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War and Peace

May 10, 2012 – 10:04 pm132 Comments

In response to a recent discussion on Galus Australis relating to the ethical and moral issues that arise if one chooses to serve in the Israeli military, Larry Stillman has submitted the following article.

The key issue relates to the view that the Israeli Army is an army of occupation in the Occupied Territories and the occupation has little to do with defence imperatives but a huge amount to do with expanding Israeli territory well beyond any strategic necessity.  I am not questioning the fight against terrorism, or the principle of self-defence under fire, but the fact is that ‘defence of Israel’ has been extended to institutionalised maltreatment of civilians under the Occupation of the West Bank in situations that have nothing to do with armed resistance.

These acts often occur to people (including children), not even engaged in acts of violence or minor acts of resistance in which the response has been disproportionate.    The kinds of activity that Israel is engaged in have been well debated in discussions about just and unjust wars under the influence of such writers as Michael Walzer.  Thus, Raymond Kou has written that The Israeli Army considers the situation as an ‘armed conflict short of war’.  However, this imprecise definition also creates a legal and moral hole: the Palestinians are undefined individuals who fall between civilian and combatant categories, but with shifting guidelines on their treatment by the IDF” [“Occupation and the Just War” International Relations 22 (2008), p. 305].

Over the years, it has been revealed that Israeli commanders have been consistently loose with the rules of engagement and many human rights abuses occurred, though these claims encounter predictably strong official opposition. Soldiers are thus in breach of Israel’s own Code of Conduct called The Spirit of the IDF, particularly point 6. “Soldiers must accord dignity and respect to the Palestinian population and those arrested”, as attested in the work of such organizations as Mahsom Watch, which, for example demonstrate the Israeli army does little to protect Palestinians from settler violence.

The result of this undeclared occupation are consistent breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which covers the treatment of civilian populations under occupation, including issues such as harassment, forced transfer of populations, transfer or theft of property (including land for settlements, also known as colonies), restriction of movement, collective punishment, or infringement on the rights of children.  Israel is a signatory to the convention.

However, even if Israel claims that its acquisition of territory is ultimately benign, and leads to increased living standards and so on (as it often claimed in defence of the Israeli presence), there is another question and that is, as Walzer says, “What do the inhabitants want? The land follows the people. The decision as to whose sovereignty was legitimate … belonged by right to the men and women who lived” [In Just and Unjust Wars, p. 55].  Palestinians don’t want an Israeli presence, benign or otherwise, and the longer the Occupation continues, the more difficult a bilaterally acceptable agreement will be to establish.  The Oslo failure is an indication that Israel needs to make much more real concessions in response to the overtures and opportunities made through the Arab (Saudi) Peace Plan and so on.

Because Israel is so linked to many of our lives—and claims to represent our interests—we also have every right to insist that it holds itself true to democratic, legal and ethical principles,  Jewish or universal.

If we cannot question how the force of arms is used, or the ‘justice’ of its occupation then democracy is threatened because the principle of ‘might is right’ prevails.  This is the view taken by many Israel progressives, including for example, Gershom Gorenberg-who considers himself an orthodox Jew and a Zionist—who states that  ‘settlement project’  as part of the occupation has turned occupation territory into a realm where, ultimately, there [is] no law’ [The Unmaking of Israel, p. 88].   The soldiers are there to project the settlement project, not defend Israel. The settlement project has been expanded over the years from a tiny of number of people to 300,000 residents, but these numbers do not excuse Israel from its legal and ethical responsibilities.

One result of this ethical and moral slide from the ideal of ‘tohar ha-neshek’, or purity of arms,  as well as ‘havlagah’ (restraint) was the the ‘Combatants’ Letter in 2002—a statement of refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories was . Significantly, their letter stated:

“ We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving the Israel Defence Force in any mission that serves Israel’s defence. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose – and we shall take no part in them.”

Unfortunately, a response that justifies militarism and occupation appears to come out of two trends in Jewish religious nationalism.  The first, to use the words of the philosopher Emil Fackenheim in his To Mend the World)  , is that we are  commanded to do everything to deny Hitler a posthumous victory.  Harold Schulweiss, making critical remarks about Elie Wiesel, said that the danger with this kind of thinking is that it become a ‘cudgel’ against recognising  others ‘who have their claims of suffering’, and this becomes linked to constant cries of an ‘existential crisis’  in Israel’s existence, to justify almost all and any activity in its defence.

Second, as an extension of the teachings of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, his son, and others, the sacredness of the land of Israel has become a predominant doctrine in religious nationalist and Zionist haredi thinking. Anyone or thing that stands in the way should be removed or has no rights. The worst case of this kind of thinking is found in a stream of thinking which justifies the killing of Palestinian women and children found in works such as ‘The King’s Doctrine’ written by a settler rabbi. Increasingly, this ideology is having an effect in the Israeli army, where many of those command positions actually live in the Occupied Territories and thus have an interest in preserving Israeli rule, whether or not the Israel government continues to want to hold on to them.

Thus, when we have young people in Australia being indoctrinated about a ‘greater Israel’ in which Palestinians have no place or are a nuisance, and such people join the Israeli military they are in grave danger of becoming ethical and moral abusers or worse.  The excuse cannot be made that we do not know about such matters or they are irrelevant for young people who make aliyah.  Eighteen is legal adulthood, and the law for an adult includes the assumption that one is able to make an informed choice. The fact is that the Occupation has been with us for over 40 years now and I find it hard to believe that any young Jewish person is unaware that the Occupation is not benign.

Choices can be made.  Many Israelis choose not to serve in the Occupied Territories by either refusing service there, or undertaking alternate forms of conscription.  The same choices are available to Australians who commit themselves to a life in Israel.

For more reading, see the following:

Norman Solomon, ‘Judaism and the Ethics of War’  International Review of the Red Cross 87 (June 2005)

Yeshahayhu Leibowitz, ‘Heroism.’ In Cohen and Mende- Flohr (eds),  Contemporary Jewish Thought.

Larry Stillman would like to stress that this article is written from a personal capacity.

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