Asa Kasher: Yes, We’re the Most Moral Army in the World

From Ma’ariv 24.09.09

The Spirit of the IDF is Being Put to the Test

Asa Kasher, aged 69, a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, an ethics scholar of global renown and an Israel Prize laureate, lost his eldest son, Yehoraz, in an accident that occurred during his military service. The death of his son changed his world view and influenced the ethical code that he wrote for the IDF. “Many philosophers address combat from the angle of the IDF’s attitude towards the enemy,” he says. “I am among the few who address combat from the angle of the army’s attitude towards its own troops. The lives of our troops interest me more than the wellbeing and dignity of the Palestinians,” This week his The Spirit of the IDF: Values and Basic Norms was put to one of the most formidable tests Israel has ever known. A special report that was written by a UN committee headed by Judge Richard Goldstone drew very grave conclusions about the incidents in Operation Cast Lead. The report stipulates that Israel committed actions that are the equivalent of war crimes and perhaps even crimes against humanity.

Kasher, who wrote in the last number of years (in conjunction with Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin) the ethical theory that served as the basis for the activity of officers and commanders in Operation Cast Lead, responded to the findings of the UN report with a combination of astonishment and contempt. From his perspective, the IDF is the most moral army in the world. The [Goldstone] report is one-sided anti-Semitic propaganda. The conduct of the soldiers and commanders was appropriate, and the allegations of war crimes are ludicrous. “Attorney Avigdor Feldman once said that when he reads a verdict he knows from the first line, from the judge’s point of view, who is going to be acquitted and who is going to be convicted,” says Kasher angrily. “And here it’s the same thing. The report begins with the story of the siege on Gaza. Why begin at a certain step and ignore the background and the past that preceded it? After all, people take action for certain reasons. In this report there aren’t eight years of Katyusha rockets. There is no Hamas that forcibly seizes control of the Gaza Strip and has an anti-Semitic charter, there is no mention of the fact that Hamas is considered to be a terrorist organization for all intents and purposes by the European Community. There isn’t a single word that notes that the chairman of the committee was active in Human Rights Watch and has already published reports against Israel and that he has a justified image of being anti-Israel, and that another member of the team signed a petition against Israel’s war crimes in the middle of Operation Cast Lead, even before she began her task.”

Q: Still, why did Israel refrain from cooperating with the committee?

“The idea was to express no-confidence in the committee’s work so that we’d have an opportunity to come and say that the judge didn’t listen to us at all. It seems to me that we could have conducted ourselves differently. Israel should have made the committee’s work more difficult. [It should have] presented the testimony of non-governmental bodies, pro-Israel organizations, not only Breaking the Silence and New Profile. I saw a photograph of seven armed terrorists boarding a UN ambulance. Israel didn’t submit it and now the committee is saying, you didn’t come to testify, that’s your problem. I saw that. We’re talking about public material. Why didn’t they obtain what everyone else could see?”

Q: How did the ethical code you wrote come into play during Operation Cast Lead?

“”I have no basis for saying that in Operation Cast Lead there was moral rampaging in relation to the ethical code. I have indirect evidence in the opposite direction. We are the most moral army in the world. While I am one of the undersigned on the code, I have no hesitation saying that. We are the only army in the world in whose ethical code appear the values of human life and the purity of arms. Were it not for those two values, we would be at the same level as the armies of the other democratic countries, which is very high as well. There is no one better than us.”

Q: If we’re so good then why does the report accuse us of committing crimes against humanity?

“The Goldstone report argues that the purpose of Operation Cast Lead was to kill as many civilians as possible. If IDF soldiers had the permission to shot freely there would have been tens of thousands of people killed in the operation. In practice, fewer than 1,500 were killed. Had they shot freely at the civilian population, the number of dead would have been reflected in the internal numbers as well. Approximately an equal number of men and women. In practice, mainly men of fighting age were killed, and few women and children.”

Q: Two hundred children is a few?

