Israeli armored personnel carrier rolls at army deployment near Israel’s border with Gaza / Getty Images
In his piece “Israel’s Moral Army?” in these pages, Michael Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” — or, to use a title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”
Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”
If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.
Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.
Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. While Israeli and American politicians — and Israel-supporters the world over — have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.
According to the terms of the last cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, signed back in November 2012, Hamas agreed to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land, sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Since that time, as the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg recently pointed out, “Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket… and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups.”
By comparison, Israel continuously violated the terms of the cease-fire during those two years with repeated military incursions and targeted assassinations into Gaza. Israel also failed to “facilitate the freedom of movement and transfer of goods within Gaza” as the terms of the cease-fire had stipulated.
This past April, Israel stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas following the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Then in June, Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers — even though he provided no evidence to support his claims and Hamas repeatedly denied any responsibility. It is now known that Israeli politicians and military leaders knew full well that the teens had been murdered shortly after their abduction — using the pretense of their kidnapping to brutally crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank and to re-arrest former security prisoners who had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap.
As Israeli public pressure to find the teens reached a fever pitch, right-wing Israeli politicians began to pressure Netanyahu to launch a military operation against Gaza. As Goldberg noted:
In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.
On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.
In other words, we cannot view the IDF’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in a vacuum. While Mitchell effectively analyzes Israel’s behavior vis-a-vis the ethics of wartime self-defense, he fails to reckon with the hard fact that Israel’s latest military adventure in Gaza was clearly a war of choice, initiated with cynically political designs.
If we factor in this larger perspective, the ethical categories invoked by Mitchell may well have deeper and more profound implications. For instance, Mitchell cites the Torah’s verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20) together with Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh (“saving a life”) to make the point that “we must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live.” But while he applies this concept to the context of an army’s actions during wartime, it might be more appropriately invoked in regards to the imperative to work for a just peace to the tragic crisis in Gaza.
If Israel was truly interested in following the course of justice in order to preserve life, it could have dropped its abject refusal to deal with Hamas following the November 2012 cease-fire and pursued further negotiations aimed at ending its crushing siege. It could have sought the course of diplomatic engagement — a truly just attempt at peace rather than merely a lull between its now regular military assaults into Gaza.
When Hamas and Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement, Israel’s leaders could have seen this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a more unified and representative Palestinian leadership rather than reject yet another chance to engage in a truly authentic peace process. Such a course could have averted yet another brutally violent onslaught on Gaza that has, as of this writing, killed 496 Palestinians, including almost 100 children, as well as 18 Israelis.
In other words, before we seek to unpack the ethical question of whether or not the IDF can claim the title of “the most moral army in the world,” it might well behoove us to ask ourselves whether or not these useless, tragic wars need to be fought in the first place.