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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interview with the IDF ethicist

From Israel HaYom last week:

[Professor Asa] Kasher, an Israel Prize laureate in philosophy, is considered the foremost philosopher in Israel and a supreme professional authority in the field of ethics. Some say that he is the most respected moral authority of our generation. Besides his work in academia as a world-renowned expert in linguistics, he was the chairman of several important public committees and serves on several others. He also became known as the conscience of the security establishment after he wrote the IDF’s code of ethics. His writings about medical ethics, media and science are considered milestones. Yet despite all his frenetic public activity, he hardly appears in the media.

..Kasher served on the Shamgar Committee regarding negotiating a ransom for kidnapped soldiers. ...[H]e says, “The price of sending terrorists back is not a matter of national honor but rather a question of security and justice. When we look at the list of those who were released in the Shalit deal, where they were released to and the restrictions that were imposed upon them, no danger to security has been created. Yes, justice was compromised, but there was no alternative. After all, we will not leave a soldier in that kind of situation merely to protect justice.

“The families of the victims of the murderers who were released should have been treated with kid gloves. They should have been told before the fact, and not by the media. The authorities should have given them psychological therapy and a listening, sensitive ear.”

Q. In the context of preventing kidnappings, the “Hannibal order” — preventing a kidnapping even at the price of harming a soldier — has been discussed quite a bit.

“There is a common error, as though an order existed to shoot a soldier who had been kidnapped, deliberately, because ‘a dead soldier is better than a kidnapped soldier.’ The Hannibal order says that when there is an attempt to kidnap a soldier, it must be prevented by an order to open fire in order to get the soldier back home safe and sound. The kidnappers, not the soldier, are fired upon, even if the soldier’s life is put in some danger. If the soldier is in certain danger — for example, firing an artillery shell at the kidnappers’ car — it’s not allowed. I’m glad that the twisted idea of this procedure that exists in the soldiers’ minds never actually happened. The order has been invoked several times already, and there has never been a case in which any soldiers killed another soldier in order to prevent him from being kidnapped.

“There is a distortion of thought that says that while the state must pay a high price for a kidnapped soldier, Israeli society is willing to accept a dead soldier. This is a scandalous and false idea. Would you be willing to take responsibility for a soldier that you killed? I heard this twisted interpretation for the first time in 1995. I raised an outcry, and I tell you that the damage that the state would suffer from a soldier’s death is greater than the damage that it would suffer from negotiating for his release. Don’t help the country by killing a soldier. It would be better for him to be captured by the enemy than killed by you.

“During Operation Cast Lead, I heard commanding officers say, ‘None of our men will be kidnapped.’ That doesn’t just mean be careful. It means kill yourself rather than let it happen. That’s absolutely horrible.”

Q. Can the IDF code of ethics undergo changes?

“The code is stable. The more abstract the values are, the less they change. The doctrines can change because we are in new situations all the time. The doctrine of combating terror, which I dealt with together with Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who was the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, includes a new situation in which terrorists live among civilians. We must free ourselves from the attitude that regards others’ lives with fear and trembling while holding the lives of our own combat soldiers in complete contempt. International law wants to impose a position on us whereby soldiers are a consumable resource and that the lives of enemy civilians must be protected more than the lives of our own combat troops. Bandages are a consumable resource. Water is a consumable resource. Human beings are not.

“If we warned the terrorists’ neighbors to leave the area, in Arabic, in any way — flyers, telephone calls, television broadcasts, a warning noise — and they stay anyway — why are they staying? Because they choose to be human shields for terrorists. I do not want to kill a human being only because he is a human shield, if he is not a threat to me. But should a soldier of mine risk himself for him? Is the blood of a human shield any redder than the blood of my soldier? A soldier has no choice other than to be in Gaza, in that alleyway. But to be sent inside — why? In the battle in Jenin, in the middle of Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF knew that the refugee camp was booby-trapped. But they still insisted on not bombing from the air in order to keep from harming civilians, and they suffered terrible losses. That was a mistake. They should have made an effort to get the civilian population out of the terrorist environment, and then there would have been no need to send in the infantry.”

Q. Is the IDF more ethical today than in the past?

“The IDF is the only army in the world whose code of ethics states that a human being’s life should be valued simply because he is a human being. There is no other army in the world that would accept such an idea, and among us it passed without anybody batting an eyelash. We are improving all the time. An incident such as what happened on Bus 300 could not happen today. Today’s Shin Bet would not go within 10 miles of such a thing.

“On the other hand, army politics have only gotten worse. What does it mean, ‘running’ for the position of chief of staff? In a professional organization, nobody runs for a position. A tradition of transition from the army to politics has been created, and norms from the political world have trickled into the army.”

Read the whole thing.