Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Author of the the IDF’s Code of Ethics “Doesn’t Know” If It is Observed

Last summer, Reform Judaism Magazine published a puff piece on the IDF's Code of Ethics, with just the right number of quotes from B'Tselem to give it an air of fairness. The IDF veterans' group "Breaking the Silence" was not interviewed for the article, and the editor refused to publish any statement beyond a letter. Of course, the magazine gave the last word to one of the co-authors of the code, Prof. Asa Kasher of Tel-Aviv, who functions as the IDF's House Ethicist. Yes, there are violations of the code, he wrote; yes, they are significant, no, he has no idea how many.

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."

That piece of reasoning shows how good a philosopher Kasher is. Maybe the fact that Israel soldiers are not trigger-happy has absolutely nothing to do with the Code of Ethics. Most well-trained armies, even without Codes of Ethics, don't have their soldiers walking around killing civilians.

But Kasher's claim not to know how many is startling and shocking. What's the point of a Code of Ethics if you cannot test whether it is working or not?

Kasher authored eleven principles of conduct in asymmetrical warfare situations, which ultimately can be reduced to one.

    1. Do what the IDF tells you, and you will be all right..

Kasher almost never criticizes the IDF for failing to live up to its codle. Rather he justifies the IDF's morality in all cases. When the IDF cautioned restraint last summer, Kasher said that this was legitimate, and got blasted by the right wing. And when the IDF threw much of the restraint to the winds in December, Kasher was right there defending it again.

It may be an interesting exercise to see how many of the eleven principles the IDF has violated recently.

  1. Military action can only be taken against military targets.

    Broken on day one, when police cadets and their families were blown to smithereens. If that was legitimate, then certainly the suicide bombing of the IDF soldiers at Beit Leed was legitimate. (Neither was legitimate.)

  2. The use of force must be proportional.

    Ha! Ha! Apparently, Ehud Olmert was given't this one, when he threatened in public not to be proportional.

  3. Soldiers may only use weaponry they were issued by the IDF.

    Is there any other? It is the settlers' weapon of choice.

  4. Anyone who surrenders cannot be attacked.

    There are testimonies of Palestinian prisoners being shot.

  5. Only those who are properly trained can interrogate prisoners.

    Let's hope this was observed.

  6. Soldiers must accord dignity and respect to the Palestinian population and those arrested.

    From a recent letter from a lawyer visiting Gaza: "In the course of that endeavor (which lasted about 2 hours) we visited homes that Israeli soldiers occupied during the attacks. Without exception the houses were trashed internally: furniture broken, windows smashed, clothes and appliances destroyed. A favorite tactic of the occupying force is to defecate in unusual places; cooking pots and pans seem to be preferred targets. Bottles of urine are left around to greet the returning owners, and often Hebrew graffiti and stars of David are on the walls. Almost all of the rooms are shot up, in some cases by tank shells but more commonly by gunfire and shrapnel. In several cases it was clear that the gunfire was from within and, because the house had been abandoned before the troops arrived, it appeared to be wholly gratuitous."

    This tallies somewhat with the article in the New York Times, that I cited two weeks ago here

  7. Soldiers must give appropriate medical care, when conditions allow, to oneself and one's enemy.

    From the same letter: "Returning from Zeitoun we spoke with a human rights NGO and then went to the Quds hospital, where we interviewed ambulance drivers to follow up on reports that the Israelis prevented ambulances from reaching the wounded. We again broke into four groups to conduct the interviews of drivers regarding their experiences; we believe that the case has been made."

  8. Pillaging is absolutely and totally illegal.

    There is testimony of "souvenirs" being taken.

  9. Soldiers must show proper respect for religious and cultural sites and artifacts.

    Yeah, especially after they have been bombed.

  10. Soldiers must protect international aid workers, including their property and vehicles.

    See answer to no. 9.

