A Brief History of Israeli Military Ethics
The Israeli military (officially known as the Israel Defense Forces, IDF) has often prided itself on adhering to the highest moral standards and is routinely described by Israeli political and military leaders alike as “the most moral army in the world.” This self-portrayal precedes the establishment of the Israeli armed forces, going back to the era of the paramilitary forces of the Zionist Yishuv, primarily the Haganah. A principal component of the ethical code that has purportedly guided Zionist forces since that time is the doctrine of the “purity of arms” (tohar ha-nesheq). Though traceable to the 1930s, it is not clear whether the doctrine was ever associated with a written text, but it has been described as recommending that force should be used only for a just cause and in self-defense.
A written document spelling out an ethical code for the Israeli military appears to be of more recent vintage. An “ethical code” drafted by Israeli philosophy professor Asa Kasher was apparently in use by the Israeli military between 1996 and 2001, when it was replaced by a looser and less binding document. The latter document, translated into English as the “IDF Spirit,” is described as the “ethical code of the IDF” on the official website of the Israeli military.* It contains a section titled “The Purity of Arms,” which states that soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or are prisoners of war. The document also asserts the value of human life and affirms that human beings are of value regardless of origin, religion, nationality, gender, status, or position. But despite the emphasis that soldiers must do everything in their power to avoid harming noncombatants, the section of the code titled “Human Life” focuses on the lives of soldiers and their comrades and fails to mention the lives of noncombatants at all. It states that during combat, soldiers “will endanger themselves and their comrades only to the extent required to carry out their mission.”
The Revised “Ethical Code”
The “IDF Spirit” is not the only “ethical code” commissioned by the Israeli military. Another code, designed specifically to take into account the fight against “terrorism,” is detailed in two academic articles published in 2005 by Asa Kasher (the author of the first code) and Amos Yadlin, then commander of Israel’s College of National Defense (the institution that provides higher education for military commanders) and later head of Israeli military intelligence. Kasher and Yadlin’s two articles spell out the main principles of the revised “ethical code” and, more importantly, the arguments drawn from moral philosophy that support them.
The main innovation of the revised code concerns the “Principle of Distinction.” This principle governs the duties that the state has to different types of persons in the course of the fight against “terror.” Most significantly, the principles outlined by the code affirm that the state is morally required to attach greater importance to avoiding injury to the combatants of the state than to noncombatants who are not under the state’s effective control, even if they are not involved in “terror.” The authors state explicitly that avoidance of harm to citizen combatants should take priority over avoidance of harm to noncombatants. In this, they are breaking with centuries of theorizing about the rules of war, since the stance represented by the entire tradition of moral theory known as jus in bello (justice in war) draws a crucial distinction between combatants and noncombatants and prioritizes the duty to avoid harming noncombatants over the duty to avoid harming combatants.
In morality and in international law, the basis of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants rests on two grounds. First, combatants have intentionally embarked on acts of violence and are actively seeking to endanger others, thereby forfeiting their right to security and to be left in peace. Second, combatants are armed, prepared for combat, and capable of defending themselves. These distinctions place combatants in a different moral category than noncombatants according to prevailing conceptions of just war theory and international law. This moral principle is enshrined in international humanitarian law, which makes a clear distinction between combatants and noncombatants without qualification, notably in the Fourth Geneva Convention. By prioritizing the lives of citizen combatants over those of noncombatants who are outside the control of the state, the authors of the code knowingly break with this moral and legal precedent. In other words, they repudiate the moral and legal principle that a state always has a greater duty to avoid harming noncombatants than combatants.
The main consideration put forward in the Israeli “ethical code” to justify prioritizing the lives of combatants over some noncombatants can be summarized as follows. In fighting “terrorism,” the state is engaged in military actions in areas outside its control. In those areas, there is a mix of combatants and noncombatants. This mix has not been created by the state that is carrying out military operations. Hence, the state should not be held responsible if, as a result of its military operations, it kills or injures the noncombatants found in that mixed vicinity. However, this attempt to justify the revisionist principle of distinction does not stand up to scrutiny because it is morally irrelevant. If one person attacks another or endangers the life of another in the course of pursuing a certain goal, the attacker’s responsibility or lack of responsibility for the location of his victim has no bearing on the morality of his action. Similarly, the fact that the state is not responsible for having placed noncombatants in an area outside of its control has no bearing on the moral responsibilities of the warring state toward noncombatants in that area.
There is a further problem with this attempt to justify the revised principle of distinction that applies to Israel in particular. It is patently false that the areas in which Israeli military and “counterterrorism” operations are conducted—predominantly the West Bank and Gaza Strip—are not under state control. These areas have been under uninterrupted military occupation and control since June 1967. Situations of belligerent occupation are ones in which the occupying state controls the territory in question; hence, this attempt at justification also contradicts international law and the facts on the ground.
