Israel: Civilians & Combatants

Warrick Page/Corbis
Israeli soldiers returning from the war in Gaza, near the Israeli town of Sderot, January 18, 2009

In 2005, Asa Kasher and Amos Yadlin published in an American academic journal “Assassination and Preventive Killing,”1 an essay that explores the issue of “assassination within the framework of fighting terror.” There are good reasons to believe that the political and practical significance of this essay goes far beyond its academic interest. Asa Kasher is professor of professional ethics and philosophy of practice at Tel Aviv University and an academic adviser to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Amos Yadlin is a major general who at the time the article appeared was the military attaché of the embassy of Israel in Washington; he is currently the head of Israeli army intelligence.

The writers are quick to point out that the “views expressed in the present paper are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the…IDF or the State of Israel.” But the issue is not whether their views are official, but whether they are in fact influential in the Israeli army. Soon after the recent Israeli intervention in Gaza, Amos Harel argued in Haaretz (February 6, 2009) that the guidelines suggested in the article are indeed the ones that govern the IDF’s conduct in battle. This claim has since been both affirmed and denied by Israeli soldiers. We will not join that dispute here, but given the intense interest in Israel’s rules of engagement in the Gaza fighting, it’s critically important to address Kasher and Yadlin’s argument.

We are not going to deal here with the issue of targeted assassination, which is the paper’s explicit subject. Instead we want to challenge what the authors say is their most “important and sensitive” claim. Kasher and Yadlin ask:

What priority should be given to the duty to minimize casualties among the combatants of the state when they are engaged in combat…against terror?

When they write of combatants of “the state,” the authors mean states in general, including the armed forces of the state of Israel. By “terror” they mean the intentional killing of civilians, as by members of Hamas in recent years. And this is their answer:

Usually, the duty to minimize casualties among combatants during combat is last on the list of priorities, or next to last, if terrorists are excluded from the category of noncombatants. We firmly reject such a conception because it is immoral. A combatant is a citizen in uniform. In Israel, quite often, he is a conscript or on reserve duty. His state ought to have a compelling reason for jeopardizing his life. The fact that persons involved in terror are depicted as noncombatants and that they reside and act in the vicinity of persons not involved in terror is not a reason for jeopardizing the combatant’s life in their pursuit….…

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