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Bad War, Bad Soldiers

March 22nd, 2009by Haim Watzman · 14 Comments · Politics and Policy

Haim Watzman

One of our regular readers, Alon, comments (ungermanely) on my previous post:

i would like to know is how do you feel on the day that the testimonies of soldiers on the killing of civilians and vandalism in gaza — after saying in your
“Bad War, Good Soldiers” post that you were “happy to hear” a soldier telling you that “we had to show them we’re not suckers and beat the hell out of them”, and that soldiers should forget their scruples and just “do the job?”

I’m writing an op-ed for the Forward this week about these recent soldier testimonies, and I’m giving a talk on Tuesday at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies on Tuesday on the moral responsibilities of the individual soldier (sorry, the talk is not open to the public). Since the subject is a serious one, I intend to take the necessary time to research and think through the issues before commenting on these revelations in detail.

However, here are a few pointers for readers interested in the subject—food for thought until my substantive post:

1. Anyone who has Israel’s interests at heart should be outraged at the thought of IDF soldiers shooting women, children, and old people.

2. Such things certainly happened in the Gaza War, as they have in previous wars.

3. Most of the specific allegations in the recent soldier testimonies are hearsay.

4. There were no clear boundaries or trustworthy distinguishing marks between Palestinian combatants and civilians—including women, children, and old people—in this war.

5. There seem to have been significant differences in how different units dealt with ambiguous situations involving civilians.

6. The IDF has again ended up being its own friendly-fire victim by not placing its dirty laundry in public view at its own initiative.

7. Anyone who has Israel’s interests at heart should be outraged at the thought of IDF soldiers shooting women, children, and old people.

More later.

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14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 dana // Mar 22, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Haim, I’ve commented on your previous piece on this issue, where I took umbrage at what i saw as an attempt on your part to whitewash the tragic gaza “episode” from your conscience using some genrous but all-too-standard Kosher sprinkling (also known to other tribes as “fairy dust”). I understand that you were trying to come to terms with the fact that very bad things were done in your name. I also understand that these soldiers are – or could just as well be – your children, and so you feel responsibility to take yourself and yours off the hook. I felt however that your entire analysis rested on shaky premises and was merely a more sophisticated way of saying; “they just followed orders”.

    Higher up on the sophistication ladder is Bernard Avishai’s recent take on the issue, where, clearly distraught at what’s staring us all in the eye, he takes refuge behind the extreme youth of the soldiers (a-la “what could they do? they are just Babes-in-the-Woods”).

    I’d be willing to extend a tolerance for these exercises in hand-wringing, were it not for your (and some time, Avishai’s) continued use of the expression “Gaza War” (his is without the capitalization though….). That is like saying “Iraq War”. Neither was a “War” except by choice of those who invaded a much, much weaker civil population, causing untold suffering, all in the name of some mysterious “regime change” and/or “establishing deterence” rational, then trying to walk away without having to apologize for the rest of their lives.

    Words do matter as we all know. The reality was that Iraq was an INVASION and Gaza was closer to a PUNITIVE ACTION than anything else. That there was some resistance from the afflicted is to be expected, and there was word play at work there too to deny it legitimacy. In Iraq, the resistance went from “terrorists’ to “insurgents”. Which meant that the resistance could be negotiated with/bought up, aided by some high-profile prosecutions of soldier excesses. In Gaza, israel has not even gone that far (and I doubt it will, since apologetics don’t seem to be part of the dominant tribal DNA)

    And based on your points above, they apparently have no intention to do anything other than some hand-wringing (whether you realize that you’ve been drafted in this campaign is not for me to say). That being said, I’ll read your article, in the hope that it’ll avoid the kosher-trap after all.

    PS where the likes of me can be mollified by words (eg, substituting “carnage” for “War”), I’m not sure the victims of whatever-should-we-call-it will be so easily pacified. Whether in Palestine or in Iraq.

  • 2 Tatyana // Mar 22, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    I have a question and a comment.

    Question is: would you possibly consider putting up a video or a webcast of the talk?

    The comment is as follows. While there’s an intense debate going on in regard to IDF’s “culpability” one VERY important point is not being made. That point is that how many countries out there perform investigations of their army’s behavior? How many countries do hold their soldier accountable through impartial investigations?

    While this “dirty laundry” gives “critics” more than enough ammunition to attack integrity of IDF, the reality in a matter is this is a sign of democracy and accountability. Only a strong nation with democratic values is capable of resolving this matters openly in court and according to the Law.

  • 3 Lisa // Mar 22, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Dana makes many good points in her comment. Gaza was not a war, it was a punitive action taken against a weaker–yes, a dangerous, but nevertheless much weaker–opponent. The tragedy for Israel is that Israel was taunted into it by Hamas and its radical Islamist fellow travelers.