Implications of the “Ethical Code”
It could be argued that armies always value the lives of their own soldiers over those of enemy civilians, and that the “ethical code” of the Israeli military is merely giving voice to a principle that is already implicitly, if not explicitly, embraced by every military institution. However, when an “ethical code” has been articulated for a state’s military that explicitly sanctions privileging the lives of that state’s combatants over noncombatants on the other side, and does so on supposedly moral grounds, the consequences of enacting that code can be expected to be quite far-reaching. If it is indeed the case that some military commanders are predisposed to give more weight to the lives of their fellow soldiers than to enemy civilians, providing them with the ethical cover to do so is likely to encourage them to err further in this direction. This can operate both at the level of military conduct on the ground as well as at the level of declarations made by military commanders or political leaders, as can be seen from some recent examples.
Israeli military conduct and the testimony of soldiers since the adoption of the code clearly demonstrate a disproportionate pattern of civilian casualties. In Operation Cast Lead (OCL), a wide-scale ground, naval, and air offensive on the Gaza Strip waged by Israel between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, as many as 1,419 Palestinians were killed, including 1,167 noncombatants (82 percent of the total), according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. The noncombatants killed included 318 children (22 percent of all victims and 27 percent of noncombatants). The total number of wounded was put at 5,300, some 1,600 of them children (30 percent). Human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, reported incidents they considered serious violations of international humanitarian law. HRW documented in detail several cases in which Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli soldiers, concluding that Israeli soldiers at least failed to take feasible precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants before carrying out attacks, and that at worst, the soldiers deliberately fired on persons they knew to be civilians. Similarly, an Amnesty report found that some of the Israeli attacks were deliberately directed at civilians or civilian buildings in the Gaza Strip, while others were disproportionate or indiscriminate. Most exhaustive was the report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Gaza (the Goldstone report), which found numerous “willful killings” and cases of “willfully causing great suffering” to “protected persons” (i.e. noncombatants), which constituted grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. According to the judgment of major international human rights organizations, the Israeli assault on Gaza either deliberately targeted noncombatants or failed to take precautions to distinguish combatants from noncombatants. Subsequent Israeli military campaigns in Gaza in 2014 and against the March of Return protesters in 2018-2019, as well as military operations in the West Bank, exhibit the same pattern of disproportionate noncombatant casualties and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Similar conclusions emerge from other Israeli military campaigns. On the Lebanese front, in the July-August conflict of 2006, some 1,200 Lebanese noncombatants and 49 Lebanese combatants were killed by the Israeli military, as opposed to 43 Israeli noncombatants and 119 Israeli combatants killed by Hizballah militants (a ratio of noncombatant fatalities of nearly 30 to 1). After that conflict, Israeli military commanders articulated what has come to be known as the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the southern suburb of Beirut (al-dahiya al-janubiyya), a residential neighborhood devastated by Israeli airstrikes. General Gadi Eisenkot, then head of the Israeli army’s northern command and later chief of staff of the Israeli military, stated that what happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 would happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. He avowed that the Israeli military would apply disproportionate force to civilian areas and that it would consider such areas military bases. Though there has been no official indication that the Dahiya Doctrine has become Israeli military policy, Eisenkot affirmed that it was an “approved” plan. Some subsequent statements by Israeli political leaders corroborate this claim. In 2017, Israeli minister of education Naftali Bennett stated that Lebanese infrastructure, including the airport, power stations, and traffic junctions, were legitimate targets of war. He added that if Hizballah fired rockets at Israel, Israel would send Lebanon “back to the Middle Ages.” Similarly, former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz, who led the assaults on Gaza in 2012 and 2014, boasted in campaign ads when he ran for prime minister in 2019 that he had sent “parts of Gaza back to the Stone Age.”
There is a longstanding tendency in Israeli public discourse to celebrate the morality of its military forces and to consider that the Israeli military is the “most moral” in the world. However, successive versions of the ethical codes of the Israeli military belie this emphasis on morality, even going so far as to endorse the violation of the principle of distinction in international law, which prioritizes the lives of noncombatants over those of combatants. Moreover, these violations of morality are located not just at the level of official doctrine; they are reflected in the conduct of the Israeli military and the pronouncements of senior political and military figures.
- *. The full text of the document was available on the official website of the Israeli military until 2014 but was subsequently only accessible on archived versions of the website.
Amnesty International. “Fuelling Conflict: Foreign Arms Supplies to Israel/Gaza.” London: Amnesty International Publications, 2009.
Eastwood, James. Ethics as a Weapon of War: Militarism and Morality in Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Human Rights Watch. “White Flag Deaths: Killings of Palestinian Civilians during Operation Cast Lead,” 13 August 2009, http://www.hrw.org/node/85014
Israel Defense Forces “The IDF Spirit.” https://web.archive.org/web/20090831080829/http://dover.idf.il/IDF/Engli...
Kasher, Asa and Amos Yadlin. “Military Ethics of Fighting Terror: An Israeli Perspective.” Journal of Military Ethics 4 (April 2005): 3–32.
Khalidi, Muhammad Ali. “‘The Most Moral Army in the World’: The New ‘Ethical Code’ of the Israeli Military and the War on Gaza.” Journal of Palestine Studies 39, no.3 (2010): 6-23.
Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Targeted Civilians: A PCHR Report on the Israeli Military Offensive against the Gaza Strip (27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009). Gaza: Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 2009.