he’ll shoot so I’ll shoot, or he’ll do terrible things so I’ll also do terrible things, or he doesn’t care about killing hostages so I won’t care about killing robbers. That’s absolutely not the point at all. He doesn’t care about killing hostages, but I do care: I don’t want to kill him unless there’s truly no alternative.

This robber is threatening people’s lives, so we will shoot him if there is no other alternative. If we can catch him without firing on him at all, excellent. If we can catch him by injuring him, without killing him, excellent. If there’s no alternative, it’s a tragedy to hit him, but that’s what has to be done.

And that broadly is what is happening with our enemies today. If our enemy would fight on the battlefield, on open ground, in uniform, carrying his weapons openly, then it would be a case of an army facing off against a force that behaved like an army, and children and other non-dangerous people would not get hurt. But the enemy has changed the way it fights. So we have no choice. We have to protect ourselves as necessary.

Now there’s a basis to what we have to do: We are a democratic state. And that means two things. One, we are obligated to effectively protect our citizens from all danger. So we have a police force, to protect against crime. A Health Ministry, to protect against medical dangers. A Transportation Ministry, against the dangers on the roads. And we have a Defense Ministry, to protect us against the dangers our enemies represent.

The state cannot evade this obligation. It can’t say, “I am busy, I have more important things to do.” There is nothing more important than protecting citizens’ lives. Nothing.

A democratic state wants to deal with all kinds of other things, all kinds of agreements, citizens’ rights, elections, free media and so on. Okay, fine. But to enjoy all or any of that, you have to be alive. Before you get to any of that, to protect any of that, you have to protect my life. A state is obligated to ensure effective protection of its citizens’ lives. In fact, it’s more than just life. It is an obligation to ensure the citizens’ well-being and their capacity to go about their lives. A citizen of a state must be able to live normally. To send the kids to school in the morning. To go shopping. To go to work. To go out in the evening. A routine way of life. Nothing extraordinary. The state is obliged to protect that.

At the same time, the moral foundation of a democratic state is respect for human dignity. Human dignity must be respected in all circumstances. And to respect human dignity in all circumstances means, among other things, to be sensitive to human life in all circumstances. Not just the lives of the citizens of your state. Everybody.

This applies even in our interactions with terrorists. I am respecting the terrorist’s dignity when I ask myself, “Do I have to kill him or can I stop him without killing him?”

And I certainly have to respect the human dignity of the terrorists’ nondangerous neighbors – who are not a threat. We always talk about “innocents,” but “innocence” is not the issue here. The issue here is whether they are dangerous. So the correct translation is “non-dangerous.”

As in, non-threatening?

Yes, that’s the significance. If they are “not dangerous,” that means I don’t have even the beginning of a moral right to harm them deliberately.

Okay, so that’s some of the theory. Now relate that to Operation Cast Lead.

Fine. We have to protect our citizens and we have to respect human dignity. But when it comes to a war like Operation Cast Lead, those two imperatives are likely to clash. I am obligated to protect my citizens, but I have no way to protect them without the non-dangerous neighbors of the terrorists becoming caught up in the conflict. What am I to do?

Two things: First, you decide what is more important in the given situation. And second, you do whatever you can so that the damage to the other side is as small as possible: Maximizing effective defense of the citizens; minimizing collateral damage.

How do I decide which of the conflicting imperatives is more important? People don’t like this idea, because they don’t understand it: They think it is immoral to give priority to the defense of the citizens of your state over the protection of the lives of the neighbors of the terrorists. They don’t understand that the world is built in such a way that responsibility is divided.

Please elaborate.

We are responsible for the residents of the State of Israel. Canada is responsible for the residents of Canada. Australia, for Australia. And that’s just fine. We are not responsible for the lives of Canadians in the same way as we are for the lives of Israelis and vice versa. This is completely accepted and completely moral and no one questions this. We don’t have one world government that is responsible for everything. We have states with their own responsibilities.

Now from this stems the fact that when you have clash of imperatives, this responsibility for one’s own citizens takes precedence over the other responsibility to the non-dangerous neighbors. This isn’t anything to do with us being Israel, or Jews. The same applies to the United States or to Canada or to any other country.

I cannot evade my prime responsibility to protect the well-being of the citizens of my country. Now, among all the means I could use to protect them, I will choose those that are better morally – better from the point of view of the effectiveness of the protection and the minimalization of the damage to the neighbors of the terrorists.

And what do we do to minimize the harm done to the neighbors of the terrorists?

We can’t separate the terrorist from his neighbors. We can’t force the terrorists to move away, because they don’t want to move away. That’s their whole strategy: To be there. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they want to work from within. The terrorists have erased the difference between combatants and non-combatants.

They live in residential areas. They operate from within residential areas. They attack civilians. And they won’t leave when I tell them to leave. No one has the power to move them from where they are without conquering the entire area, which requires special justifications.

But if we can’t force the terrorist out, we can make the effort to move his neighbors. He won’t move away from his neighbors, but maybe his neighbors will move away from him. And experience shows that this kind of effort succeeds. That is, very many non-dangerous neighbors do move away from terrorists if they are warned.