    Hamas and its suicide bombers, grotesque and murderous though they are, cannot destroy Israel through bombings alone. Instead, they are luring Israel into destroying itself, slowly, over decades, as it slowly devolves into a ultra-nationalist militarist state. (It is the same tactic employed by al-Qaeda against the U.S.) Israel’s weakness in resisting the trap is understandable: how many years of this psychological and emotional battering can Israel take? Nevertheless, as understandable as it may be, it is still self-destructive, irrational and morally wrong. The real threat to Israel is demographic, and the only solution is territorial compromise. Until Israel finds a way to make that happen–and gives up its dreams of controlling what it considers the holy sites of the west bank (or stops letting those who live by those dreams have undo political influence)–it will continue down the destructive path it is on now.

    It is heartbreaking.

  • 4 mick // Mar 23, 2009 at 10:19 am

    “how many years of this psychological and emotional battering can Israel take? ”

    Your kidding , surely ” psychological and emotional battering can Israel take?” We watch genocide being committed against the Palestinians and you use words like “psychological and emotional battering”.Israel was born out of terrorism .”By way of deception ,thou shall do war”.

    The world protested South Africa’s Apartheid State ,to the point of its collapse ,and so it will be with Israel .When the dust clears the occupier will be gone .Right is might !

  • 5 Lisa Goldman // Mar 23, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Mick, until you arrived this was an intelligent conversation. Please spare us the populist cliches, inaccurate metaphors, dubious historical analysis and tendentious arguments.

  • 6 Asa Zernik // Mar 24, 2009 at 1:50 am

    My (somewhat uninformed) take on this is that the very powerful education and indoctrination aspect of the IDF has been allowed to either atrophy or be corrupted – either soldiers are not being properly taught ethical obligations and restrictions in a situation of war, or they are being actively taught that (in the recollection of one of the commanders at Oranim) everyone left in Gaza is a terrorist.

  • 7 dana // Mar 24, 2009 at 4:44 am

    Lisa, just saw your comment, sorry to be late in responding. But we have some strong differences of viewpoints here. You say:

    “The tragedy for Israel is that Israel was taunted into it by Hamas and its radical Islamist fellow travelers.

    Hamas and its suicide bombers, grotesque and murderous though they are, cannot destroy Israel through bombings alone. Instead, they are luring Israel into destroying itself, slowly, over decades, as it slowly devolves into a ultra-nationalist militarist state.”

    This is a way of taking israel, its citizens and its soldiers off the hook. I see this kind of response as analogous to the date rapist who says – “well, she dressed so provocatively, I was lured into it – what man could resist?” Are you saying that it’s all up to hamas, whether israel behaves as a civilized nation or not? Surely you don’t believe that? because what this means is that the country’s values are defined entirely by its enemies. Sinfce those enemies are perceived as evil-minded, all we have to look forward to is a downsward spiral into full blown psychosis.

    Your reasoning also implies that hamas had some kind of a grand strategy, whereby they win by just talking radical, firing a few rockets now and then, absorbing blows as they come, then showcasing its people’s wounds to the world. Now that would be both rather passive and also a bit too machiavelian to make sense.

    Instead, I’d suggest that you look at your own logic from outside the box (of either party), if that’s possible. For example, isn’t it more likely that hamas, in all its religious fervor, is the product of israeli belligerence coupled with a growing perception on the part of palestinians that normal talking channels are not going to get them anywhere? The greater the perceived belligerence, the more radical is the counter-movement. Were you a palestinian who looked to Abbas for any accomplishment, would you find anything positive to show for its engagement policy?

    You also say that “The real threat to Israel is demographic, and the only solution is territorial compromise. Until Israel finds a way to make that happen–and gives up its dreams of controlling what it considers the holy sites of the west bank (or stops letting those who live by those dreams have undo political influence)–it will continue down the destructive path it is on now.”

    On this we agree. problem is – it’s too late. In israel, forces have been unleashed that are by far more dangerous to a jewish state than the threat from growing arab numbers. I predict that not too long from now, you’ll see radical new alliances – with progressives who are arabs and jews – arrayed against the darker forces represented by the religiously intolerant – whether jewish or muslim, or christian. Unfortunately, the progressives never seem to be able to count enough members on their side. And that much is unfortunately true about America as well.

  • 8 Tatyana // Mar 24, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Dana:
    While you make some good points and obviously hold Israel to higher standards in terms of military response to military actions, couldn’t it just be argued that Hamas is merely fulfilling promises they’ve made to their voters?

    For most of the nations, firing ONE bomb into their territory that deliberately targets civilian population is justified reason for a war.

  • 9 fiddler // Mar 24, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Dana: “Are you saying that it’s all up to hamas, whether israel behaves as a civilized nation or not? Surely you don’t believe that? because what this means is that the country’s values are defined entirely by its enemies.”

    Lisa can speak for herself, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be as outlandish a suggestion as we both might hope. Ha’aretz yesterday reported the introduction of a bill that seeks to adapt the incarceration conditions for convicts with a terrorist background to those (imagined) for prisoners of Palestinian militias:

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1073277.html

    “The bill is intended to increase the states (sic) bargaining power when it comes to hostage negotiations by giving it more options for pressuring terrorist organizations into prisoner exchange deals.
    The bill is also aimed at “ending the unreasonable situation in which Israeli citizens and soldiers held by terrorist groups are incarcerated in inhumane conditions while security prisoners held by Israel are imprisoned in far better conditions.”"

