Israeli public debate is focused these days on a seemingly simple incident: In Hebron, two Palestinian terrorists attacked a team of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, managing to stab one of them before they themselves were shot. One terrorist was killed and the other injured. The latter was lying on the road when a soldier arrived, observed the scene and, without being commanded to do so, shot the terrorist once in the head. An autopsy, performed by Israeli forensic doctors in the presence of a Palestinian forensic doctor, revealed that that last shot was what killed the terrorist.
For more than 20 years now, I have been active in studying the military ethics of the IDF and in writing related documents such as the 1994 IDF Code of Ethics. I would like to make a few observations about the incident from that perspective.
The first thing to note is that the incident was immediately reported to the relevant IDF commanders, who at once conducted their routine debriefings. The professional military investigation was repeated several times along the chain of command, from the platoon and battalion level, through the brigade and division level, to the chief of staff. They all reached the conclusion that what the soldier had done was utterly wrong, in stark violation of commands, Rules of Engagement and the values specified in the “Spirit of the IDF,” the code of ethics that requires respect for human dignity (and especially human life) and restraint of force (or “purity of arms,” as it’s called in Hebrew).
At the core of military ethics in a democracy — whether it’s the United States, United Kingdom, Canada or Israel — you find two principles manifest in all doctrines, procedures, ROEs and commands. First, the right and duty of self-defense. A person and a state have the right to defend themselves when they are in jeopardy caused by unlawful activities of criminals or enemies. Plus, a democratic state has a duty to effectively defend its citizens when they are in such jeopardy. Second, every act of the state, including acts taken on its behalf by police or military, ought to show respect for human dignity. This means that compelling justification is needed for any significant interference in a person’s situation.
Killing a person is a last resort in self-defense and it ought to be confined to circumstances of necessity. It is ethically, morally and legally wrong to kill a person if it is not a necessary step of self-defense.
The soldier in Hebron killed a terrorist, but what he did was not a necessary step of self-defense. It was not a step of self-defense at all.
The military investigation found that before the soldier shot the terrorist, he said that the terrorist had injured an IDF comrade and therefore ought to be killed. Such reasoning is utterly wrong, whether it is meant to justify retaliation, punishment, deterrence or what have you.
The circumstances of the Hebron incident have often been misunderstood. Yes, the terrorist was an enemy, but soldiers are required to treat a terrorist wielding a knife as a criminal, not as an enemy in a battlefield. The terrorist’s attempt to kill or injure ought to be foiled, but killing him is sanctioned only if there is no effective alternative — only if it’s a last resort.
Nevertheless, the minister of internal security, several members of the Knesset and many participants in public debates took another view of the circumstances: Anyone who intends to kill or injure Jews as an act of jihad should know that he or she won’t come out alive. This is a wrong and pernicious view. Major General Eizenkot, the IDF chief of staff, correctly said a while ago that there is no justification for emptying a magazine on a girl holding scissors she intends to use against some Jewish passerby. Even an injured enemy combatant who has just killed your comrades ought to be captured and then appropriately treated, because he no longer endangers anybody’s life and he is a person whose human dignity should now be protected by ordinary means. We don’t kill POWs, who are enemy professional combatants; all the more so, we don’t kill terrorists once they’ve been rendered harmless.
The public debate that followed the Hebron incident spotlighted two aspects of life in Israel that should not be ignored.
First, most of the Israeli public became aware of the Hebron incident by watching a video produced by a Palestinian photographer working with the radical left organization B’Tselem. This immediately created a wrong impression: that the soldier had been condemned by the IDF chief of staff and the minister of defense solely on the grounds of a piece of radical left propaganda. The mistaken idea that an NGO that has often cooperated with enemies of Israel in international campaigns against the IDF could play a role in forming the views of the head of the IDF and minister of defense enraged many Israelis, not just those on the extreme right. The political tensions within Israeli society are strong and significant, but their manifestation often rests on mistakes and misunderstandings, coming out noisy and crude.
Second, public debate in Israel has for a while now been an arena of vitriolic political clashes instead of a theater of ordinary exchange on political matters. Israeli politicians, and therefore the media and the public as well, act as if we are in an election period, though we are not. The inclination to make every incident into the subject of a quarrel, the tendency to use harsh language in portrayals of political opponents and their views, and the resort to rude, irresponsible and even irrational expressions in every social network are all unhealthy. It is the duty of state leaders to get rid of them.
This tumult may give the impression that something has gone astray in the ethical fabric of Israeli society and even within the IDF. That impression is false. No one incident, grave as it may be, indicates a widespread weakness. The IDF and many other parts of Israeli society are morally strong and resilient; they will overcome terrorist activities, on the one hand, and marginal failures to maintain high ethical standards, on the other.
Asa Kasher is Laura Schwarz-Kipp Professor Emeritus of Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice at Tel Aviv University, and Professor of Philosophy at Shalem Academic Center in Jerusalem. He led the writing of the IDF’s code of ethics, and won the Israel Prize in General Philosophy in 2000.