Conscience & Combat

How Israel’s military Code of Ethics is tested in an age of terror.
Bernard Edinger

Purity of Arms code: "IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent, and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property."

Israel's "Purity of Arms" (Tohar HaNeshek) combat code has existed since pre-state times, introduced by commanders of the left-wing Palmach (the Haganah's underground strike force). It is not rooted in Jewish religious tradition, but in the Palmach-era expression: "Keep your weapon clear," which effectively means: "Don't kill noncombatants or loot, rape, or do anything else that the Arabs do." Its current incarnation, drafted by Tel Aviv University professor Asa Kasher at the request of then chief of staff Ehud Barak, and introduced in 1994 (with guidelines added in 2005 on fighting terror), draws on four sources: the tradition and military heritage of the Israel Defense Forces; the democratic principles, laws, and institutions of the State of Israel; the tradition of the Jewish people throughout their history; and the universal moral values based on the value and dignity of human life.

This combat code is just one component of the Israel Defense Force's Code of Ethics (The Spirit of Tsahal), which also promotes qualities such as comradeship, discipline, and patriotism. But since the outbreak of the Intifada seven years ago, it is the Purity of Arms doctrine that's come under the closest scrutiny as Israeli soldiers, mostly aged 18-21, have been in clashes with Palestinians.

Kfir Abekassis, 19, a sergeant in a paratroop battalion, recalls serving as a squad commander in the West Bank. "I was often in charge of seven to fourteen soldiers manning checkpoints in really 'hot' areas like Schem (Nablus, in the West Bank), and often there were incidents," he says. "Thousands of Arabs went through the checkpoint daily, and some became upset, because at times, such as in the case of a terror alert, they had to wait in line for two hours. It was my job to control my soldiers and not allow them to react violently if things started to heat up."

One day a young Palestinian came up to a soldier at the checkpoint and made a gesture signifying he would like to slit his throat. The soldier proceeded to hit the Arab with his helmet. The assault was witnessed by a superior and the soldier was jailed.

"We should not hit people or shoot unless acting in self-defense," Abekassis says. "We shouldn't even shout because that is counterproductive." One of his soldiers, he recalled, had screamed at a 70-year-old man who'd been waiting on line and not heard the instructions the soldier had given. "The old man was rightfully upset and complained to me in Hebrew and Arabic. He said, 'Your soldiers have no respect. I'm an elderly person.' I replied: 'You're right, I'm going to talk to the members of my squad about it,' and I did. I said, 'Look at his age-he can barely walk and he should be treated with respect.'"

To prepare for these situations, Abekassis says, squad commanders in his unit attend special briefings on Purity of Arms principles before going to serve at checkpoints. "We receive very clear instructions, for example, on when to open fire and also how to act if someone comes up to you with a knife or curses at you. We're told when to use non-lethal rubber bullets and when to use live ammunition. If someone throws a small rock at you, it's not life-threatening, so you certainly don't shoot at him with live ammo. But if you see someone nearby with a Molotov cocktail which can endanger your life and those of your soldiers, it's a different matter."

Abekassis acknowledges that even those soldiers as well-trained and motivated as Israel's elite paratroopers will react differently depending on whether they are "in Nablus or in Gaza, rested or tired, relaxed or tense. If you have a lot on your hands, soldiers will be a bit stressed and it shows in their conduct." There's likely to be anger, he adds, if soldiers hear of a new suicide bombing in an Israeli city. "But that anger must be controlled."

The IDF does not deny the occurrence of unauthorized brutalities, especially when young soldiers lose control in confrontations with mobs throwing rocks and petrol bombs. A string of cases involving the unlawful killing of suspected terrorists or civilians by soldiers have made newspaper headlines since the onset of the second Intifada in September 2000. According to Israeli human rights groups, since then the army has investigated about 300 cases of illegal conduct annually, of which, in each year, only about five cases have been prosecuted. Kasher does not dispute these figures; he says only that it is extremely difficult to get Arab witnesses to testify before military courts, and without testimony, a great many cases fail to reach the courts. Nonetheless, he adds, the army often levels internal punishments, such as stripping the accused of rank or confining them in army guardhouses. The Israeli human rights organization "Betselem" says the prison time served by army offenders rarely exceeds several months.

