Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tohar Neshek

Israel has always prided itself upon the value of Tohar Neshek – resort to violence only in accordance with a moral standard. Whereas Arab armies murdered prisoners-of-war, mutilated corpses and violated graves and Jewish Holy Places we decided that we – even in the throes of war – would act in an ethical manner.

This is from the TzaHaL website, from its moral code:

Human Life - The IDF servicemen and women will act in a judicious and safe manner in all they do, out of recognition of the supreme value of human life. During combat they will endanger themselves and their comrades only to the extent required to carry out their mission.

Purity of Arms - The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

Having spoken to friends who are chayalim, they assure me that these values are still alive and well in TzaHaL and that the greatest care is taken not to harm human life, as long as the job gets done.

And yet, in the recent fighting, I have been disturbed by instances in which it would seem that really stupid decisions have been made, that have endangered human life. One example is the shelling of Beit Hanoun that killed 20 people last week. Why were these shells being used so close to civilian areas? And how can such a mistake be tolerated? Another is the widespread use of Cluster Bombs in Lebanon (that have killed many since the war.) I understand that they were necessary for the fighting, but was any consideration given to the aftermath of the war? (Maybe in war one musn't think about that. It is our them or us!) In today's Ha'aretz there was a report that claimed that Tzahal could have used a much safer weapon, an Israeli made cluster bomb that would never have produced all the civilian casualties that have happened since the war but that the army used a different type due to economic considerations.

Why? Is human life, Tohar Neshek, as alive in the IDF today as it once was? Or possibly, there always were "mistakes" and nothing has changed. Is this simply the price of war (and this is war)? Or have we become hardened and desensitized and lost our moral,human edge?

Some would say that the War on Terror is simply gruesomely complicated as militants live amongst civilians, function from within civilian centers and wear civilian clothes. It makes it impossible not to kill a serious number of civilians. I see this argument well. But has this really come up for public discussion here – in Knesset, in the media?

This war on terror is a battle that we are going to be fighting in Gaza and South Lebanon for the foreseeable future. We cannot afford to be immoral and callous. Worse would be that we simply cease to care. In the political dimension, many have framed the desire for Hitnatkut and Hitkansut as a wish to simply wash our hands of the entire problem. In the face of no options (no political nor military solution), we just walk out and leave them to their own problems. We have lost hope of a solution. However, we cannot lose sight of our own morality. Even if we wish that it would go away, our soldiers are fighting and we must know that we hold the moral high-ground.

Maybe Tohar Neshek is easy in the conventional battlefield. However, do we have an adequate moral "road-map" for this impossibly entangled web of militant and civilian, a civilian population that is totally mobilized to aid the terrorists; terrorists that seek to destroy Israel. (That is the case in Gaza for instance.) How DO we fight terror and keep our soul intact?

Tzarikh Iyun! We need this to be raised to the public debate. Not beacuse we are fearful about world pressure and world opinion when many Palestinians are killed in Beit Hanoun. (And yes. I do know that people from Beit Hanoun have been firing missiles daily at Israel... and nonetheless... we have to be moral.) We need it for ourselves, for our society! We need to know that our chayalim are acting in the most ethical manner despite the chaos of the Middle East. We need to make sure that when our politicians chant that "the IDF is the most moral army in the world," that these words have content and are not simply cliches.

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