  11. Soldiers must report all violations of this code.

    LOL

In a long NY Times article a few weeks ago, Kasher said that the Israeli Army's ethical and legal standards were high and that he believed they were conscientiously taught to its military. But as for what happens on the ground, he said, "I have a general confidence in their attitudes and decency, but who knows?"

Who knows, indeed, Asa? What's the good is a code if you can't know?

10 comments:

Mike said...

Jerry, I suppose that the following combat rule "If you or your comrades are threatened, you must defend yourself even if your action may harm civilians" is as open to interpretation as the holy Bible. Even more so when you decide to fight in a densely populated area. When do a soldier feel threatened ? Take for instance, the case of Dr Izzedine Abu al-Aish 4 daughters and niece who were killed in Beil Lahiya. An Israeli tank shell (most probably) hit their home. According to Izzedine, who is a honest man, they were no fighters in his home. There was maybe a sniper in the surroundings. Even if that was the case, does it justify to bomb a home with a tank shell? A shell against a bullet? The tanks were standing on a hill about 1,5 km away. Does a tank feel threatened by a supposedly sniper 1,5 km away?

Y. Ben-David said...

I am sorry, but you haven't given any evidence for massive, systematic violation of the IDF's code of ethics. There are some unconfirmed anecdotal stories about various atrocities and bad behavior. Okay, we saw the story about the random defection in some Gazan's house. Even if that is true, what indication of this as a widespread phenomenon? How does this compare with what happened in the Lebanon II war? More or less-indicating a trend? Every society has its bad apples (if they even do exist at all in the current situation) but is it fair to extrapolate these to general conclusions about the nature of the society these perpetrators come from? One thing I noticed in the war is that a lot of your fellow "progressives", among them your friend Richard Silverstein, Phil Weiss and MJ Rosenberg all seem to accept all the atrocity stories from the Arabs at face value, whereas all explanations and denials from the IDF are dismissed as "lies". In other words, I see Jewish "progressives" are willing, in fact, EAGER, to believe the worst about Israel.

You are well aware that there are not a few "progressives" here in Israel and they are on the alert all the time for any perceived "persecution" of the Palestinians (Anarchists against the Wall, Machsom Watch, Women in Black, HADASH people like yourself, etc). The IDF is aware of this and even no doubt has some people with these views within its ranks. Thus, there has to be at least a certain amount of transparancy in the actions of the IDF, something which does not exist on the side of HAMAS, which you know very well. Thus, I think it is fair for you and your fellow "progressives" to keep these things in mind while conducting your war to blacken Israel's name and image in the world.

Jerry Haber said...

Y Ben David,

Did I make claims of "massive, systematic violation of the IDF's code of ethics"? I referred to specific cases and testimonies. It is too early to discuss the number and extent, but the prima facie evidence is that there were -- to quote Kasher from last summer -- a significant number of violations, especially ones which Israel doesn't recognize as violations.

But my point is not that Israel doesn't live up to its code. My point is that the code itself is just another part of the propaganda war for the "most moral army in the world" claim. So what if the code is taught? Kasher himself admits that he doesn't know its effect in the field.


Why am I so quick to accept Palestinian account? Of course, I treat everything with a grain of salt, since people in such situations have agendas. But time after time, in every country I am aware of, human rights organizations and ngos are more reliable than armies. On this blog alone I have reported about how the IDF, when caught, back-tracked. I gave specific cases, and you have read them about here. These were cases in which they were caught.

And the IDF has learned from its mistakes. Why didn't they let foreign journalists into Gaza during the operation? Why did they embed people like Michael Oren? Because they know that the war doesn't end with a cease-fire but with how things are perceived in the world.

So, yes, when I read some stories for example, how an IDF officer let a Palestinian mother choose which sons she wanted to spare before he shot the rest -- I tend to be skeptical, although that is more believable than the story how Rachel Imenu warned our soldiers what houses to avoid.

