Foreign Affairs

Israel and Just-War Theory

Now that a trade of more than one thousand convicted terrorists for one Israeli soldier has been transacted, it should be clear to any of the skeptics which side in the Middle East puts the greatest premium on life. Similarly, it should be noted from this trade which side adheres to the principles of “just war.”

Nevertheless, when Judge Richard Goldstone wrote his report about the conduct of the Israeli Defense Force in the Gazan Cast Lead operation, he indicated in several places that Israeli troops acted irresponsibly, leading to unnecessary deaths in the civilian population. Although Goldstone later recanted, the damage was done. His report became a propaganda weapon against the Israeli government from Europe to Africa, and from Academia to the United Nations.

The problem with the report is that Goldstone relied on the reflections of officials in Gaza instead of films provided by the Israeli forces. Seeing is not always believing; doctored pictures have a notorious history. Nonetheless, if you view the films, they seem to offer incontrovertible evidence that Israeli troops did whatever they could to control collateral damage.

There were even times when the Israeli soldiers put their own lives at risk to avoid killing an innocent person. Time after time a known terrorist hiding behind “human shields” in an apartment complex was spared to avoid the death of people who were innocent. Rockets launched from a school roof remained untouched until children had left the premises. In the heat of battle Israeli forces maintained a level of moral behavior that was exemplary.

A recent chat with a base commander about the behavior of his troops in battle was revealing: “Our troops are trained to put life ahead of personal safety.” The Israeli army officials contend that unnecessary shelling is not acceptable. Fire power is related directly to the force used against Israel.

Many commentators on this subject point to an Arab boy of about fifteen crying as he approached a checkpoint. Soldiers on the scene went into high alert. It seemed clear that this distraught youngster was recruited to be a suicide bomber. One Israeli soldier, recognizing the boy’s agitation, called out to him, “Brother” in Arabic. He could not be sure when or whether the boy would set himself ablaze. Nonetheless, the IDF soldier continued to walk to the boy, took him in his arms and disarmed the explosive device around his waist — all the while knowing that often the Palestinians use a remote control device to explode suicide bombers. The episode also tells a great deal about the Israeli military psychology.

Arab attempts to paint a different picture of the IDF have been successful. Many in the Arab world see these well-trained and disciplined troops as amoral. That, however, is far from the truth. These Israeli eighteen and nineteen year olds are told from the first day of national service that they carry the banner of a civilization that puts a premium on life. Their job is to protect and defend. They are given a green light to kill only when other methods to stop an enemy fail.

At a training session for IDF entrants at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, teenagers drafted into military service discuss the roots of war, the conflict in the Middle East, the history of this new nation. But most significantly, they study just-war theory and a moral stance for fighting those who rely on terror methods. Of course, no system is foolproof; occasionally a soldier will act improperly. This, however, is the exception. Israel is in a daily struggle. After all, 250 million Arabs in 22 Arab and Muslim countries want to destroy this nation. But Israeli leaders do not modify their moral code one iota. As the commander of this training center noted, “If we altered our approach, what effect would it have on soldiers when they leave military service?” One fights not only to save a nation, but to save values.