Moral Minority

Readers Ask Haaretz: As a Combat Soldier, Can I Ignore Army Protocols That I Feel Are Wrong?

'Ignoring the rules feels more right to me, but I know that if everyone did that the army would disintegrate'

An Israeli soldier searches a Palestinian following a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Hebron May 19, 2017.
MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS

If you don't know how to behave in a certain situation, if you need friendly advice but you've already driven all your sane friends away or if you've got the kind of embarrassing question that can only be asked anonymously, send a mail to: mechlak.musar@gmail.com.

Our answers will be generous and honest – but should not be seen as replacement for professional consultations. Obviously.

Dear Haaretz,

I am a combat soldier doing compulsory military service. As part of my duties, I was assigned to guard gates in the West Bank separation barrier that were opened so that Palestinian farmers living on the other side of the fence could access their lands.

A group of Israeli Jews came to the Israeli side of the wall. Their guide explained the gates to them (most of what she said was nonsense, but let’s ignore that). One member of the group started to take photos, taking no notice when others tried to tell him it was prohibited.

I told him it was a closed military area and photography was forbidden, and he stopped. There wasn’t anything there that had to be concealed, but even if something interesting happens at a checkpoint I believe people should have the right to photograph public employees.

My question is whether to ignore protocols that I feel are wrong, or to comply with them fully? Ignoring the rules feels more right to me, but I know that if everyone did that the army would disintegrate.

Uri, age 20

Dear conscientious objector,

First of all, let me explain to readers that these “gates” are openings in the separation barrier that allow Palestinian farmers to reach their plots of land, which remain on the other side of the barrier, in what is called the “seam-area space.”

According to the human rights group B’Tselem, crossing the barrier to plots which these farmers legally own and from which they make their living involves coordination with the Civil Administration and the obtaining of permits.

Even then, many of these gates open only two or three times a day, usually for only one hour each time. Some of this only happens for only a few months during the year. In practice, this is but one more way of making Palestinian lives more miserable and of violating their freedom of movement (within the territories — this is unrelated to entering Israel).

It’s hard to determine what would constitute ethical behavior under circumstances which are a priori immoral. The gate you were securing is part of a barrier that serves to make Palestinians’ lives more difficult and to increase the amount of land taken away from them.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague determined in 2004 that this barrier was in violation of international law. Thus, your very presence as a guard there is immoral, even if you object to some of the procedures

In any case, in order to answer your question let’s ignore all of that and pretend that we can separate this particular instance from its wider context. Indeed, there is a moral imperative to obey laws and regulations, since they are designed to make living together tolerable, while preventing people from trampling on one another. Exceptions to this are laws that are part of a bad system bent on doing harm, in which case we have a moral duty to oppose them (even when the state demands that we obey).

Is the protocol you described one of those? Let’s look at it in two ways. First, it’s unclear what you mean by a “military area” where photography is prohibited. As far as I know there is no prohibition on taking pictures of gates to farming areas along the separation barrier: This is not a military area.

The army makes frequent and illegal use of declaring areas “closed military areas,” among other reasons for the dispersal of legal demonstrations, in contravention of the protocol for doing so.

Furthermore, a few months ago, a civil suit revealed a military order (one that expired in 2015 but which has probably been replaced by a similar one) which states that there is “no legal impediment to taking photos in Judea and Samaria, including of soldiers, even during operational activities.”

The reference was to journalists and to an area that was closed through proper procedures, not a gate to some plot of land, which you or your junior commander arbitrarily declared was not to be photographed. It seems that there is no legal procedure here that you must abide by.

Second, as you noted, it is important to legally document the army’s activities in order to prevent unlawful conduct and violence by soldiers, and the army has recognized this need, as is evident in the aforementioned order.

Thus, even if there were such a procedure, it would have been a harmful and dangerous one and you would have had a moral duty to oppose it. It’s not the army that disintegrates when soldiers refuse to act illegally or immorally, it’s the illegal and immoral actions of the army that are shaken up.

In his famous essay “Civil Disobedience,” published in 1849 and written against the backdrop of his opposition to slavery and to the Mexican-American War, Henry David Thoreau writes: “but if [injustice] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.”

I won’t tell you to break the law (with all due respect, Thoreau did not have to worry about internet commenters or security service agents), but I would suggest that you do all you can not to become an agent of injustice to another human being.

If you don't know how to behave in a certain situation, if you need friendly advice but you've already driven all your sane friends away or if you've got the kind of embarrassing question that can only be asked anonymously, send a mail to: mechlak.musar@gmail.com.
Our answers will be generous and honest – but should not be seen as replacement for professional consultations. Obviously.