Who Is a Combat Soldier? New Definitions Approved by Army Chief

Growing presence of technology in the battlefield challenges traditional definition of a combatant in the military.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has approved the operations directorate's recommendations defining who exactly is to be classified as a combat soldier.

The growing dominance of technology on the battlefield has resulted in a number of frameworks that challenge the traditional definition of a combatant, and disputes have arisen over exactly which positions are to be classified as combat ones.

In May the IDF's operations directorate recommended there be four classifications: combatants, operational combatants, and offensive weapons’ operators, with all remaining positions considered non-combatant. These classifications were published on the IDF's website but had not yet been approved by Gantz.

According to these guidelines, combatants are defined as those who “endanger their lives and have been trained to engage in combat and to harm the enemy in ‘operational contact’” – that is, on the actual battlefield. An operational combatant is “trained to act in ‘operational contact’ while endangering his life, and belongs to the administrative support of combatant units.” This category includes technicians who are embedded with combat units and serve together with the combatants on the terrain. A third combatant category is offensive weapons’ operators, comprising those who operate air defense systems, cyber-operations and drones.

When first published, the report caused waves in the IDF for several reasons. It was posted on the IDF’s official site before being approved by the chief of staff – and later removed from the website for that reason. It classified operators of drones and cyber systems as offensive weapons’ operators -- in violation of declared IDF policy, according to which the army does not admit to using cyber operators for attacking missions, or that its drones are armed and drop bombs. The new definition also caused tension among professions. Operators of unmanned aerial vehicles argued that their past definition as “combat support” units was inaccurate. A commander of a UAV unit recently told Haaretz that “defining the ethos of the combatant is complex when it comes to the systems we work with. One definitely needs be aggressive, seek contact and carry out the mission, but for me the concept of a combatant endangering his life is clear. Personally, I do see a difference, but there may be others who view things differently.”

A senior officer in the personnel directorate said that soldiers in the defensive air units requested to be referred to as combatants even if they are not officially defined as such, for reasons of pride. “Technology plays a role. There is competition between the techonological units and the combat units, but if we eradicate the ethos of the combat soldiers, we will harm ourselves. We have an interest in preserving the ethos of the combat soldiers, and the differentiation."

Six months have elapsed since the publication of the operations directorate’s recommendations, raising doubts about whether they would be implemented at all. Now that the plan has been reapproved by the chief of staff, new directives as to who is a "combat soldier" will soon be distributed among units.

The IDF Spokesperson’s response: “The work concerning the question ‘who is a combatant,’ was approved and concluded by the chief of staff. Within a short while the plan will be processed and distributed as directives to all relevant bodies, upon being approved by the chief of staff.”

IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Olivier Fitoussi