The Message to the Soldiers Was Clear

Soldiers fighting in the territories are absolved of the need to worry about moral dilemmas. In this war, everything is permissible, and they will be backed by the high command even if it turns out that they acted contrary to basic moral norms.

In the best case, the chief of staff is feigning innocence when he asks whether the army must examine "whether the messages we are sending to combat units are not ambiguous" and when he suddenly discovers, after four years of fighting in the territories, that "in some places, there has apparently been a blunting of the senses and erosion that stems from the prolonged service in the territories and the fighting."

In fact, the messages sent to soldiers by Lieut. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon and other senior officers were sharp and clear. They stated that soldiers fighting in the territories are absolved of the need to worry about moral dilemmas. In this war, everything is permissible, and they will be backed by the high command even if it turns out that they acted contrary to basic moral norms.

Ya'alon gave his soldiers a free hand in the use of their weapons, even though this use often proved to be indiscriminate and exaggerated. The message was clear. Soldiers would not be called to account for acts of abuse against civilians, unnecessary shooting that caused the death of children or the elderly, the daily humiliation of thousands at checkpoints, or confirming a kill. The soldiers understood clearly "the spirit of the commander". When hundreds of innocents are killed, including many children, but in many of those cases the Israel Defense Forces does not even bother to carry out a serious investigation; when after four years of fighting, numerous incidents of abuse and repeated cases in which innocents were killed, less than a dozen soldiers have been indicted and only two have been convicted - when all this happens, a clear message is sent to the soldiers: In the territories, we have immunity; our hands are free.

The behavior of IDF soldiers serving in the territories does not indicate that they belong to a young generation that is cruel and lacking in moral inhibitions. Rather, this behavior is the expected and inevitable result of warfare by an occupation army against a population that is fighting to end the occupation and that uses terrorist tactics to achieve its goals. The experience of other armies, without exception, teaches that fighting in occupied territory slides over into acts of abuse, unnecessary shooting, the killing of innocents and wide-scale whitewashing. This process is unavoidable, and even the most liberal and enlightened of nations cannot escape it.

The chief of staff should have known all this from the start, and he should have understood that the only way to prevent moral deterioration on this anticipated slippery slope was to explain to the soldiers again and again about the dangers inherent in fighting among a civilian population. But Ya'alon and his colleagues chose the path of silence and of turning a blind eye. Even when unacceptable acts were committed, the chief of staff's voice was not heard. When two 1-day-old babies died at a checkpoint because the soldiers would not allow their mother to pass through on her way to the hospital, the chief of staff was silent. And when children on their way to school were killed by indiscriminate shooting, Ya'alon and his officers did not respond.

Therefore, the feigned innocence of the IDF's top brass, which has "suddenly" discovered that immoral acts are being committed by soldiers in the territories, is extremely grave. Suddenly, the IDF command has discovered that soldiers are desecrating dead bodies, shooting at children, humiliating people at checkpoints and shooting the wounded in order to confirm the kill. The truth, of course, is otherwise: They have known about these grave acts all along. They heard about what happens at the checkpoints and knew the details of shooting incidents in which civilians were killed.

And if no one told them, they could have read the reports issued by B'Tselem, or visited the chilling exhibition mounted by Breaking the Silence, an organization of soldiers who served in the territories. But the top brass chose to keep quiet and to send military policemen to confiscate the material displayed in the exhibit. It seems that the only reason Ya'alon suddenly was moved to respond to recent events was their exposure in the media.

The great failure of the chief of staff and his senior officers over the last four years was in understanding the importance of the moral deterioration caused by the fighting in the territories and its grave impact not only on the IDF and its soldiers, but also on the strength of Israeli democracy. At the end of 1956, at the height of the war in Algeria, Gen. Jacques de Bollardiere, a hero of World War II, wrote to the commander of the French forces in Algeria. "If the leadership gives up on the inviolable principle of respect for man because he is a man, enemy or not," he told Gen. Jacques Massu, "it sets loose contemptible impulses that no longer know any limits, and will always find a way to justify themselves."

It must be hoped that after four years of fighting in the territories, IDF commanders will also understand and internalize what de Bollardiere understood five decades ago.