    So, firstly, criminal convicts would be officially, legally, redefined as hostages (“bargaining power”), and secondly, humane behaviour would be made optional, modelled after the behaviour of some other group (of which any prisoner may or may not even be a member).
    That’s not even having one’s values defined by the enemy, it’s the utter resignation of values.

    Also, demolition of homes of families of terrorists have been re-introduced, despite the army’s own determination of the ineffectiveness of the measure:
    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1072020.html
    It’s hard to imagine something having spelled “HELPLESSNESS” in bigger letters all over it. “We don’t know what to do, so we can just as well make someone suffer for it” is not exactly a “value” of a civilised nation either.

  • 10 Gray, Germany // Mar 25, 2009 at 11:37 am

    “For most of the nations, firing ONE bomb into their territory that deliberately targets civilian population is justified reason for a war.”

    And there’s also an established standard of international law that deliberately blockading one’s peoples trade and free movement is a sufficient reason for war. And don’t get me started on the practice of killing alleged terrorists by rockets or bombs without anything even remotely rembling a fair trial before. There aren’t any international laws legalizing this, and Israel itself would never tolerate any other nation killing its “public enemies” on Israeli soil in such a way. But at the same time, Israel wants the world to accept that such acts are ok against Hamas officials.

    Sry, but the double standards being used for rationalizing Israeli plicies and demonizing Hamas acts at the same time are really too obvious. If the Stern gang of the 30s and 40s were righteous freedom fighters, why shall anyone see Hamas as a terrorist organistion and not as legal resistance against a superiorly armed aggressor? Why shall the killing of Hamas leaders be legal, but a bomb attack against Menachem Begin (or war criminal Ariel Sharon) would have been a terrorist act?

    As long as Israel doesn’t come up with a consistent view of the situation that doesn’t use different ethical standards for its own acts and those of Palestinians, it will never be able to convince the world of the righteousness of its actions. Sadly, nothing in the news recently gives anybody reason to believe that a more rational view is gaining strength. Quite to the contrary…

  • 11 Gray, Germany // Mar 25, 2009 at 11:45 am

    One other example of the double standard used by the IDF, in this instance: In the recent count of Gaza casualties, every Palestinian who had any ties to Hamas has been counted as a combatant. Even policeman. But at the same time, Israeli casualties of the Hamas rocket attacks are always descrbed as civilians, as if not almost all Israelis serve in the IDF, are reservists in a state of war, and thus have to be seen as legal combatants, when this logic is applied. As long as propaganda always trumps reason, don’t expect the world to belive that Israel is really on the higher moral grounds. The hipocrisy is simply too obvious.

  • 12 fiddler // Mar 25, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Gray, Israel probably uses the US State Dept. definition of “terrorism” (http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2000/2419.htm), which limits the designation to “subnational” actors. So a state would be statutorily incapable of practising “terrorism”, no matter what it did.

    (A wise guy like me could of course ask, what if a state comprises only a part of a nation, as is the case with Israel – only about a third of Jews worldwide are Israeli citizens. Is then the state itself a “subnational” actor?)

    For many of the problems with the definition, see here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/may/07/terrorism

  • 13 Debbie R. // Mar 25, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    I think it is innacurate to compare what is going on in Iraq with what is going on in Gaza. However ill conceived, ill executed and ill received deposing Saddam was, I have no doubt that Americans thought they were helping Iraqis by getting rid of Saddam. And there are Iraqis who think this as well, although some may feel the cure was worse than the disease.

    It is obvious that Israel did not invade Gaza to better the lives of the Gazans. This much is undisputable. I think the biggest dispute now is between people who believe that Israel had given Gazans a reasonable opportunity to have a better life when they unilaterally pulled out, and those who think Israel pulled out of Gaza for it’s own reasons, not for the benefit of the Gazans.

    Israel had finally gotten to the point where it was impossible to deny that the Palestinians were unhappy with the status quo, that the occupation was not benign and that it was creating hatred in the Palestinian population.

    Unfortunately, Israelis are now telling themselves that we’ve given the Palestinians a chance and they blew it.

    The danger of a Netanyahu government is that he can claim he seeks peace, but refuse to create the conditions necessary for peace.

    In my mind, the necessary conditions are for Israel to start unilaterally dismantling settlements in the West Bank. This is a process that will take time and needs to start sooner rather than later. Whether or not Israel has a partner for peace, it can still take steps to show that they have every intention of pursuing a two state solution.

    The Gaza war/invasion/action is over. The damage is done. The focus now needs to be on what will be happening in the West Bank.

  • 14 mick // Mar 31, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Lisa Goldman “populist cliches, inaccurate metaphors, dubious historical analysis and tendentious arguments” such a broad brush you use and so little information…persuade me with your impeccable logic .

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