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At the same time, Gantz said, the event “raises issues of ethics in the army which must be dealt with at every level.” As he spoke the army’s chief education officer circulated a memo to field officers, outlining rules for soldiers’ use of social networks: dignified behavior, respect for “the other,” appropriate public representation of the Israeli military; preserving human dignity; avoiding unauthorized political or military comment; respecting the chain of command; and protecting classified information.
Three points, respect for the other, preserving human dignity and appropriate public representation of the military, refer directly to the code of ethics. It calls for minimum necessary use of force and maximum protection of civilians. Israeli spokesmen often boast of Israeli troops’ high ethical standards, even putting themselves in harm’s way to avoid harming civilians.
But several recent investigations have found the code is fraying. A 2012 report by the State Comptroller, the government’s top watchdog, found that company commanders, responsible for educating their units, commonly decide they’re unequipped and invite rabbis in to teach. The rabbis, usually from Chabad or pro-settler organizations, often teach an ethic at odds with the military code. Lessons and pamphlets reported to the General Staff have instructed soldiers to “show no mercy,” to view civilians as “not innocent,” to “ignore foreign doctrines” and remember they’re fighting a holy war for sacred land.
The weakening of the code is exacerbated by a separate trend, described in repeated internal army studies, of settlers and their religious-nationalist allies forming a steadily growing proportion of the junior officer corps. Increasingly, it’s said, company commanders are not just unable but unwilling to teach the code.
The result, analysts inside and outside the military have warned, is a sense in the ranks that the rules of engagement handed down from the General Staff put them at risk and coddle the enemy to please European liberals. Just as the rabbis teach.
Israel’s military may be confronting a new challenge in digital media, but the media carry an old message: the struggle for Israel’s soul.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org