“The term ‘children’ that appears in the human rights organizations’ figures is comprised mainly of young adults between the ages of 15 and 18 who played an active role in the fighting. These are teens who took part in the operations by Hamas and the terror organizations, but in the reports by Goldstone and B’Tselem they appear as innocent children.”

Q: How do the stories that came to the foreground at the Rabin pre-military academy fit with the ethical code?

“I read the testimonies from cover to cover, and I didn’t find in them any direct evidence. Only indirect stories. Someone heard. Someone saw, but not with his own eyes. No one provided primary source testimony. Some of the stories were investigated and the rumors were found to be baseless and lacking in evidence.”

Q: It was the army that investigated those stories. Can the accused investigate himself objectively?

“The investigator wasn’t the accused, but the investigator. In a large organization like the army, everyone has a role to fill. One is a combat soldier, the other is an investigator and the third is a judge.”

Q: And the Breaking the Silence report?

“I want to condemn those people. They have done something that must not be done. Long before their report was published in full I began to receive telephone calls from a number of well-regarded newspapers from around the world who had received a two-page digest of the report and wanted an unofficial Israeli response to the awful things that they said would be there. I told them all that it was inconceivable that those things were correct. When the report was published, nearly all of it was atmospheric testimony. No terrible stories, but just poor treatment of the enemy by soldiers, expressions that oughtn’t to be used and the creation of a terrible atmosphere, and everything was rumors. There weren’t any real stories. And worst of all, it was impossible to take Breaking the Silence’s document to investigate it because there wasn’t a lead to any story. There was no identification of an individual, a military unit, a situation, a place, a time. None of the testimonies could be verified in any way.”

Q: Are phosphorous bombs a fiction too?

“Phosphorous bombs are a legitimate weapon that is not geared to kill but, rather, to provide a smoke screen. I heard a number of days ago the testimony of a colonel who told about his experiences as a combatant in Operation Cast Lead. I was inside the smoke, he said, the bomb fell right on top of me and nothing happened to me. I do think that one ought to refrain from using phosphorous bombs under circumstances that are liable, perhaps, to cause damage, but the IDF claimed that it used the bombs only to create a smokescreen that was necessary for combat.”

Q: There is photographed documentation of the burns and crippling effect that was caused to the civilian population in Gaza as a result of the phosphorous bombs.

“I don’t know about any testimony that is credible to me. If an organization, such as the World Medical Association, were to present an opinion about the clear dangers posed by the use of phosphorous bombs in certain situations, that would be something that one ought to take into account.”

Q: What does the IDF’s ethical code say about phosphorous bombs?

“The ethical code is very abstract, and it says that one needs to use weapons only for the sake of attaining the objectives of the mission without causing any needless damage. If the task can be achieved without phosphorous bombs, then it is forbidden to use them. And if it is impossible without them, then it is permissible.

A Heartbreaking Case

Q: How does the ethical code book you wrote coincide with the tragedy of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish and the death of his daughters?

“We’re talking about a heartbreaking case. But, according to the Foreign Ministry’s report that is documented and based on credible investigations, the doctor was personally warned a number of times that the area in which he lived was a treacherous focal point. They implored him to leave his home, but he refused. I think that that is terrible irresponsibility. People who stay in a place of danger when there are lots of places in Gaza that weren’t hurt bear responsibility for their disaster. After all, the doctor was in perpetual movement into Israel, and he certainly had options of moving to a safer place. There is an element of some very poor judgment on his part.”

Q: The doctor is to blame for his daughters’ deaths?

“The report says that there were people on his roof whose behavior was interpreted by the troops as hostile. They were suspected of keeping a lookout on our troops. That is why they were fired on. And that is tank fire, imprecise, that hurt the doctor’s family unintentionally. One of the best arguments to justify the transfer of innocent people from combat zones is the fact that warfare is not a surgical procedure. Even if you’re not the central target and your neighbors are being targeted, you need to distance yourself from the place of danger.”

