As an Officer, I Urged Soldiers Not to Shoot Demonstrators. Now It's Policy

An order to shoot unarmed demonstrators is illegal, and obeying it is a criminal offense. Soldiers have an obligation to refuse

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Israeli soldiers at the Israel-Gaza border near Khan Younis as Palestinians demonstrate opposite the fence on April 13, 2018.
Israeli soldiers at the Israel-Gaza border near Khan Younis as Palestinians demonstrate opposite the fence on April 13, 2018.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

When I was a young officer commanding new recruits at the paratroopers’ training base in the early 1990s, there was nothing, aside from the exhausting exercises, in which I invested more effort and creativity than education and Israeli geography. There were very few exercises or operations that didn’t begin with a survey of the ground, a lesson in history and geography or a conversation about Israel’s future and the army’s role.

The Israel Defense Forces, I thought, were both book and sword, a unique combination of knowledge, resourcefulness and military force that served a great purpose. Therefore, its ends had to be pure, and its means as well.

I particularly stressed combat ethics and what is termed “purity of arms.” I told the story of the “Lamed Hei,” which reveals the potential price of moral standards (in the traditional telling, these 35 soldiers were killed during the War of Independence after their presence was betrayed to the enemy by an Arab shepherd they refused to kill), and by contrast, the story of the 1956 massacre at Kafr Qasem, whose famous culmination, Judge Benjamin Halevy’s verdict, I studied at the time and still know by heart. Employing the army only for necessary defensive purposes, and only by using the minimum force necessary, struck me as fundamental to the ability to employ it at all and to serve within it.

I believed then, and still believe today, that no end sanctifies the means, and that sanctifying the means desecrates the end and effectively negates it.

Sixty-two years later, the Kafr Qasem massacre remains a forgotten story. An army in its infancy has become the army of a regional power; the shooting in that village, where the shooter could look those he shot in the eye, has become shooting from planes devoid of eye contact with the targets, and missiles launched by pressing a button from a rear-echelon base against targets in crowded civilian areas. And an order given by a junior officer in wartime has turned into orders given publicly by the government at times when the country isn’t at war.

Over the past two weeks, soldiers have fired live bullets at unarmed demonstrators in the Gaza Strip, killing 29 of them and wounding over 1,000. The army had prepared for the demonstrations, but instead of trying to reduce the number of casualties, high-ranking officials made it clear in advance that soldiers would use live fire against demonstrators who approached to within a few hundred meters of the border fence.

Unlike in the Kfar Qasem incident, in which the order to shoot curfew violators was given by a junior officer in the field, the responsibility for these latest illegal orders, and their lethal results, lies first and foremost with the people who set this policy – the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff. They are the ones who gave the soldiers their orders.

An order to shoot unarmed demonstrators is patently illegal, and obeying it is a criminal offense. Therefore, if soldiers in the field are ordered to shoot live bullets at unarmed civilians, they have an obligation to refuse to obey.

Unlike in the Kafr Qasem affair, given the fact that the government and the army’s high command are the ones who gave this order to the soldiers, there will be no trial. If the Kafr Qasem massacre was seen as an exception that must be marked as beyond the pale and then taught as an eternal shame so it wouldn’t happen again, the shooting of unarmed demonstrators is a declared policy, something to be accepted unquestioningly.

“Illegality stabs you in the eye and outrages the heart, if the eye isn’t blind and the heart isn’t hardened or corrupted,” Judge Halevy wrote in his verdict. But the illegality no longer stabs and outrages.

The use of live fire is doubly illegal when the soldiers are far away, inside Israel, shooting at demonstrators inside Gaza from the other side of the fence. Yet ordering soldiers to shoot live bullets even at people who approach the fence, damage it or even try to cross it is also stringently prohibited. The army is obviously entitled to prevent such actions, and it’s even entitled to arrest those who try to commit them. But it is absolutely barred from shooting live bullets solely for this reason.

Here’s the absurdity: B’Tselem, a human rights organization, is urging soldiers to obey the law and not make the mistake of obeying illegal orders given in defiance of all law and morality. Strange as it sounds, B’Tselem is urging soldiers to refuse to obey people who are asking them to break the law for their own purposes.

Israel has imposed a stringent siege on Gaza and its approximately two million residents for more than a decade now. During this time, a series of wars have taken the lives of dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians and thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of children.

In the absence of any desire to resolve this situation for the benefit of both the Israelis living near Gaza and the Palestinians living in Gaza, whose lives, despite the fence, are intertwined, the entire regional situation depends on a holding action. Thus, orders like those whose results we’ve seen at the recent demonstrations near the fence are liable to recur. B’Tselem is urging soldiers to refuse to obey patently illegal orders that violate the law.

David Zonsheine is the chairman of B’Tselem’s board.