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LectureHop: Gaza, The IDF Code Of Ethics, And The Morality Of War

The battleground

The battlezone

This week, JTS hosted a panel with Arnold Eisen and Dr. Moshe Halbertal on modern issues with the Israeli Defense Force, its Code of Ethics, and where they stand in Gaza. Max Rettig (GS/JTS ’17) shares the discussion. 

As a student in the Joint Program between GS and JTS, I am incredibly privileged to explore my intellectual interests at both institutions. JTS, perhaps the foremost school of Jewish scholarship in the United States, regularly brings in notable scholars and distinguished professional leaders with Jewish backgrounds to discuss important issues of our time. Such was the case Thursday night, when JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen and Dr. Moshe Halbertal talked about the problems surrounding this past summer’s conflict in Gaza in relation to the code of ethics that governs how the Israel Defense Forces operates.

Halbertal, of Israeli descent, is a professor of law at NYU, of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has taught visiting stints at both Harvard and Yale law schools. In 2000, Halbertal was part of the team that created the IDF’s current code of ethics. Eisen, the Chancellor of JTS since 2007, is a leading scholar of American Jewry and a professor of Jewish thought at JTS. At around 7:32 pm on Thursday night, both sat down to talk about the very real issues the Israeli army faced during its operation in Gaza this past summer, and how those issues shaped how the IDF approached the operation from an ethical standpoint.

He delved into three main ethical principles that directly affect how the IDF approaches wars: Purpose of Arms (Matarah), Distinction (Havchanah) and Responsibility (Achriut).

Let’s start with Purpose of Arms; simply put, Israeli soldiers are to use force on only those objectives involved in completing the mission. Soldiers raiding a house can’t break a household object that doesn’t interfere with capturing their target. With respect to distinction, there are three aspects of the principle that soldiers must take into account; first, anyone on the opposition side who makes him/herself a part of the causal chain of action purposely is a valid target. Second, IDF soldiers MUST, under all circumstances, differentiate militants from civilians, even if civilians are being used as human shields. Third, soldiers must aim fire ONLY at those who represent an immediate threat. The third principle, Responsibility (Achriut), also dictates two things; first, due to the nature of war, there will be civilian casualties. However, IDF soldiers must do absolutely everything in their power to minimize those casualties.

Halbertal then introduced a fourth principle, one very interrelated to Responsibility. Because of the inevitability of civilian loss, IDF soldiers must also account for what is called proportionality. He painted this picture: There is an opposition soldier on the top of a building housing many innocent civilians, and there is no way to hit the target other than to fire a missile at the building, risking the deaths of the civilians in that location. Is the number of civilian casualties proportionate to the value of eliminating that one target?

Soldiers must memorize all of these principles, among the rest of the code; the idea is that they ask themselves all four questions before acting in any way on a mission. Eisen then raised an interesting point: It seems impossible to expect the soldiers (often between 18 and 22) to carry out that analysis every time and not render themselves defenseless. Halbertal answered that the IDF trains soldiers in as close to a real-life situation as is possible via simulation.

He added, “It would be a moral betrayal of your soldiers if you didn’t train them morally and then put them in situations where they are either paralyzed or act in a way they would look back on and regret.”

Halbertal then rattled off some statistics from this past summer’s conflict in Gaza in an effort to examine if the aforementioned principles were upheld. According to him, for every militant in Gaza, there are 60 civilians. He emphasized that Hamas fighters are better protected than the close-to-2 million civilians and that Hamas leaders actively disencourage civilians from relocating, running directly antithetical to Israel’s warnings. Halbertal also discussed homes as being the most targeted object in Israeli operations, but warned that they are usually not legitimate targets and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in order to minimize collateral harm.

Halbertal and Eisen concluded with the requisite JTS reference to Judaic scholarship when Eisen asked if Jewish tradition mattered at all in situations like a war in Gaza. Halbertal replied, “The law does not apply to all of life. In those situations where there the law doesn’t work, as Maimonides said, ‘You must do what is right and what is good.'”

 Map of Gaza Strip via Shutterstock

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  • Blunts in Beer Sheva says:

    @Blunts in Beer Sheva Bibi and Abbas should roll and Ara-fat one and Sharett.

    I’ll see myself out.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous That’s not Maimonides, it’s the bible

    1. Well... says:

      @Well... … tricky bit there.

      Halbertal made the attribution, not Bwog. (Let’s assume they know, just for shiggles). Since they’re covering what he was saying, they can’t really “fix” it and still be doing their jobs.

      Basically, right there with you, but they didn’t really have an option but to leave it.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel in the five years leading up to last July killed a total of 11 people (all of them during 2010-2012).

    In response, Israel launched a massive attack on Gaza, killing over 2100 people, at least half of them civilians, including 513 children.

    And you speak of proportionality!

    1. How about says:

      @How about reading some actual ethics literature before spouting platitudes?

      Check this out:

    2. hmmm says:

      @hmmm This may not be the best forum to discuss current and recent historical events in the middle east, but those rocket attacks also happened to cover a considerable percentage of Israel’s very small territory, thus the terror inflicted by the attacks was by no means minor. It was not as if only a few people were affected– literally most of the country’s residents were inside or in proximity to a bunker, and effectively terrorized, throughout the last conflagration and also the preceding one. The “proportionality” of the response must properly encompass the proportionality of the threat, not the proportionality of the results.

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous The numbers I mentioned speak for themselves.

        To pretend that Israel’s response was in any way proportional, you tie yourself in rhetorical knots.

