Hierarchy of Blood |

Are the Lives of IDF Soldiers Worth More Than Those of Israeli Civilians?

In a new book, analyst Yagil Levy says there has been a substantial change in the blood price that Israeli society is willing to pay in military confrontations, restricting the army’s ability to operate effectively.

Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
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Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman

Exactly two months ago, missiles were fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

A million residents sat in shelters, and tens of thousands of reservists received emergency call-up orders. Politicians angrily demanded that the Israel Defense Forces “destroy the Hamas government,” television military correspondent Roni Daniel sent his commanders to wipe out a neighborhood in Gaza, and political commentators claimed that by embarking on a military operation in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is trying to steal the elections.”

All this took place just two months ago yet oddly, Operation Pillar of Defense and its consequences have already disappeared completely from the public and political discourse in Israel.

The largest military operation in Netanyahu’s second term was also absent from the television summaries of 2012 and from the election broadcasts that began last week. Rightly so, it seems, since all the victory speeches paled in comparison with Hamas’ celebrations in the Gaza Strip and its growing popularity in Judea and Samaria since the end of the operation.

Those running the political campaigns don’t even have a “victory picture” to display. It’s the Palestinians who have one this time, after a precise strike by a Fajr-5 missile on a residential building in Rishon Letzion.

The details of the agreement signed between Israel and the leaders of the Hamas movement have not yet been revealed to the public. Yet it is already clear that, in terms of the attempted policy of the past government, the operation was a failure. Israel’s leaders were forced to yield – at a high diplomatic price – on most of the issues over which they had insisted in recent years, in exchange for an end to the firing of missiles at Israel.

As part of the agreement, the crossings to the Gaza Strip from Sinai were reopened. Palestinian fishermen are now permitted to sail out to sea, farther than ever before (six miles, double the previous limit). The owners of fields in the separation zone created near the security fence were permitted to cultivate their lands once again, after many years of threats and shooting. Goods that were not allowed to enter the Strip until now – such as cars and trucks, building materials and fuels – have been transported freely from Egypt in recent weeks.

A senior military source said this week that “major changes” have also been instituted in the targeted assassination policy and the instructions on opening fire. “The IDF has never before been as restricted as now, as a result of the cease-fire,” he said.

Prof. Yagil Levy of the Open University, who researches civil-military relations, believes that Operation Pillar of Defense ended in a colossal failure. “In military terms, of course the operation can be treated as an achievement, as the government ministers are trying to do,” he says. “In the balance of blood, Israel may have killed about 160 Palestinians while only six Israelis were killed. A ground operation in Gaza was prevented, while the IDF retained its deterrence against Hamas. The performance of the Iron Dome [antimissile] system was also impressive. But the operation actually revealed to Hamas and the world Israel’s weakness and the limits to its freedom of operation.”

Levy calls this weakness the “death hierarchy” in his sixth book, “Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy,” recently published by NYU Press. The book centers around Levy’s claim that, over time, there have been substantial changes in the blood price that Israeli society is willing to pay in military confrontations. These changes, according to Levy, have in recent years brought the army to a position of weakness and restricted its ability to accomplish its missions. This weakness is reflected, for example, in the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead [2008-09] and, mainly, in Operation Pillar of Defense.

The changes Levy points out are not quantitative, since there will always be victims in wars, but he claims the reality demonstrates that these victims will come from different sectors of the population each time.

Levy does not judge the process that led to the present hierarchy in terms of good or bad. He describes it as one that “is carried out in temporary agreements between the state and its citizens,” and says there is no guiding hand or policy of an individual government behind it. But he points to numerous ethical problems that arise in the course of the process and warns of the dangers that await at its conclusion.

Levy was born and raised in Ramat Gan. He served in the Armor Corps and became a branch head in the Operations Division of the General Staff, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his discharge he began academic studies; his doctoral thesis dealt with the role of the army in shaping the social order. In his books and research, Levy examines the triangular relationship between the army, society and the political arena. He focuses mainly on the effect of the social factors on military policy.