The emphasis seems to be on prevention rather than punishment. To keep Israeli soldiers from abusing prisoners and noncombatants, the IDF drills the Purity of Arms code into the 20-24-year-old officers who will lead soldiers into the narrow, often dangerous alleyways of West Bank cities and Gaza refugee camps. "The anchor points to enforce the code," says Kasher, "are junior officers; the young lieutenants, captains, and majors make the difference."

The Code of Ethics gets considerable attention at the IDF's Haim Laskov Officer Training School in the Negev Desert, which graduates between 500 and 600 second lieutenants three times a year. Officers are considered the cream of Israeli society. The IDF picks the candidates for noncommissioned officer courses, and the best of these become candidates for officers' school. Cadets are organized into separate battalions and trained for combat, logistics, or administrative jobs. Cadets training for combat receive at least four hours of instruction a week on the Code of Ethics and how to transmit its teachings to the men they will lead in the field.

"Teaching the Code of Ethics is the highest priority we have," asserts Lieutenant Colonel Eran Markov, 35. "If a cadet initially fails in a professional subject like field tactics or is not up to required standards in running, we offer him a second chance. But if he fails in values, such as loyalty and telling the truth, the door will be closed immediately and he'll leave. We cannot allow failure in these fields.

"With regard to Purity of Arms," he continues, "we don't tell cadets: 'do this or do that.' We ask them to imagine: 'you are in charge of a roadblock and a car comes up carrying a pregnant woman who has to pass right away, but you suspect an explosive belt may be hidden in the vehicle. Do you stop the car and search it, taking the risk something might happen to the woman?' If the cadet chooses an outrageous, wild solution, then he cannot stay here."

A graduate of the school himself, Markov returned as an instructor after having commanded a combat battalion in the West Bank. "If I tell you I think no other army in the world acts with the restraint which we show despite extreme provocation, it is because I have been in many situations which could have degenerated into violence," he says. "But we did not allow this to happen, because we followed our rules of engagement based on the Code of Ethics." These rules include staying calm in the face of excited, angry crowds and not opening fire unless the lives of Israeli soldiers are directly threatened.

"The code gives a very reasonable set of principles that allow the state to be both effective in the defense of its citizens and protection of human dignity," Kasher says. One such principle is contained in the added guidelines on fighting terror: "When [the IDF] faces persons who commit horrendous atrocities, it pursues them and sometimes kills them in order to defend its citizens against them. However, [the terrorists] never lose their role as human beings who ought to be regarded as such."

In short, there are no circumstances under which the soldier is exempt from protecting human dignity. "If we can capture a terrorist without jeopardizing the lives of troops," says Markov, "we have to capture him rather than kill him. This is what we've usually done in the West Bank, because we can reach them there. In the Gaza Strip, however, we have to resort to individual targeted killings, using missile-firing helicopters. Even then, we do it under very strict regulations."

To minimize civilian casualties, the rules call for operating at times of the day or night when streets are likely to be empty and using weaponry designed to hit only the intended targets. The possibility of collateral damage is always taken into account: "Military acts and activities against terror are right only if carried out in a manner that strictly protects human life and dignity by minimizing all collateral damage to individuals not directly involved in acts or activities of terror."

In June 2005, a group of foreign journalists was shown camera footage of intended targets in Gaza recorded from Cobra attack helicopters. In one instance, the voice of the Israeli co-pilot is heard counting down the seconds before launching a missile at the house of a wanted terrorist. The countdown is suddenly interrupted by the pilot. "Stop!" he shouts just as a car drives past the building's entrance. Countdown resumes, and the missile is fired through a window, leaving the rest of the building intact. According to the squadron commander, only the terrorist inside the room was killed.

During the 2006 fighting in Lebanon, Kasher told journalists he felt that, provided appropriate precautions were taken, such as giving civilians advance warning to vacate before an IDF military operation, it is morally justified to obliterate areas where there are high concentrations of terrorists, even if civilian casualties would result from such action.

