IDF's Guidelines for Field Officers in the Territories: Respect Palestinian Civilians and Use Common Sense

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Following a brief lull during the hudna (cease-fire), the warfare in the territories is gradually resuming. In addition to the wave of assassinations in Gaza and arrests in three key regions of the West Bank - Jenin, Nablus and Hebron - the Israel Defense Forces are also threatening the Palestinians with the possibility of a ground operation in Gaza. Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon told the cabinet on Sunday that an IDF brigade stands ready for such a move.

The escalation in the territories has once again brought the issue of appropriate rules of behavior for IDF forces in the territories to the forefront.

Over the last few years, the Judge Advocate General's office has run numerous seminars for field commanders of all ranks, in an effort to clarify legal and moral issues related to warfare. The courses are given at the military law school in Tzrifin.

The JAG's office has also formulated 11 rules for operations in the territories, based on both Israeli and international law. These do not appear in a written document, but are conveyed orally in all the lectures given to commanders at Tzrifin and thus form a sort of "guidebook" for IDF behavior in the territories. The rules are as follows:

1. Military activity is aimed solely at military targets. (In this context, "military targets" obviously include civilians suspected of terrorist activity. It is the government that defines what constitutes a military target, but commanders in the field have some latitude in "interpreting" these definitions.)

2. Proportionality: The means used should be appropriate to the goal (meaning sufficient to achieve it while minimizing damage to civilians).

3. Soldiers cannot alter the arms and ammunition supplied by the IDF. (Among other things, this means that reservists cannot make use of their personal weapons during their service; it also means that certain types of ammunition outlawed by international conventions, such as dumdum bullets, cannot be used.)

4. A man who has surrendered must not be harmed (though soldiers are entitled to first ensure that the surrender is genuine - not every white flag can be taken at face value).

5. An arrested man should be interrogated only by authorized IDF or Shin Bet security service interrogators, not by his captors. However, the commander in the field can question the captive briefly to determine his name and organizational affiliation.

6. Captives must be treated humanely: They must be given food and drink and medical care if needed, and soldiers are obligated to protect them if their lives are endangered. However, these obligations are subordinate to the needs of the mission (more specifically, the commander's obligation to get his own men home safely).

7. Enemy wounded must be evacuated and given medical treatment, even if they have not surrendered.

8. Looting is forbidden. However, soldiers are required to collect arms and ammunition and transfer it to the proper army authorities. If a large sum of money is discovered in the house of a suspected terrorist, it should be confiscated, but the confiscation must be documented and the sum recorded.

9. Civilians' property must be treated with respect.

10. Soldiers must protect the persons and possessions of humanitarian aid workers.

11. Any violation of the above rules - by either side - must be reported, and violations by IDF soldiers must be dealt with appropriately.

Brigadier General Udi Shani, a divisional commander in the IDF's Central Command, told his officers recently that these rules could be summarized into two general principles: Soldiers must treat civilians of the territories with respect, and they should use their common sense.

The commander of the military law school, Lieutenant Colonel Amos Giora, told Haaretz that these rules still leave the commander in the field considerable latitude for judgment. "In the end, this is just another tool in the tool kit that the IDF gives its commanders," he said.

Giora added that the seminars are a sign that relations between the JAG's office and the field commanders have been repaired. Ten years ago, following a wave of criminal indictments against commanders for operational mishaps and training accidents, these relations were so tense that such seminars could probably not have been given, he said. "But today, they take place with no tension, and both sides understand their importance."