The price of sacrifice

In his book “Israel’s Materialist Militarism’” (in English), he formulated the “republican equation” – which constitutes a cornerstone of his research and his present book. The equation defines the balance of social, political and economic rights granted to the citizen, and especially his social networks, in exchange for the potential sacrifice of his life during the course of military service. The republican equation affects individuals and population groups. For example, a senior officer who is discharged from the army can exchange his status in the civilian job market and receive a lucrative job. The kibbutz movement also received additional privileges for many years due to the willingness of its sons to sacrifice for society.

In Levy’s new book, the death hierarchy is demonstrated on a graph composed of two axes. One is based on “the level of freedom of choice of the social group the state is likely to sacrifice.” This means, primarily, the willingness of that group to sacrifice, and this choice is of course derived in every group from its motivation and its interests. The increase in the number of combat soldiers from the religious Zionist community in recent decades, for example, and their increased readiness for sacrifice, faithfully reflects the desire of young people from this sector to penetrate to the heart of the old elites.

The second variable that affects the location in the blood hierarchy is derived from “the political cost that results from their choice, especially when the state fails to justify the death beyond question.” This variable depends on the political and social power of the group that is paying the price.

According to this concept, disrupting the lifestyle of Tel Aviv residents in Operation Pillar of Defense, for example, was not equal to the price paid by residents of the south during the many months of rocket fire.

The meeting point between the two variables on the graph shapes the death hierarchy and locates the various populations along it. According to Levy’s concept, army reservists are currently at the top of the pyramid. In his opinion, their blood is the most highly valued in Israeli society. He claims they are usually more involved in the political arena than soldiers doing compulsory service, and are perceived by the Israeli public as social activists.

Next in the hierarchy are regular soldiers from among the old elites, secular young men from the middle class. Below them, in descending order, are religious soldiers and combat soldiers from among the lower economic classes and from the periphery of the country. Surprisingly, at present there are two civilian populations at the bottom of Levy’s hierarchy of death. The first is Israeli residents of the periphery. At the end of the list is the enemy civilian population.

Yagil writes that, if in the 1950s Ashkenazi soldiers (of European origin) set out to endanger their lives in defense of Mizrahi civilians (of North African or Middle Eastern origin) in the periphery, today the hierarchy is inverted. He claims that the changes in society during the past decades have led the army to overprotection of the lives of its soldiers, sometimes at the expense of the civilian population. He offers an angle of observation of Israeli society, by means of the process that has led to the new situation.

“Experience teaches that changes in the death hierarchy and in the image of the State of Israel take place only under circumstances in which the costs of war become too high,” he says. “As long as we are able to create economic growth and maintain a low number of casualties in military conflicts, no protest arises and the social and political price of the conflict is not high. In that case the government can continue with its policy.

“In that sense, Operation Pillar of Defense, for example, is considered cheap, perhaps even more so than usual. The economy was barely affected and the number of Israeli casualties was relatively low, certainly among high-ranking population groups. This is true not only of localized clashes, but of the very existence of the conflict. As long as it is not too expensive, there will be no change. That is apparently why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the discussion of sharing the burden of military service, were not central to the discourse prior to the election.”

Changes in the death hierarchy, according to Levy, take place when the government has difficulty justifying the blood price in the sacrifice of a specific group. The death of many reservists in a failed military operation, for example, would, in his opinion, be seen by the Israeli public in a much harsher light – and perhaps even as less legitimate – than the death of the same number of conscript soldiers. In such a situation, both the army and government would be forced to change their policies.

Another change in the hierarchy takes place as a result of a change in “the level of freedom of choice of the various population groups.” Levy predicts that about 20 years from now, the percentage of religious Zionists serving as combat soldiers will decline. “From their point of view, too, the point will come when the need to penetrate the mainstream of Israeli society will weaken, as will their enthusiasm for the army and their willingness to sacrifice. Their place in the hierarchy will rise at the expense of another population, just as happened with the sabras [native-born Israelis], afterward with the Mizrahi community and with the immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.”

And when there are no large reserves for another wave of immigration, who will take their place at the bottom of the hierarchy? “The social gap creates reserves, which is also why it is maintained. In that situation there will always be a broad periphery that regards sacrifice as their entry route to society. There will always be work migrants whose children will be granted Israeli citizenship via their military service. That’s why it’s the nature of the sacrificing elites to keep changing.”