Finally, I want to make absolutely clear that while I condemn (as do you) the petty war crimes of soldiers -- if you live in Israel, you know how many soldiers pilfer from Palestinian homes and are only occasionally punished for it (usually if there mefaked is a smolani who finds out about it) -- the real serious criminals are the upper echelons of the IDF and the government and not the soldiers in the field.

Actually, all of us share some responsibility.

When Ehud Olmert threatens publicly to exact a disproportionate revenge, he is talking like a war criminal.

fiddler said...

Y. Ben-David, the widespread extent of the violations is not so much the issue as how they are dealt with. (Since you ask, during operation Defensive Shield there was also rampant vandalism by the IDF in the PA offices in Ramallah - they even managed to shit into a photocopier.)

When the victim is Palestinian (and there isn't too much attention from the press) the soldiers responsible are virtually never taken to account, let alone punished. Initial investigations are at the sole discretion of the perpetrators' immediate superiors in the field, which ensures nothing ever comes out of them, if they happen at all. That's not a matter of bad apples but of policy. As a result, it's not only fair but inevitable to "extrapolate these to general conclusions about the nature of the society these perpetrators come from". The only way for the higher command, and in extension society, to avert responsibility is to investigate and prosecute such atrocities with exactly the same vigour as if the victims were Jews.

JWhitewater said...

I think it's a little unfair to criticize Kasher for not being able to know how the Code is being observed, because he could never account for every single individual soldier's actions. Like Ben-David was saying, you can have tightly enforced ethics codes and a few individuals breaking them does not mean the Code is not being observed.

"But time after time, in every country I am aware of, human rights organizations and ngos are more reliable than armies."

Your timing is ironic, given how the UN has had to backtrack on its claims Israel hit the UNRWA school compound. The same UN agency that employed a Hamas explosives expert as a teacher.

Your timing is even more ironic given that one NGO, the Red Cross, refuted another NGO's claim that Israel was illegally using white phosphorous shells.

Let's face it. It's almost impossible to get a straight story in Gaza, due to either Hamas' misrepresentations (48 Hamas fighters dead) or Hamas' intimidation.

Lastly, I'm guessing you're going to strongly disagree with me, but I believe the initial strikes on the police compounds was a justifiable military target, because Hamas' police forces unquestionably double as fighters.

Sure, human rights organizations will assert that they weren't fighting at the time, but then again what Hamas fighter donned a uniform clearly marking himself as a combatant and fought the IDF in the open? Hamas could have claimed it didn't lose a single fighter or combatant given the way they choose to fight.

And we all know Hamas uses people's houses and mosques to store weapons and dig tunnels. So instead of placing the blame on Israel for bombing "civilian" targets, why not subject Hamas to the criticism of using human shields in the first place. That's where the codes of ethics are broken.

Jerry Haber said...

JL Whitewater, I suggest you read the fronttra page article from today's NY Times. I draw your attention to this interesting statement.

"Palestinians here describe Israeli military actions as a massacre, and Israelis attribute civilian casualties to a Hamas policy of hiding behind its people. In El Atatra, neither version appears entirely true, based on 50 interviews with villagers and four Israeli commanders. The dozen or so civilian deaths seem like the painful but inevitable outcome of a modern army bringing war to an urban space. And while Hamas fighters had placed explosives in a kitchen, on doorways, and in a mosque, they did not seem to be forcing civilians to act as shields."

(Sorry, JLWhitewater -- looks like the NY Times doesn't buy your version of the events. Neither will any other intelligent and reasonable person.)

Now, I am willing to accept much of the above. I certainly never called the IDF's action a deliberate massacre. But if you read the article, and I urge that you do, you will see that its authors, who have an advantage that you and I don't have -- they are there doing interviews -- have a tendency to believe much of the testimony of the villagers.

Now, some quick responses.