        1. hmm (above) says:

          @hmm (above) Again, I don’t see the rhetorical knot or knots. The proportionality of an exercise of military force must principally relate to the severity of the situation for which the military force is invoked. I believe this is in fact a legal principle, and it certainly is a moral one. A country has the right to respond severely to a security threat that is a serious threat to its citizenry, and that right is proportionate to the severity of the threat. The rockets on Israel were not a petty nuisance contrary to the misconceptions of the naive and purposely misled– they were a direct challenge to Israel’s sovereignty throughout most of Israel’s territory.

          There is no country whose military doctrine is to inflict only as many casualties on the other side as are inflicted on is own, nor should there be. We certainly don’t demand that our enemies kill as many of us as we kill of them. I don’t recall the rallies suggesting that too few American troops died in Iraq and Afghanistan, or too few firefighters and civilians died in the towers and the pentagon on 9/11. What moral people demand is that we don’t target civilians, we absolutely minimize civilian casualties when they are unavoidable, and that we utterly defeat whoever challenges our security. That is what Israel did, in the most densely populated area on earth.

          1. Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous If you don’t see your own rhetorical knots, you are not looking.

            You seem to be arguing that proportionality is not desirable, and that laying waste to whoever challenges your sovereignty is legitimate and preferable (a strange argument regarding Israel given its approach to sovereignty in the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the occupied territories).

            But the JTS speakers did not say that. They claimed that the Gaza war wasproportionate, which, given the numbers of casualties, strikes me as an extraordinary act of chutzpah.

    3. yeah wait says:

      @yeah wait I don’t understand, are you suggesting that Israel should have let all the Hamas rockets fall on their people instead of shooting them down?

    4. proportionality man says:

      @proportionality man In international law, an attack is proportional when the value of a military target is proportional to the expected collateral damage of that attack. So, for example, a weapons silo with hundreds of fighters working inside could still be considered proportional, even if a few civilians are killed. However, an attack on a single fighter that kills hundreds of civilians is not proportional.

      You seem to be misconstruing the definition of proportionality to be, is my attack on them proportional to their attack on me. That does not exist in international law. And, to quote President Bartlett (West Wing), “What is the virtue in such a response?” This notion of proportionality simply has no ethical grounding.

  • Have you ever been to Washington Heights? says:

    @Have you ever been to Washington Heights? “JTS, perhaps the foremost school of Jewish scholarship in the United States”

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Go back to your Torah uMadda

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Yeshiva University- kickin’ it old shul!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Where on earth did I say that? There is nothing disproportionate about shooting down rockets that have been fired at you.

    What is disproportionate is killing over 500 Palestinian children in retaliation for the killing of 11 Israelis. I don’t see how any rational person can deny this.

    1. hmm (above) says:

      @hmm (above) Israel did not kill Palestinian children in retaliation for anything. Israel unleashed firepower on Hamas’ infrastructure and operatives as retaliation for Hamas’ acts of war against Israel, and Palestinian children were tragically caught in the crossfire. Their deaths were not a retaliation, but a completely undesired outcome– at least on Israel’s part, for they served absolutely no Israeli strategic objective. This is why Israel took repeated actions to avoid these deaths– dropping warning leaflets, canceling airstrikes on multiple occasions, issuing advance calls in certain cases, etc.

      There were some pronounced instances in which civilians were killed anyway. Almost all Israelis cringed whenever this happened.

      However there was a desire to cause devastation to Hamas, including the destruction of infrastructure. This is the very purpose of warfare– to extract surrender– and it is not unjust when the cause is warranted. (As it was).

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous I don’t remember Hamas surrendering at the end of this war!

        The purpose of this war was not to weaken Hamas.
        Needless to say, this war strengthened Hamas dramatically by rallying the Palestinian people to its side in a time of crisis. Prime Minister Netanyahu knew this would happen, and he wanted it. He wants a permanent state of low-level war. If he wished for progress toward a lasting peace, he would do everything in his power to support Mahmoud Abbas, the most cooperative Palestinian leader Israel has ever seen. Instead, he expands Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

        Hamas and Likud need each other.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous You are an absolute moron if you think that Israelis want war. Israelis who want war are to Israel as Isis is to the Arab world. Do you honestly think that Israeli mothers enjoy knowing that all of their children will one day be soldiers? Do you really think that Netanyahu, whose own brother was killed in a hostage rescue operation, wants more Israeli deaths? Except for the extremists (who are in the minority), both sides wants peace. Living under a constant state of war is awful.

          1. Anonymous says:

            @Anonymous Yes, I do believe that. Netanyahu wants war, but he wants a mode of war in which Israeli casualties are extremely low. Which brings us back to the original point about proportionality.

            If he didn’t want war, there are many concrete steps he could take in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to promote peace.

            Sad to say, I don’t think this “extremist” opinion is now a minority viewpoint in Israeli society. Likud are extremists, and they rule. The valiant Israeli left, which seriously supports the necessary steps toward a two-state solution, is small, embattled, fractured, and demoralized.

  • Wait says:

    @Wait What the fuck is JTS?

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous just that sexy.

  • um no says:

    @um no Dear Anonymous
    Hamas is an internationally recognized TERRORIST organization. 500 children died because Hamas cares more about negative Israeli PR then they do about their own children… WHO THEY KNEW WOULD GET HURT

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Dear um no,

      This sort of argument is only convincing to the partisans on one side. What if I said that Israel was at fault for the recent terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, because it provoked these reprisals with its savage attacks on Gaza? You’d find that reprehensible, wouldn’t you? But your argument is not much different, with the two sides reversed.

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