Changing values

The Israeli consensus still finds it difficult to accept Levy’s research. It deviates from political correctness and undermines such concepts as the “people’s army.” According to Levy, “Only after the Second Lebanon War, when the picture on the issue was clear, did Israeli public opinion begin to deal with it.” He thinks the academic world underwent a similar process several years earlier, “although there too, there are still places where this discussion is not legitimate.”

“I find that argument repugnant,” says Prof. Asa Kasher, from Tel Aviv University, in reference to Levy’s central thesis. He has yet to read the book, but after hearing the argument it presents, calls it “a mish-mash of considerations and ideas.” Kasher, who was one of the authors of the IDF ethical code, finds it difficult to accept the discussion of blood price.

“First of all we have to realize that demographics in the State of Israel are undergoing a process of change, and because there is compulsory service, the demographics in the army are changing as well. That’s why the internal changes in kibbutz society and in religious society have led to a change that is also reflected in military service. These are internal changes within the groups that don’t attest to changes in Israeli society as a whole. Two-thirds of the kibbutzim, for example, are no longer kibbutzim. They don’t educate their children to take on social responsibilities like their fathers and grandfathers. National religious society, on the other hand, now wants to assume broader social responsibility. That’s why they have mekhinot [pre-army programs combining Torah study and military preparation], and the rabbis send them to elite units. These are changes that have taken place within the groups. There’s no clandestine hand here that is causing them to change.”

Regarding the second variable in Levy’s graph, concerning the social and political price required to justify the sacrifice of the members of a specific population, Prof. Kasher argues, “The justification is supposed to meet the requirements of a democratic country, and it must be egalitarian. A democratic country has values-based considerations that are not dependent on demographics, on the government or on social trends. They are derived from the type of democratic regime that is, in essence, concerned with human life. We have an ethos in which everyone defends everyone else. That doesn’t actually happen, because there are groups that don’t serve, but I see it as the labor pains of a democratic country. At the end of the process, everyone will serve and everyone will defend everyone else. That’s why we must not, and cannot, implement such a hierarchical division.”

On the other hand, Maj. Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, who served as the head of the Human Resources Directorate on the General Staff, is willing to accept the hierarchy presented by Levy, but with certain reservations. He also emphasizes that he has yet to read the book, but argues that the theory it presents reflects “the great tragedy of Israeli society.”

“I think the issue comes from below rather than above,” Stern says. “That’s why the question is not which population the country will find it easy to sacrifice, but which populations will be ready to bear the sacrifice.”

Stern says that “Young religious Zionists seem to contribute more, but that’s not from a desire to stand out, but because of their education. And still, their percentages in combat units are far lower than those of young people from kibbutzim and moshavim. At least that’s how it was during the period when I served as the head of the Human Resources Directorate. The difference was that the young people from agricultural settlements were less likely to become officers. In my opinion, that’s mainly a matter of identification with the army’s activities. They want to contribute and go to the most combat-oriented units; some even sign up for the professional army, but they choose not to continue in the army and not to take positions of leadership when it’s hard for them to identify with the missions on which they are sent.”

Stern believes there will be a similar counterreaction when a diplomatic process that is likely to lead to the evacuation of settlements begins. “Then it will be difficult for members of the national religious sector to identify with the mission, and their motivation to do meaningful military service will decline.”

Stern sees the entry of the civilian population into the equation as the principal danger in Levy’s hierarchy. “That’s the most worrisome stage. In recent years there has been confusion regarding values, which is a disaster in a democratic country. I said that at the end of the Second Lebanon War, too. We attribute too much importance to the lives of IDF soldiers at the expense of civilian lives. In this situation, it’s no coincidence that Operation Pillar of Defense began, absurdly, because of firing at an IDF jeep rather than as a result of firing at Be’er Sheva.”

Sparing the soldiers

Yagil marks the entry of Israel’s civilian population into the equation with the first withdrawal from Lebanon, which took place in 1985. “That was a unilateral withdrawal that was carried out without an agreement or guarantees, despite the fear that it would endanger the residents of the north. That withdrawal was the result of a protest that arose among the public and in the army, tipping the balance in favor of taking the risk. Placing the population in the range of fire in order to spare the blood of soldiers was even more common during the second withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Since then, it’s the dominant trend.”