His comment came after an outcry in Israel over the deaths of eight young soldiers in Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah bastion reputed to be the "terrorist capital" of south Lebanon. The troops had entered the town without prior artillery or air bombardment in order to spare Lebanese civilians who might have remained.

The father of one fallen Israeli soldier accused the army of being overly sensitive toward the enemy and its civilians at the expense of its own citizens. "We need to worry that our kids return to their parents," he told the Jerusalem Post, "not about how we look on the BBC."

Kasher says that left-wing Israelis blame him for "all the Palestinians killed by the IDF because I 'allowed' the IDF to use their guns [against] a terrorist if trying to capture him would needlessly endanger Israeli lives." And right-wing Israelis blame him for the deaths of Jews, "because I laid down guidelines which forbade the use of weapons under certain circumstances."

Orthodox settlers in the occupied territories denounce "the Kasher code," particularly the IDF's obligation to protect human dignity "regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status, or position," because the code makes no distinction between the settlers and the Arabs who oppose them; they also criticize the document for banning excessive destruction of Arab properties as retaliation for attacks against Jews.

Kasher, though, believes that, on the whole, the ethics code is working. "Our soldiers continually patrol Palestinian streets amid the local population, the magazines of their weapons full of bullets," he says. "If they were trigger-happy, there would be thousands of casualties daily."

Nonetheless, he says, "Many wrong types of activities do take place, and they occur in a significant number of cases. I'm not trying to say that violations of the code are very rare or never occur. The extent is unknown."

Bernard Edinger, a Paris-based French freelance journalist, formerly served as the reporter for Reuters news agency covering conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Africa, the Balkans, and Israel. He was wounded during the first Intifada.

War & Peace | A Jewish Religious Perspective

The IDF's Purity of Arms code is not directly based on traditional Jewish religious teachings, which offer the following guidelines regarding the conditions under which we may wage war and what constitutes a just war:

  1. Jewish tradition distinguishes between two basic types of war: a) milchemet mitzvah/milchemet chova (obligatory wars, including wars of self-defense) and b) milchemet reshut (wars of permission, such as offensive wars, and, most Jewish authorities would hold, preemptive wars). Stricter requirements apply to wars of permission in terms of right authority, just cause, and just means.
  2. A preemptive war against those intending to do you harm may be justifiable, so long as evidence exists of an imminent threat. (BT, Sotah 44b, Eruvin 45a) Peaceful options nonetheless must be vigorously pursued before the use of force is justified (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Melachim 6:1), and before force is used there also needs to be a reasonable chance that the force will achieve the moral goals for which it is being used.
  3. War must be fought in such a manner as to allow the return to peace and the resumption of normal civilian life after the fighting ends. In other words, even a justifiable war should always be regarded as an aberration, and its goal the return to normative life. This concept is derived from the biblical mandate not to destroy fruit-bearing trees, bal tashchit, and the talmudic and Maimonidian expansion of bal tashchit to involve most things necessary for normal life. (MT Melachim 6:11)
  4. During warfare, innocent people must be protected. This criterion is drawn from our individual obligation to intervene to protect those pursued by evildoers. (Lev. 19:16: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor"; BT Sanhedrin 74a; Baba Kama 28a; Shulchan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 425:1).
  5. Captives in warfare are entitled to protections of their safety and dignity. Jewish tradition calls for humane treatment even of one's enemies. The Bible teaches, "When you encounter an enemy's ox or donkey, you must take it back to him." (Exodus 23:4) The "Rabbinic Letter on Torture" (Rabbis for Human Rights, January 27, 2005) states: "Classical rabbinic texts also are rigorous in prohibiting acts of humiliation. In Jewish tort law, an additional penalty is assessed against one who has physically injured another person when it is found that the victim also suffered humiliation (boshet) while being wounded. Even verbal humiliation is said to be the equivalent of shedding blood. These factors were cited by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999 in barring torture by Israeli armed forces, even against terrorists."