Warfare has changed dramatically in recent decades. On the Israeli frontlines, terrorism and guerrilla warfare persist, forcing Israel Defense Forces soldiers to make life-or-death decisions in the field.
IDF Reserve Brig. Gen. Bentzi Gruber spoke to the Jewish National Fund’s Lawyers for Israel Society in Baltimore on Jan. 24, where he talked about ethics in the field and how IDF soldiers are trained to make split-second decisions in an ethical manner. Gruber serves as the vice commander of armored divisions and leads five brigades, a total of 25,000 soldiers.
His talk came just weeks after the high-profile manslaughter conviction of IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who killed a wounded Palestinian lying on the ground after the man lunged at and stabbed an Israeli solider at a checkpoint.
In the course of his presentation, Gruber focused on how soldiers are trained to make ethical decisions on the spot, without time to wait for orders from superiors.
“We have to start with a framework — you have eight seconds to make a decision. That is the main difference between making a decision in the field and elsewhere. You have eight seconds, shoot or don’t shoot?”
Many factors can influence a soldier’s judgement. Physical and mental fatigue will dull a soldier’s senses. Gruber explained that the IDF has urban training facilities, where soldiers practice making these hurried decisions “so that the first time you are confronting a life-or-death decision is not in the field, it is in the [demonstration].”
Gruber explained that in order to make a properly informed decision, there is not a specific procedure for a soldier, but rather a specific set of simple questions for them to ask themselves that dictate what can and cannot be done.
“The first question is simple,” he said. “In the army, you can use force but only to accomplish the mission, so the first question should always be, ‘Are we using the force to accomplish the mission?’”
The example he uses is of entering a house to arrest a terrorist. If force needs to be used to restrain the terrorist, then that is acceptable because it is a part of the mission. However, to destroy the TV in the terrorist’s house does not have a purpose in accomplishing the mission and therefore is crossing the line.
“The second question is a bit more complicated,” Gruber said. “Make sure that you are only using force against the enemy, not against innocents or noncombatants. If you have a doubt, there is no doubt — you do not shoot. You can use force only if you know that it is the enemy.”
The third factor that a soldier must consider is also the most complicated — collateral damage. Gruber asserted that you are allowed to cause collateral damage to accomplish a mission “but only in proportion to the immediate threat.” Immediate is the key word.
“Even if I know that a guy killed five Israelis yesterday and five IDF soldiers two weeks ago, I will not shoot. The pilot [shooting rockets] is not a judge. He is not trying to punish someone for what they have done in the past. He is trying to avoid terror in the future.”
One ethical dilemma that soldiers often face in Gaza is that terrorists grab children to protect themselves from snipers while crossing a street.
“The sniper won’t shoot,” said Gruber. “This is a moving target, the kid is struggling and yelling. Why are they doing this? Because they know that when it comes to collateral damage, it is a big issue for Israelis. That is the difference between terrorism and soldiers — soldiers try to kill the enemy, terrorists purposefully target civilians.”
The IDF takes avoiding collateral damage at all costs so seriously that the procedure when taking control of an urban area is to alert everyone ahead of time, even the enemy, that they are coming. Forty-eight hours in advance, leaflets drop from planes asking residents to please leave the area; 24 hours in advance, people begin to call the families, and another phone call is made five minutes out.
“We even send text messages and recently have started to use social media,” said Gruber. “Why? It is unthinkable for an army to tell you when and where they will attack in advance. It goes against everything that I know, but it is to avoid collateral damage.”
Stuart Diamant-Cohen, director of JNF in Greater Washington, D.C., and Virginia, said the JNF holds no political standpoint on the issues Gruber discussed.
“However, this presentation provided a remarkable opportunity to see Israel and examine its ethical and moral dilemmas from the perspective of a living hero,” Diamant-Cohen said.
Leon Berg, co-chair of Lawyers for Israel, said that being informed about the ethics of the IDF is important for those who want to advocate on the morality of the Israeli army.
“As an advocate, this knowledge is something that you want to be able to offer to other people,” he said. “All of us are committed to being advocates of the State of Israel, and this is just one more thing to be proud of in terms of the great emphasis the IDF places on ethics in the field.”