Levy’s opinion, as presented in the book, is that the Four Mothers movement, which led the protest prior to the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, was the first to raise the dilemma presented by the new hierarchy. “The movement raised a question,” he says, “not about the justice of the war but about its blood price, particularly in the wake of the helicopter disaster. [In February 1997, 73 IDF soldiers were killed when two helicopters collided in northern Israel. The helicopters were supposed to have crossed the border into Israel’s “security zone” in Lebanon.] In that sense, the movement presented a new concept: that soldiers are entitled to protection equal to that of civilians along the border.”

Levy also sees the release of Palestinian prisoners and Hezbollah fighters in the latest prisoner exchange deals as a choice by Israeli society to set the blood price of kidnapped soldiers higher than that of the civilian population. Stern – who ran in the election on the Hatnuah slate – says that’s we he “was opposed to the Shalit deal” (the prisoner exchange in return for captive soldier Gilad Shalit). “It displayed this absurdity in the clearest possible way.”

Levy maintains that public criticism of placing a civilian population in danger in order to protect combat forces reached a height in the Second Lebanon War. “In many cases, army commanders refrained from sending soldiers to areas from which rockets were being fired at civilian communities, fearing for the soldiers’ lives. As a result, for the first time there was widespread public criticism of the new order of priorities.”

According to Levy, this criticism placed the enemy civilian population, which until now was not part of the equation at all, at the bottom of the pyramid. He says, “One of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War was the “Dahiya doctrine,” which was formulated by the new Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who at the time was serving as the head of the Operations Directorate on the General Staff. According to this doctrine, IDF forces initiated attacks against a variety of civilian infrastructures in the Dahiya neighborhood in southern Beirut, in order to create deterrence at a minimal risk to the combat forces. Then came Operation Cast Lead, which illustrated this attitude even more clearly. That was when commanders and politicians said for the first time: ‘We have to protect our soldiers, even at the expense of the enemy population.” As the Dahiya doctrine said, “We won’t send ground forces to a rocket-launching area, for example. Instead of endangering them, we will destroy the entire village or the neighborhood from which they were fired, from a distance, using planes or artillery.”

Levy believes this concept represents one of the greatest dangers in the new hierarchical structure. “In addition to the obligation to protect the lives of enemy civilians in the context of various international conventions, the prevailing concept in other armies in the world maintains that, in effect, that is the operational necessity. British and American researchers have been claiming very clearly in recent years that ‘protecting the force’ in Iraq and Afghanistan has become the central issue, sometimes even at the expense of carrying out the military assignment. They argue that in the long run, a peripheral strike at innocent bystanders clearly harms interests and security, and in the final analysis endangers the soldiers even more.”

In recent years, U.S. Army commanders have also understood the paradox that overprotection of the force endangers it even more. Gen. David Petraeus, as commander of the multinational force in Iraq and commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, led this train of thought. He made a firm decision that protection of the civilian population had to be placed higher in the hierarchy of missions.

“He understood the need to capture the hearts and minds of the citizens too,” Levy says. “He understood that overprotection of the army’s forces unavoidably leads to greater harm to the population, and that the resulting alienation leads to an increase in hostility and turns the uninvolved population into an enemy. His conclusion was ‘There’s no choice, we have to endanger our soldiers more.’”

Could such an idea be accepted in the Israeli army as well?

Unfortunately, what the Americans realized thousands of kilometers from home, we have yet to recognize several dozen meters from Gaza. We regularly manage to create only a hostile awareness of the enemy. And you see that in the sweeping support that Hamas is now receiving in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Prof. Kasher also refuses to accept this part of Levy’s equation. “They spoke about purity of arms in Tel Hai in the 1930s. Already then they determined that it’s possible and necessary to use weapons only for the purpose of self-defense. The problem is that the situation has changed, not the values. Against the Syrian army, for example, we have clear rules on the use of weapons. Army versus army, and in such situations you conduct the battles according to classic principles of the just war.

“Now we’re fighting against people who are located within a civilian population,” Kasher adds. “They keep their mat?riel there and fight from there. As an army, you now have to make decisions you didn’t have to make in the past. And I think that the reality has given rise to such questions and that the army has provided good solutions. In my opinion, there has been no change in the Israeli value system regarding other populations.