So Israel, the IDF, carries out very intensive warning operations. Unprecedented. There are those who don’t like the term, “the most moral army in the world.” I think it’s a very complex phrase, and one has to make all kinds of professional diagnoses. You can’t just blithely invoke it. But let’s look at that claim in this particular context.

Who tries harder than we do to warn the neighbors [to leave a conflict zone]? Who does it better than we do? I don’t know if the public realizes this, but we recently carried out precisely such an act of warning – by publishing a map of Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon. Israel released details of hundreds of villages where Hezbollah has a position deep inside the village. From there, they’ll fire on us if and when they want to, and we will have to protect ourselves. That means we’ll have to fire into the village.

The publication of this map is a warning: We know, it says, that Hezbollah is intertwining its terrorists with non-dangerous neighbors. Understand that to protect ourselves in this situation will mean endangering the populace. The populace has to know that it is in a dangerous situation.

What to do in this dangerous situation? We don’t know. We’re telling those non-dangerous neighbors to give it some thought. Try to kick out Hezbollah? That is apparently very difficult. Move away from the Hezbollah position? Perhaps that is possible. Get away when the time comes? That may sound theoretical at present, but when the time comes, who knows? The fact is, this is an advance warning.

Now let’s come to Operation Cast Lead in this context. We distributed leaflets [to Gaza civilians, telling them that they should leave a potential conflict zone]. It may be that we can do that better – distribute better leaflets, more detailed, with more precise guidance on how to get away. We broke into their radio and TV broadcasts to give them announcements, to warn them. That can be done still more effectively.

We made phone calls to 160,000 phone numbers. No one in the world has ever done anything like that, ever. And it’s clear why that is effective. It’s not a piece of paper that was dropped in my neighborhood. The phone rang in my own pocket! Yes, it was a recorded message, because it’s impossible to make personal calls on that scale. But still, this was my number they dialed. It was a warning directed personally to me, not some kind of general warning.

And finally, we had the “tap on the roof” approach. The IDF used nonlethal weaponry, fired onto the roofs [of buildings being used by terrorists]. That weaponry makes a lot of noise. It constituted a very strong, noisy hint: We’re close, but you still have the chance to get out.

What we don’t use is nohal shachen (the “neighbor protocol”). I recently read comments by a British general, a commander in Afghanistan...

Gen. Richard Kemp?

No, this was someone else, saying at a press conference, how moral his forces are. And then he described their policy, which was nohal shachen, as the symbol of the morality of British soldiers.

What did he say, specifically, that they do?

He said that when they are facing a terrorist hiding out in a building with non-dangerous neighbors, they make one of the neighbors telephone or speak through a loudspeaker to the Taliban terrorist who is in this building, and say that rather than killing him and the neighbors and destroying the house, he should surrender and that he’ll be taken away with various guarantees. This British commander was very proud of this ostensibly humane procedure – a procedure that the courts here forbid us to do. We don’t do it.

We issue warnings in an unprecedented way – not one warning, but many. We make enormous efforts to get the neighbors away from the terrorists.

Now there’s one more thing that maybe we could do, and there’s an argument surrounding it: send soldiers into the building. Send in soldiers to check that maybe someone has stayed. I am against this. Very against this.

So there’s a difference between what we did in Jenin [during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, where 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush] and what we did in Gaza?

Yes, we changed our approach. The approach is more appropriate now. I think what we did in Jenin was a mistake. There was a primitive conception that “it’s all right to endanger soldiers.” Every time there was a dilemma like this – soldiers here and non-soldiers on the other side – the soldiers were endangered.

Why was that wrong?

You need, to a certain limit, to warn the people to get out. At a certain point, the warnings are over and there are two possibilities. That people have stayed because they don’t want to leave or because they can’t leave. If they can’t leave, despite all the warnings, despite the possibilities to get them out, even to send ambulances to get them out, that’s interesting to me, and we’ll come back to that.

But if a neighbor doesn’t want to leave, he turns himself into the human shield of the terrorist. He has become part of the war. And I’m sorry, but I may have to harm him when I try to stop the terrorist. I’ll do my best not to. But it may be that in the absence of all other alternatives, I may hurt him. I certainly don’t see a good reason to endanger the lives of soldiers in a case like that.

Sometimes people don’t understand this. They think of soldiers as, well, instruments. They think that soldiers are there to be put into danger, that soldiers are there to take risks, that this is their world, this is their profession. But that is so far from the reality in Israel, where most of the soldiers are in the IDF because service is mandatory and reserve service is mandatory. Even with a standing army, you have to take moral considerations into account. But that is obviously the case when service is compulsory: I, the state, sent them into battle. I, the state, took them out of their homes. Instead of him going to university or going to work, I put a uniform on him, I trained him, and I dispatched him. If I am going to endanger him, I owe him a very, very good answer as to why. After all, as I said, this is a democratic state that is obligated to protect its citizens. How dare I endanger him?
It is amazing how much a country under constant threat worries about how to minimize harm to those who support its destruction. And as Kasher said, it is not to impress the BBC or HRW, but to uphold Israeli society's own moral standards.

Once again, it is illuminating to compare an interview like this to the facile condemnations that come from the media and "human rights" organizations who automatically assume that civilians die because of IDF mendacity. This shows that Israel is light years ahead of the pontificating accusers, both in knowledge of what has to be done and, yes, in morality.