Q: Does the ethical code you wrote legitimize killing and destroying a whole building just because there were figures on the roof?

“If lookouts are standing on the roof, that attests to the fact that inside the building or in its vicinity are combatants who are using the results of the lookouts in order to shoot at our troops. It is the custom throughout the world that soldiers defend themselves from the enemy. That is something that is permissible to do. According to the ethical code, if I have professional indications that a certain place is the location of activity that is liable to hurt me, I need to act.”

Q: Every action separately can be excused, but the final result of Operation Cast Lead is hardly heartening: unbelievable destruction, a high number of casualties, out of whom a large number of civilians, including women and children.

“People look at the results of the war in numerical terms. They say, ‘look how many people were killed in Gaza and how few were killed in Israel.’ That isn’t a serious argument. There is no moral force that requires the number of dead to be equal on both sides in order to prove the justice of the war. If we are more effectively prepared and defended than the Palestinians, that doesn’t mean that we fought in an unjustified way.”

Q: The ethical doctrine that you wrote with Maj. Gen. Yadlin in 2005 supports targeted killing even if there are innocent civilians in the vicinity who are certain to be killed.

“It is permissible to carry out a targeted killing even if there are going to be neighbors or innocent civilians who are killed in the course of the operation, provided that it can’t be done differently. It is permissible, because there is no other choice. If we keep the wanted man without hurting him. Tomorrow there will be a terror attack and many Israelis are going to get hurt. From my perspective, protecting the lives of Israelis mandates striking at terrorists while endangering the lives of his neighbors.”

Q: Did the troops who shelled the hospital compound adhere to your ethical code?

“The shelling occurred near the hospital, not on the medical facility itself. The leaders of Hamas’s military wing, the head terrorists, were hiding in the Gaza hospital cellar. They could have all been killed by means of a direct hit on the hospital, but the ethical doctrine prevented the soldiers from bombing the hospital with its patients, even for the sake of a justified purpose.”

Q: Does the ethical code oblige the soldiers to refrain from shelling densely populated areas, such as kindergartens and schools, even if it is clear that terrorists are using them as live shields?

“The ethical code is more abstract and it distinguishes between civilian targets and military targets, to the degree that those distinctions exist on the ground. But as soon as the enemy blurs that distinction and operates perpetually and willfully out of a hospital, school or a mosque, then it is incumbent upon the soldier to exercise his sense of proportion. If the military value of the strike clearly outweighs the tragic value of hurting uninvolved people, it is permissible to do so. If there is knowledge about combatants who are hiding in a school and are continuing to utilize troops, it is permissible to hit them even if children are hurt along with them. The question is how many children will be hurt and what is the quality of the soldiers’ casualty level. For instance, if there are incessant barrages that endanger the population in Israel and which are being launched at the instruction of those combatants, it is permissible to operate against them, and the number of children who are hurt doesn’t matter. One needs only to make an effort to minimize it as much as possible.”

Q: How?

“The parents can be warned not to send their children to school or kindergarten.”

Q: Is that what was done during Operation Cast Lead?

“I can’t tell you whether warnings of that sort were issued.”

Only Values, Not Rules

Q: Why doesn’t the IDF ethical code require soldiers to warn parents not to send their children to school and be killed there?

“The ethical code is too abstract to get into resolutions of this sort, but it does lead to the conclusion that such actions should be taken.”

Q: Perhaps the code’s problem is that it is too abstract? A sentence that says that weapons should be used in order to achieve the goal is not clear and not concrete to the simple soldier who wants to know what is permitted and what is not, black and white.

“The first version of the IDF ethical code included both abstract values as well as concrete rules. But in 2000 the IDF decided to overhaul it somewhat and omitted all the rules from it. I didn’t agree, naturally. This was an erroneous decision by the director of the Human Resources Branch at the time, Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern. Stern didn’t want a notebook. He wanted a poster. A compact document of principles instead of an entire charter of values and rules. And that’s how it happened that The Spirit of the IDF of today is only values, not rules. I think this was a professional error because now the ethical code is overly abstract, and any time a soldier or a commander encounters moral and ideological dilemmas, he has to translate the dilemma from the abstract as it appears in the code, to the concrete level, as required by events on the ground. And it doesn’t help. It even gets in the way.”