“The Americans fought in Afghanistan in two phases,” he continues. “At first against the Taliban. Then they caused great collateral damage, even more than we did here. But that was a war, a purely military action. From a certain moment, when a government was formed in Afghanistan, the Americans fought alongside them against the rebels. That’s not war in the classic sense. When you operate against rebels, you try to protect the population, you come to its assistance so that the regime will be calmer. That’s the reason for the change in the American attitude to collateral damage and to increasing the protection of the lives of uninvolved citizens.”

Like Kasher, Stern finds it difficult to accept Levy’s argument regarding the change in the status of the enemy population in the equation. “I think we understood the Petraeus doctrine long before he did. You have to see the numbers, what percentage of the Palestinian dead were innocent bystanders. I’m certain that they are far lower than those of the Americans in Afghanistan or the NATO forces in Kosovo.”

Asymmetrical wars

Levy believes the hierarchy of death, as it is arranged now, will have to change. “On the assumption that the international community won’t allow Israel to cause too much harm to civilians, the government will undergo a long-term process of moderation and restraint. We have to understand that Operation Cast Lead demonstrated that, under certain circumstances, the international community can grant limited legitimacy to harming civilians. But it also set the limits. The moment a ground invasion began and there was a need to protect the force, there was a dramatic increase in the number of Palestinian dead. The world will no longer agree to accept that. In Operation Pillar of Defense, too, during the first days there was a relatively small number of Palestinian casualties. That enabled the army to operate. Israel would have lost its legitimacy the moment there was a ground invasion with overprotection of the force, which would have led to killing civilians. And this was understood in Israel and within Hamas, too. Israel exposed its major weakness.”

Israel has not received international legitimacy for the occupation either, but it continues.

“It continues because it is cheap, in economic and human terms, for us as Israelis,” says Levy. “And also because Israeli society does not see any cheaper alternative at the moment. After all, a population cannot be left under occupation, which contradicts international legitimacy, over the long-term. There’s a reason why our diplomatic status is steadily deteriorating, but the price Israeli society is paying is still not high enough for it to decide to behave differently.”

In Levy’s opinion, Israeli society is paying a relatively low price for the occupation and its wars, largely thanks to advanced technology. The Iron Dome defense system, for example, significantly reduced the number of casualties among the civilian population in Operation Pillar of Defense, and enabled more freedom of activity for the army. Thanks to technology, precise missiles hit targets in Gaza and the entry of the infantry was avoided – and with it the risk to soldiers, whose blood price in the hierarchy of death is higher than that of civilians. Air force pilots, whose status is even higher, flew few sorties over Gaza due to the increased use of unmanned aircraft.

The use of advanced technology also has limits, though. In addition to discussing the ethical and legal questions that arise as a result of using these methods, Levy suggests returning to the death hierarchy. He claims that “technology has created asymmetrical wars, which have led to the loss of criteria for defining the terms ‘victory’ or ‘defeat.’ Israel did not ‘win’ in Operation Cast Lead or Operation Pillar of Defense. Hamas today is stronger than ever. The United States did not ‘win’ in Iraq or Afghanistan. Both are torn among ethnic groups, under unstable regimes. And in both, Islamic terror organizations are operating.

“Victory is achieved today through international legitimacy, but also through legitimacy among the population of enemy countries as well. The Americans realized in Iraq and Afghanistan that if they don’t capture the hearts of the inhabitants, no technology can win. The enslavement to technology, just like overprotection of the force, had led until then to the opposite outcome. Here we’re still talking about the need to sear the enemy’s awareness, and don’t understand that we have to sear exactly the opposite awareness.”

Yagil Levy: Operation Pillar of Defense ended in a colossal failure. Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Gaza, 1987.Credit: AP
Asa Kasher. The situation has changed.
Elazar Stern.
A rocket attack in Ashdod last November. Civilians on the front line.
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Asa Kasher. The situation has changed.Credit: Kobi Gideon / BauBau
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Elazar Stern.Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Unit
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A rocket attack in Ashdod last November. Civilians on the front line.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
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