MI: IDF Needs New Ethics Code for War on Terror

MI chief says current code doesn't sufficiently address asymmetric warfare, such as in Gaza offensive.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Israel Defense Forces should adopt a "Code of Ethics for the War on Terror," because its existing ethical code is insufficient, according to Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence.

Yadlin co-authored the proposed code along with Prof. Asa Kasher, the philosopher who drafted the army's first code of ethics in the mid-1990s. That code was later replaced by the current one, "The Spirit of the IDF," drafted by other philosophers.

However, Yadlin argues, the current code does not sufficiently address one of the army's most pressing challenges: asymmetric warfare against terrorist organizations that operate amid a civilian population, such as the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon or January's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has yet to respond to Yadlin's proposal.

In 2003, Yadlin and Kasher published an article titled "Ethical Counterterrorism," in which they justified assassinating wanted terrorists even if it injured or killed Palestinian civilians. A year later, aided by a team of army lawyers, the two reworked this article into a document titled "Military Ethics for the War on Terror." Then-chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon backed the document and cited its ideas in numerous military forums, but neither he nor his successors ever adopted it as a binding IDF document, so formally, the army is still governed by "The Spirit of the IDF."

"The Spirit of the IDF list 10 values that obligate every soldier. Number 5 is "human life," which requires the soldier to take sensible safety precautions "out of recognition of the supreme importance of human life," but also to endanger himself and his comrades when necessary to accomplish the mission. Number 6, "purity of arms," obligates soldiers to use force only to accomplish the mission, and "only to the degree necessary for this." A soldier must not use his weapons to harm noncombatants, it continues, and must "do everything in his power to prevent injury to [noncombatants'] lives, bodies, dignity and property."

In an interview with Haaretz in February, Kasher said that Cast Lead was conducted in the spirt of the proposed new code he co-authored with Yadlin, and that "the norms the commanders applied in Gaza were generally proper." In places where the IDF lacks effective control of the territory, like Gaza, he explained, the commander's supreme responsibility is carrying out the mission, and second is safeguarding his soldiers; preventing harm to civilians is only third priority.

However, he added, that is not true in places where Israel does have effective control. In those places, there is no justification for, say, an assassination that might cause civilian casualties, because viable alternatives exist, like arresting the terrorist.

In this interview, he also said there is "no logic to comparing the number of civilians killed with the number of armed men killed on the Palestinian side, or the number [of Israelis] killed by Qassam [rockets] compared to the number of civilians killed in Gaza," and that soldiers should not be forced to take extra risks, beyond those inherent in combat, to prevent harm to civilians.

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