The UN is not a human rights organization or an NGO, and I made no claim about its accuracy. About the attack within the UNRWA compound, there have been conflicting reports, but if you look at my post on the subject, based on Haaretz, the IDF itself had initially claimed to have shelled the school -- first, because of the claim that there were Hamas militants within it, and then, inadvertantly, because of a misdirected missile.

I plan to blog on this at greater length.

As for the Red Cross. You are absolutely wrong there No Red Cross official ever said that Israel was not using phosphorous shells illegally. The headline of the Jerusalem Post to that effect misled you. But read the actual article:

"Herby said that using phosphorus to illuminate a target or create smoke is legitimate under international law, and that there was no evidence the Jewish state was intentionally using phosphorus in a questionable way, such as burning down buildings or knowingly putting civilians at risk.

However, Herby said evidence is still limited because of the difficulties of gaining access to Gaza, where Palestinian health officials say more than 900 people have been killed and 4,250 wounded since Israel launched its offensive late last month. The operation aims to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks over the border."

So did Herby say that Israel did not do anything illegal? He did not. He said that the organization AT THAT TIME had NO EVIDENCE of illegal use. That was during the war.

But rest assured, there is evidence now that Palestinians were burned to death by white phosphorous. Just read the Times article. And the serious investigations have not started.

Now, do I think that the IDF said, "Let's use white phosphorous to scare the hell out of the Gazans and kill a few?" Of course not. I doubt that they intended to do that. But in using such weapons to protect IDF troops, it was inevitable that Palestinians would be burned and maimed by them. The IDF made the calculus.

"Let's face it. It's almost impossible to get a straight story in Gaza, due to either Hamas' misrepresentations (48 Hamas fighters dead) or Hamas' intimidation."

Have you ever heard me relying on Hamas? Let the human rights agencies, the International Criminal Court, the UN, or any frigging independent agency come in and investigate. I assure you; none of them are apologists for Hamas.

fiddler said...

JWhitewater:
"I believe the initial strikes on the police compounds was a justifiable military target, because Hamas' police forces unquestionably double as fighters."

You've just declared most of Israel's adult population fair game, because they unquestionably double as soldiers.

JWhitewater said...

"So did Herby say that Israel did not do anything illegal? He did not. He said that the organization AT THAT TIME had NO EVIDENCE of illegal use. That was during the war."

Yes, at a time when HRW was accusing Israel of illegally using them, the IRC was saying at that time there was no evidence of illegal use.

"But rest assured, there is evidence now that Palestinians were burned to death by white phosphorous. Just read the Times article. And the serious investigations have not started."

I did read the Times article. And I'll add that the fact Palestinians were burned by white phosphorous is not prima facie evidence that it was used illegally. Let's wait for the final reports and investigations.

"And while Hamas fighters had placed explosives in a kitchen, on doorways, and in a mosque, they did not seem to be forcing civilians to act as shields."

Using civilian areas to store weapons under international law is the equivalent of using human shields. And besides, there are plenty of pictures and videos of gunmen using children as human shields. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J08GqXMr3YE&feature=related

"You've just declared most of Israel's adult population fair game, because they unquestionably double as soldiers."

This is the standard "shooting at civilians is ok because they either once were soldiers or will become soldiers eventually." It's a crappy justification.

Hamas police forces are fighting forces, whether they are cracking down on Fatah or moonlighting as mortar squads. A 2 year old Israeli who may become an IDF soldier in 16 years is not "doubling" as a soldier.

Again, you have the right to disagree strongly with me. But don't build an illogical straw man to do so.

JR said...

Jerry,
How come you never talk about the Israeli victims of terror?
How about Israel's right to self defence?

fiddler said...

You didn't read carefully. A 2-y/o is not an adult. Most adult Israelis (in a certain age bracket, excluding the sick etc.) are either active or reserve soldiers.
Taking someone's identity as (latent or active) soldier as prima facie evidence of them being currently involved in fighting is indeed as crappy a justification as alleging cops to moonlight as mortar squads. But it's you who came up with it.