The Truth About the Israel Defense Forces, 'The World's Most Moral Army'

Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is the latest in a long line of commanders to place the Israeli military on a pedestal it can’t justify.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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An Israeli soldier alongside Egyptian prisoners during the War of Independence.
An Israeli soldier alongside Egyptian prisoners during the War of Independence.Credit: GPO
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

“From the day it was founded, the army has sanctified important values, among them human dignity and the purity of arms. These values are based on many years of Jewish heritage,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot wrote last week, gilding the lily in a letter distributed to all soldiers.

It is not like Eisenkot to be sanctimonious or ignore troubling facts. But this time he badly miscalculated in presenting a desired ideal as the reality. In his laudable efforts to defend the rules of engagement and distinguish between support and covering up, Eisenkot adopted the official, false line that ascribes to Israeli soldiers and the system within which they act a different, higher set of morals than that in other armies. This, at best, is self-delusion based on partial information.

Eisenkot is not the only one. Before him, there was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon: As commander of a paratroop battalion and then a brigade and eventually IDF chief of staff, he did not teach his soldiers the bitter lessons of the 1950s – including the murder of prisoners in the Mitla Pass in the Sinai War. Instead, the Kafr Qasem massacre by Border Policemen in 1956 was the only thing to be remembered as a black flag.

Ya’alon was also careful not to criticize his superiors when he was deputy chief of staff to Shaul Mofaz, and the latter urged his battalion commanders to end a firefight “with seven bodies.” Ya’alon wanted to be chief of staff with Mofaz’s blessing.

Like with the Palestinians, the chain of command among the Israelis broke under pressure from the wisdom of the masses. Instead of the army, the right-wing group La Familia (a group of soccer hooligans affiliated with Beitar Jerusalem) will arise.

Until then, it’s the time of the lawyers. They will wave the “Ankonina rule” – relating to Staff Sgt. David Ankonina, an officer who was convicted by a military court of using unnecessary lethal force at a roadblock in Gaza 30 years ago. However, he was exonerated by the High Court of Justice because the justices, headed by the former Military Advocate General Meir Shamgar, were persuaded that he had acted correctly and believed his life was in danger.

There is nothing new under the sun. The occupation and policing are not to blame for everything. It was actually the War of Independence in 1948-1949 that launched the catalog of murder, rape, looting, contempt for human life – including that of Israelis – followed by the wars of 1956 and 1967.

There is no singular “Jewish morality.” There is no horror that Israelis were not involved in, even if to a lesser extent than others, in numbers and magnitude. Every religion and nation, of course, believes that its goal – but only its goal – justifies the means. When the prestate Lehi underground, among its other acts of terror, sent letter bombs to British government officials in London and to U.S. President Harry S. Truman in Washington, it didn’t imagine the day when the Islamic State group would perpetrate terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.

The accusations currently being leveled against Israel are untrue. There is no state or military policy of extrajudicial executions. But the test comes in the attitude of the defense establishment and judiciary to exceptions to the policy. And this attitude – covering up past crimes by showing leniency – is no different in principle than the Palestinians’ current “revolving door,” catch and release policy for prisoners.

The difference is in the wording only. In Israel, the reason they were not released is because they weren’t apprehended or tried. Instead of revolving doors, there are wide-open gates – the amnesty laws. When the two major wars (1948 and 1967) were over, with a sense of relief and victory, everyone was raised to the status of hero and even the war crimes were covered up.

Concealment is more difficult today because of advancements in three areas: more sophisticated technology; a weakened censor (thanks to the Supreme Court); and legal diplomacy that focuses on violations of the rules of combat. Google Earth shows everything. Cameras, stationary or moving, record it all. In 2016, it would be impossible for Cain to deny killing Abel – he would be caught on camera.

The censorship that concealed war crimes caused Israel enormous damage. The victims of the crimes, their relatives and countrymen were not deceived, and wanted revenge. Thus, subsequent IDF soldiers, who did not know the truth, were placed at increased risk.

The truth occasionally emerges. Sometimes in operational investigations, other times in research by the history department, and, more commonly, in the files of the military advocate general. This is where former MAG Tzvi Inbar delved when he was collecting testimony for his 2005 book “The Scales of Justice and the Sword: The Foundations of Military Justice in Israel.” Most of the sensitive material was not published, but the worst massacres (Al-Dawayima, Hula, Nirim and Deir Yassin – in the latter case where the local Haganah command provided the perpetrators, at their request, with eight rifles) are well known.

For example, on August 12, 1948, according to the MAG files, at Battalion 23 camp of the Carmeli Brigade at Tira, “H. B. shot and wounded a prisoner. Two days later, he [H.B.] escaped from lockup and when he was caught, insulted the battalion commander. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, of which he served three. The military court ruled that the accused had received a letter from relatives in Morocco, stating that his brother-in-law had been murdered in a pogrom and so he decided to take revenge, influenced by the customs of his country of origin, and fired four bullets, deliberately killing four Arab prisoners.”

In another, even more serious, case in the same battalion, the Military Supreme Court went easy on a company commander who killed 33 Lebanese because, according to the majority opinion, “The lower court did not attribute the required weight to the period of the actions of the petitioner.”

The words sound contemporary: “A whirlpool of blood moments of unbearable distress no wonder powerful hatred against Arabs is born. The enemy was far from keeping to the rules of war, [and] this deepened the hatred among those young people who bore the burden of battle and saw with their own eyes the atrocities that were committed.”

It was common for trials to be canceled and for then-Chief of Staff Ya’akov Dori not to order a retrial. That happened, among other times, in the case of the shooting murder of two residents of the village of Kafr Ja’una. Soldiers H. and S. were acquitted by the military district court of the 9th Brigade, which found a “reasonable basis to assume that they acted according to general and unclear orders of their direct commander. When their acquittal was set aside, the chief of staff did not order a new trial.

MAG files also contain many rape cases. “On the night of May 29-30, 1948, there were a few cases of rape in Acre. The city’s commander investigated; the military prosecutor was not involved. The brigade commander closed the cases.”

One case featured a rape-murder: In the Golani Brigade’s 11th Battalion, in November 1948, “Four soldiers met a convoy of Arabs between Tarshiha and Me’ilya. The soldiers detained two young Arab women; one soldier raped one of the women, another tried to rape the other. The soldiers claimed that the women, who at first resisted, finally consented. The prosecutor demanded that they be put on trial. A few days later, the general amnesty came into effect and the four, like many others, benefited from it.”

Even more confidential reports can be added of looting and robbery, at which both the Palmach and Military Police excelled – just like any other army. No worse, no better. The combatants were operating in stressful conditions. For example, a certain fighter pilot called Ezer Weizman – along with a fellow squadron member – were accused in August 1948 of “shameful behavior by undressing publicly in Café Park on Yarkon Street, Tel Aviv, breaking dishes and bothering guests. The squadron commander said the two had tried to stop the others. The MAG decided to close the case.”

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