Q: If the ethical code you authored in its original form had guided the commanders and soldiers, with clear and simple rules and laws, would the combat in Operation Cast Lead have been any different?

“Here and there, the fighting would have been different.”

Q: Could it be that because the code is so abstract and ephemeral that things happened as they did in the last war?

“It could be. I have no basis to confirm this as a fact, but one would think that the more the tools you have are honed, the better you conduct yourself.”

Q: Do you feel any guilt, as the author of an ethical code that did not work when it came time for it?

“Yes. If there are mistakes in the code, then I am responsible. This is an ethical document, it is good, but its assimilation was faulty. Some of the assimilation of the IDF spirit means issuing concrete edicts and acting on them. There was a problem in these two points. It took the IDF many years to reach the conclusion that a professional, ethical plan had to be made that would contain aids for the commanders and that would get to the level of the soldier in the field. Several years were wasted on the details of the text without time being devoted to orderly mechanisms of professional assimilation. This failure was caused because the commanders talked about human dignity instead of assimilating it into the soldiers. The soldiers heard about human dignity endlessly. After all, one of the values of the ethical code is human dignity. But they have no idea what human dignity is. I don’t blame the soldiers who did not behave properly at a roadblock, but rather the commanders, who just recited to him stuff about human dignity and did not teach him to translate this value into acts on the practical level, on the ground. There is absolute justification to stopping an ambulance and checking it because we’ve seen that ambulances sometimes transport terrorists. The vehicle has to be stopped and checked, even though it is on the way to a hospital. But the patient inside and the driver cannot be humiliated or shouted at. Human dignity means treating the enemy as human beings. When a soldier says, ‘let’s shoot the pregnant woman and kill two at once,’ that is inexcusable. When a soldier at a roadblock asks a Palestinian for ID and then throws it on the ground, he has no explanation to justify this.” […]

Dr. David Altman, Senior Vice-President, Netanya Academic College writes to Justice Golstone

From: Prof. David Altman, Netanya Academic College
September 17, 2009
The Honourable Justice Richard Goldstone

Through your conduct you remind all of us of the divine words in the book of Genesis, when God says to Cain, “The blood of Abel thy brother crieth unto Me from the ground.”

Haunted by hatred and eaten up by a sense of inferiority, Cain put an end to Abel’s life because of jealousy and resentment. He was convinced that this action would avenge his sense of being spurned and forgotten. But then he hears a voice reverberating, a voice that henceforth he will always hear, wherever he goes, saying: “The blood of Abel thy brother crieth from the ground.”

What was in your mind, Justice Goldstone, when you became the emissary of the world’s most intractable states? What were you thinking of when you became the representative of Sudan, Syria and Libya? Sudan – a country that on a daily basis commits genocide as the world stands by, silent. Libya – a country that has no democracy and no human rights, a country that sentences innocent people to death on trumped-up charges, that sends terrorists to blow up a plane carrying hundreds of passengers, that sends terrorist ships to attack cities and innocent people in Israel. And Syria, where people have been butchered extra-judicially and without trial, a state that supports terror and the murder of individuals, joins these two in an unholy alliance.

What was in your mind, when there is a deafening silence in the face of the slaughter in Darfur, in the face of the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Sri Lanka, in the face of those killing their brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq, without any reaction from the world? What were you thinking of when they gave you a remit to investigate crimes committed by a life-affirming democratic state?

What we wish to say to you, sir, is that you are a rebellious son of a great people. We are a life-affirming nation. We are a people that loves peace and hates war. We are a people that has proven that it is ready to do much for the sake of peace and to pay a heavy price, unlike all those who surround us and desire war.

