The Spirit of the IDF Ethics Code and the Investigation of Operation Cast Lead

One of the objectives of the ‘Spirit of the IDF’ document is to block the attempt by terrorists to undermine the moral values of Israeli society. Israel needs to determine whether from this point of view the behavior of its soldiers during Operation Cast Lead gave terror a victory

By Avi Sagi

The issue of how IDF soldiers behaved during Operation Cast Lead is again being discussed and questions are being raised as to the extent to which the army’s values were maintained. In this discussion, the "Spirit of the IDF" document, which outlines the army’s basic values, has been mentioned numerous times. I would like to raise a number of points that are related to this document, to discuss its centrality and importance, and to outline the basic values that appear within it regarding the behavior of IDF soldiers.
The Spirit of the IDF document, which was written in the early 2000’s by a team of researchers (including myself), replaced the IDF Code of Ethics, which was written by Professor Assa Kasher. The two documents significantly differ from one another; the most dramatic difference relates to morality in warfare. The older document stated that soldiers must avoid "needless harm" to non-combatants. This definition implies that if necessary, then such harm is permitted. In its place, the Spirit of the IDF document requires more of soldiers by obligating them to do everything they can to avoid harming non-combatants.
While writing this section of the document, we were aware of the complex reality of the war against terror. One of the ways in which terror attacks a democratic-liberal society is to undermine its moral values. The terrorist does not only use conventional weapons; he also works to undermine the norms and fundamental values of the society he is fighting against and by this means to fragment it from within.
Therefore, even if the Goldstone Report is not accepted and even if it is assumed that an injustice was done by the UN investigating committee – since it considered only one side of the story and did not take into account the complexity of the war on terror – the question still remains: Did IDF soldiers actually behave according to the values to which they are obligated in all cases?
The Spirit of the IDF document is with the soldiers at every stage: when they are first drafted, during any investigation of their behavior during military operations and when deciding on their promotion. I know for a fact that there are not many armies with an ethical code of such a high standard. And still, the question remains, particularly in view of the deep moral commitment to a document that is so ethically demanding: Did the IDF act appropriately? Did soldiers act according to what is required of them by the Spirit of the IDF in all cases?
I know for certain that no one instructed IDF soldiers to harm non-combatants; but still the question remains as to whether incidents occurred that deviate from the Spirit of the IDF document. In my heart, there is a deep concern that in some of the military operations, the soldiers and their commanders did not adopt the Spirit of the IDF’s high standards, that they did not do all they could to prevent harm to non-combatants and instead followed the lower standard of the old Code of Ethics, which only prohibited "needless" harm.
I am bothered by the fact that the only investigation conducted was a legal one. It should be remembered that the legal system also uses the lower standard, defining anyone in violation of that standard as a criminal. At the end of the Second Lebanon War, committees created by the IDF investigated the army’s behavior according to the Spirit of the IDF document and it would have been appropriate to do so for Operation Cast Lead as well. Not because other forces are demanding it, but because this is what is demanded by the values to which the army has committed itself.
It is essential to preserve the higher standard created by the Spirit of the IDF document, because when the reins are loosened and a deviation from norms begins to take place, there is a danger of going down a slippery slope. It is not sufficient to issue warnings, to ensure that most of the civilians had left their homes (because there is always a possibility that the elderly, women and children are still in their homes). Was every possibility checked in every case? Were alternatives always considered in order to avoid situations in which, after the fact, non-combatants were harmed? These are difficult questions and we should be concerned that the voice of the old Code of Ethics, which is not part of the IDF’s official moral position, is still present in the military discourse and making it possible to make do with a distinction between needless harm and necessary harm.
It is worth remembering that morality is not a priori. It is not guaranteed and there is a continual need to apply it, to fight for it and to criticize activity that undermines it. The strategic damage in not dealing with this issue is the subject for a different discussion. However, the fact that the civilian authority – the State – is not wise enough to understand that avoiding the moral question, and not just the legal one, is liable to cause serious and existential internal damage is directly related to the reasons for which the Spirit of the IDF document was written in the first place.

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