Editorial

Israel Must Remember: Thou Shalt Not Kill Means POWs, Too

War criminals among Israel’s enemies have murdered prisoners — both soldiers and civilians. This does not justify similar conduct by IDF soldiers.

Former IDF deputy chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan (right) and Elor Azaria and his family at the Jaffa Military Court, September 19, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Former Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan testified for the defense yesterday at the trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter for shooting a Palestinian assailant who lay wounded after being shot by soldiers he’d attacked.

Dayan is now a politician who once headed an independent Knesset slate. When he later failed to be elected to Likud, he received the management of the Mifal Hapayis national lottery as compensation.

Dayan told Jaffa Military Court he preferred that the army brass would deal with “malfunctions” and “exceptions,” rather than the legal system. His position can be summed up by one of his remarks: “I’ve ordered to kill terrorists just because they’re terrorists, regardless of their condition, whether they are dangerous or not.”

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1969.
AP

Dayan is no hypocrite. He knows full well that the commanders who served under his uncle, Moshe Dayan — who was chief of staff during the 1956 Sinai operation and defense minister during the Six-Day War in 1967 — committed war crimes. In at least three instances, battalion commanders whose subordinates ordered soldiers to murder prisoners became chief of staff or defense minister. These atrocities began in the War of Independence in 1948, were treated leniently (there was a general amnesty during the early days of the state), and continued uninterrupted and unreported. Last week, Haaretz revealed one such case of Israel Defense Forces soldiers murdering dozens of prisoners from an Arab army during one of Israel’s wars. For various reasons, the authorities are blocking publication of any more details about this and other cases.

War criminals among Israel’s enemies murdered prisoners — both soldiers and civilians — and abused them and their bodies. This does not justify similar conduct by IDF soldiers. The murder of uniformed soldiers (or terrorists who aren’t in uniform) who have laid down their arms, surrendered and are being held in custody, often in fenced pens, is illegal, immoral and ineffective. Rumors fly and reach the countries of the murdered and their families. During the next war — and not necessarily as official policy — there will be those who seek private revenge on the Israeli pilot who has to bail out, or the combat soldier whose position is captured.

Due to PR concerns, successive Israeli governments have tried to hide these past cases, whether there is active hostility between Israel and the Arab states or peace and security ties. The result is that generations of IDF soldiers have not been taught that the commandment “Thou shalt not murder” applies to prisoners as well. The army, as Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has warned, is liable to dissolve into a gang. It’s a good thing the army is now operating under Eisenkot’s command and not that of Uzi Dayan, who was once a candidate for the position.

The government and army must have the courage to admit the facts, publish them and repent, in order to reduce the risk of similar sins occurring during routine policing of the occupied territories and in future wars.