Israeli Way of War Inherently
by Uri Avnery
July 20, 2009
Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, the
evil spirit of the Gaza War refuses to leave us in peace. This
week it came back to disturb the tranquility of the chiefs of
the state and the army.
"Breaking the Silence," a group
of courageous former combat soldiers, published a report comprising
the testimonies of 30 Gaza War fighters, a hard-hitting report
about actions that may be considered war crimes.
The generals went automatically into denial
mode. Why don't the soldiers disclose their identity, they asked
innocently. Why do they obscure their faces in the video testimonies?
Why do they hide their names and units?
How can we be sure that they are not actors
reading a text prepared for them by the enemies of Israel? How
do we know that this organization is not manipulated by foreigners,
who finance their actions? And anyhow, how do we know that they
are not lying out of spite?
One can answer with a Hebrew adage: "It
has the feel of truth." Anyone who has ever been a combat
soldier in war, whatever war, recognizes at once the truth in
these reports. Each of them has met a soldier who is not ready
to return home without an X on his gun showing that he killed
at least one enemy. (One such person appears in my book The Other
Side of the Coin, which was written 60 years ago and published
in English last year as the second part of 1948: A Soldier's Tale.)
We have been there.
The testimonies about the use of phosphorus,
about massive bombardment of buildings, about "the neighbor
procedure" (using civilians as human shields), about killing
"everything that moves," about the use of all methods
to avoid casualties on our side - all these corroborate earlier
testimonies about the Gaza War; there can be no reasonable doubt
about their authenticity. I learned from the report that the "neighbor
procedure" is now called the "Johnny procedure."
God knows why Johnny and not Ahmad.
The height of hypocrisy is reached by
the generals with their demand that the soldiers come forward
and lodge their complaints with their commanders, so that the
army can investigate them through the proper channels.
First of all, we have already seen the
farce of the army investigating itself.
Second, and this is the main point: only
a person intent on becoming a martyr would do so. A solder in
a combat unit is a part of a tightly knit group whose highest
principle is loyalty to comrades and whose commandment is "Thou
shalt not squeal!" If he discloses questionable acts he has
witnessed, he will be considered a traitor and ostracized. His
life will become hell. He knows that all his superiors, from squad
leader right up to division commander, will persecute him.
This call to go through "official
channels" is a vile method of the generals - members of the
General Staff, army spokesmen, army lawyers - to divert the discussion
from the accusations themselves to the identity of the witnesses.
No less despicable are the tin soldiers called "military
correspondents," who collaborate with them.
But before accusing the soldiers who committed
the acts described in the testimonies, one has to ask whether
the decision to start the war did not itself lead inevitably to
Professor Assa Kasher, the father of the
army "code of ethics" and one of the most ardent supporters
of the Gaza War, asserted in an essay on this subject that a state
has the right to go to war only in self defense, and only if the
war constitutes "a last resort." "All alternative
courses" to attain the rightful aim "must have been
The official cause of the war was the
launching from the Gaza Strip of rockets against Southern Israeli
towns and villages. It goes without saying that it is the duty
of the state to defend its citizens against missiles. But had
all the means to achieve this aim without war really been exhausted?
Kasher answers with a resounding "yes." His key argument
is that "there is no justification for demanding that Israel
negotiate directly with a terrorist organization that does not
recognize it and denies its very right to exist."
This does not pass the test of logic.
The aim of the negotiations was not supposed to be the recognition
by Hamas of the state of Israel and its right to exist (who needs
this anyway?) but getting them to stop launching missiles at Israeli
citizens. In such negotiations, the other side would understandably
have demanded the lifting of the blockade against the population
of the Gaza Strip and the opening of the supply passages. It is
reasonable to assume that it was possible to reach - with Egyptian
help - an agreement that would also have included the exchange
No only was this course not exhausted,
it was not even tried. The Israeli government has consistently
refused to negotiate with a "terrorist organization"
and even with the Palestinian unity government that was in existence
for some time and in which Hamas was represented.
Therefore, the decision to start the war
on Gaza, with a civilian population of a million and a half, was
unjustified even according to the criteria of Kasher himself.
"All the alternative courses" had not been exhausted,
or even attempted.
But we all know that, apart from the official
reason, there was also an unofficial one: to topple the Hamas
government in the Gaza Strip. In the course of the war, official
spokesmen stated that there was a need to attach a "price
tag" - in other words, to cause death and destruction not
in order to hurt the "terrorists" themselves (which
would have been almost impossible) but to turn the life of the
civilian population into hell, so they would rise up and overthrow
The immorality of this strategy is matched
by its inefficacy: our own experience has taught us that such
methods only serve to harden the resolve of the population and
unite them around their courageous leadership.