Wars have always been imposed upon us, and when we have taken up arms, it has always been with tears in our eyes and out of concern for ourselves and our fellow man.

We respect the rules of war – both those that have been laid down by mankind, and those that have been dictated to us by the Creator.

Who is it that we are confronting? A Jihadist terrorist organization, that sanctifies death, that calls for the destruction of your brothers’ homeland, that massacres us, that fires its bombs at our homes and targets our children, our wives and our elderly, and celebrates when its bombs hit their targets.

Whom are you defending, Your Honour, when you point a falsely accusing finger at us, when an army goes out to defend homes and towns, and informs and asks its neighbours to move away, in order to prevent loss and anguish? We do not make use of human rights for public and international propaganda purposes. We believe in human rights and democracy.

Your job – to destroy the image of the State of Israel and each and every one of us – resembles those who collaborated with the Nazis, because they believed the Nazi propaganda that the Jews are guilty and hence must be dealt with through the Final Solution.

We despise you, Your Honour. Not because of your repudiation of your people, of your homeland and of your father’s home, but because of the evil and the absence of justice that you are serving beneath your judicial robes, when you lend a hand to baseless and unfounded blood libels.

This selfsame State of Israel, which withdrew at a heavy, heart-rending price from every single square inch of the Gaza area, which has no border disputes with this terrorist entity, an entity that has disengaged itself from its brothers in the West Bank and killed its opponents from its own ranks in cold blood – this selfsame authority has openly committed the war crime of abducting a soldier and isolating him from international institutions and his family. Not only do you defend these people – you have become their official spokesman and try to present us, who are fighting for our lives, in a light of evil and wickedness – completely unjustified in fact and in truth.

You were chosen to do a cover-up job, in order to prove that even one of our own sees our actions and our defence as a crime.

I must say: you are not one of our own. Go and graze in foreign pastures, join those ultra-Orthodox extremists who have joined forces with Ahmadinejad, who has declared a jihad on Israel and the Jewish people and needs such partners, who in the past were called kapos.

You are far from us, you do not belong to us, and you are not welcome among us. The blood of our brothers, who died because they fought with clean hands, who died because they were not prepared to put innocents at risk, the blood of my relatives who died when they turned their back on a woman who was breastfeeding, behind whom terrorists were hiding, who took them out as they used the woman and her baby as cover – the blood of these people cries out to you from the ground and calls you a modern Cain.

I am a proud Israeli, I love my homeland, and I long for peace.

The only democratic country in the Middle East – a country that is called Israel – represents our national collective. We believe in justice, in human rights, in humaneness, in love of one’s fellow man, and in the Jewish belief that says: every individual that was created in His image is important.

We are not killers, we are not blood-thirsty murderers, we do not wish to punish those who hate us, but to extend to them our hands in peace, in friendship, and in understanding.

You did not hear such words in the Hamas countries. They are not even prepared to recognize us. They desire our destruction. These people, who fire from inside schools, mosques, and ambulances, they need you in order to prove that we are harming their human rights.

I was a partner to devoted their lives during the operation to working in the humanitarian operations room which was involved with saving lives, providing food and fuel, caring for the other, and dealing with any breach, even an inadvertent one, of any human right, the sort of thing that can take place during wartime. Regrettably, our foes do not have such an operations room.

But you knowingly and deliberately ignored this, and became part of the well-oiled machinery that is designed to deprive us of any legitimacy. Some of this well-oiled machinery seeks to portray us as monsters, out of a desire ultimately to make possible the destruction of us and the State of Israel.

Cain is cursed, and those who follow his path shall be cursed, since their crime reverberates ad infinitum, and because of them the blood of Abel their brother continues to cry out from the ground.

And I – from this beloved country, I cry out like this blood, and as I cry out, so I say, “Cry, the beloved country, cry out against the traitors, who have pounced on you like birds of prey and desecrated your honour.”

Sincerely, but not with kind regards,

Dr. David Altman
Senior Vice-President
Netanya Academic College