Was it at all possible to conduct this
war without committing war crimes? When a government decides to
hurl its regular armed forces at a guerrilla organization, which
by its very nature fights from within the civilian population,
it is perfectly clear that terrible suffering will be caused to
that population. The argument that the harm caused to the population
and the killing of over a thousand men, women, and children was
inevitable should, by itself, have led to the conclusion that
the decision to start this was a terrible act right from the beginning.
The defense establishment takes the easy
way out. The ministers and generals simply assert that they do
not believe the Palestinian and international reports about the
death and destruction, stating that they are, again in Kasher's
words, "mistaken and false." Just to be sure, they decided
to boycott the UN commission that is currently investigating the
war, headed by a respected South African judge who is both a Jew
and a Zionist.
Assa Kasher is adopting a similar attitude
when he says: "Somebody who does not know all the details
of an action cannot assess it in a serious, professional, and
responsible way, and therefore should not do so, in spite of all
emotional or political temptations." He demands that we wait
until the Israeli army completes its investigations before we
even discuss the matter.
Really? Every organization that investigates
itself lacks credibility, especially a hierarchical body like
the army. Moreover, the army does not - and cannot - obtain testimony
from the main eyewitnesses: the inhabitants of Gaza. An investigation
based only on the testimony of the perpetrators, but not of the
victims, is ridiculous. Now even the testimonies of the soldiers
of Breaking the Silence are discounted, because they cannot disclose
In a war between a mighty army, equipped
with the most sophisticated weaponry in the world, and a guerrilla
organization, some basic ethical questions arise. How should the
soldiers behave when faced with a structure in which there are
not only enemy fighters, which they are "allowed" to
hit, but also unarmed civilians, which they are "forbidden"
Kasher cites several such situations.
For example: a building in which there are both "terrorists"
and non-fighters. Should it be hit by aircraft or artillery fire
that will kill everybody, or should soldiers be sent in who will
risk their lives and kill only the fighters? His answer: there
is no justification for the risking of the lives of our soldiers
in order to save the lives of enemy civilians. An aerial or artillery
attack must be preferred.
That does not answer the question about
the use of the air force to destroy hundreds of houses far enough
from our soldiers that there was no danger emanating from them,
nor about the killing of scores of recruits of the Palestinian
civilian police on parade, nor about the killing of UN personnel
in food supply convoys. Nor about the illegal use of white phosphorus
against civilians, as described in the soldiers' testimonies gathered
by Breaking the Silence, and the use of depleted uranium and other
The entire country experienced on live
TV how a shell hit the apartment of a doctor and wiped out almost
all of his family. According to the testimony of Palestinian civilians
and international observers, many such incidents took place.
The Israeli army took great pride in its
method of warning the inhabitants by means of leaflets, phone
calls, and such, so as to induce them to flee. But everyone -
and first of all the warners themselves - knew that the civilians
had nowhere secure to escape to and that there were no clear and
safe escape routes. Indeed, many civilians were shot while trying
We shall not evade the hardest moral question
of all: is it permissible to risk the lives of our soldiers in
order to save the old people, women, and children of the "enemy"?
The answer of Assa Kasher, the ideologue of the "Most Moral
Army in the World," is unequivocal: it is absolutely forbidden
to risk the lives of the soldiers. The most telling sentence in
his entire essay is: "Therefore the state must give preference
to the lives of its soldiers above the lives of the [unarmed]
neighbors of a terrorist."
These words should be read twice and three
times, in order to grasp their full implications. What is actually
being said here is, if necessary to avoid casualties among our
soldiers, it is better to kill enemy civilians without any limit.
In retrospect, one can only be glad that
the British soldiers, who fought against the Irgun and the Stern
Group, did not have an ethical guide like Kasher.
This is the principle that guided the
Israeli army in the Gaza War, and, as far as I know, this is a
new doctrine: in order to avoid the loss of one single soldier
of ours, it is permissible to kill 10, 100, and even 1,000 enemy
civilians. War without casualties on our side. The numerical result
bears witness: more than 1,000 people killed in Gaza, a third
or two-thirds of them (depending on whom you ask) civilians, women
and children, as against six Israeli soldiers killed by enemy
fire. (Four more were killed by "friendly" fire.)
Kasher states explicitly that it is justified
to kill a Palestinian child who is in the company of a hundred
"terrorists," because the "terrorists" might
kill children in Sderot. But in reality, it was a case of killing
a hundred children who were in the company of one "terrorist."
If we strip this doctrine of all ornaments,
what remains is a simple principle: the state must protect the
lives of its soldiers at any price, without any limit or law.
A war of zero casualties. That leads necessarily to a tactic of
killing every person and destroying every building that could
represent a danger to the soldiers, creating an empty space in
front of the advancing troops.
Only one conclusion can be drawn from
this: from now on, any Israeli decision to start a war in a built-up
area is a war crime, and the soldiers who rise up against this
crime should be honored. May they be blessed.
International War Crimes and Criminals