The Israeli army's house philosopher

From the archive (legacy material)

Reuven Pedatzur | Haaretz | 24 February 2004

In France, it took four decades after the withdrawal from Algeria before the old soldiers and men of letters began to bravely and sincerely question actions of the French army during its attempts to put down the Algerian revolt.
The process yielded quite a few publications, including many admissions of immoral actions that led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of innocent Algerians and to prolonged feelings of victimization in the civil population. In another decade or two, when a similar process begins here, and high-ranking officers and men of letters begin to examine the implications of our policy in the territories, they will no doubt pinpoint a single article written by a general and a philosopher, as a significant and very worrying watershed.
Under the heading “The Morals of Fighting Terror,” Major General Amos Yadlin, Commander of the Military Academies, and the philosopher Professor Asa Kasher, wrote an article in the latest issue of the National Security journal. The article claims it is liable to sanction, on ethical grounds, the killing of innocent people, and impart a philosophical patina to targeted assassinations and justify blatantly immoral military actions.
Not only do they feel there is no need to apologize for the deaths of children and women in the course of assassinations of those who have been marked as targets, but this ought to be seen as a non condemnable necessity deriving from “military compulsion” in fulfilling which “we will have to come to terms with harming the `human environment’ of the target of the military actions.”
Thus, in a brilliant semantic definition, the writers of the article make their contribution to the process of de-humanization that transforms babies, women and senior citizens from innocent human beings into a “human environment,” which has the bad luck not to be immune to indiscriminate killing.
When Kasher and Yadlin define what is a terrorist deserving to be put to death, they march the moral slope. “A person is a ticking bomb not only when he has a belt of explosives strapped to him and is on his way into Israel… but also in earlier stages – when the person provides his colleague with war materiel, when he prepares his equipment and the journey, and when he plans the attack,” they write.
Based on this definition, the circle of those facing execution essentially widens without limit, since the determination of who is aiding a terrorist is flexible. In the final analysis, it is given unto the Shin Bet operative to decide – on his own discretion and without any judicial procedure – who will be added to the hit list.
Yadlin and Kasher take pains to point out that assassination is not an act of vengeance, punishment or deterrence, and that it is not motivated by the belief that the organization from which the terrorists come is to be considered an “army,” all of whose members are deserving of liquidation.
Yet on this point their article is not keeping up with the pace of developments. Shortly after the article went to print, Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon made it clear that policy had changed and all members of Hamas are legitimate targets of “assassination.” I do not recall Kasher and Yadlin expressing any reservations with this change in policy, which contradicts the spirit of what they wrote.
The two are willing to admit that the criticism of the killing of 15 civilians in the assassination of Salah Shehadeh in July 2003 was justified, in that the killing was a serious ethical failure. Ostensibly, a divergence from the position expressed by senior army commanders, who until recently pursued an incitement campaign against anyone who dared to criticize the action that caused the deaths of so many innocent people.
But before long it became clear that they were not intending this sort of criticism. There was no place for criticism of the use of a one-ton bomb, they state, because this criticism “lies in a failure to recognize the facts, misunderstanding of the professional considerations and even a lack of responsibility on questions of life and death.”
They argue that in order to make certain that Shehadeh would be killed, it would have been possible to use four quarter-ton bombs, but then the danger of injury to the “civilian environment” would have been greater. The serious outcome, they say, was the result of faulty intelligence suggesting that the houses around the target were empty. These arguments are untenable. Anyone who makes a decision to drop a one-ton bomb should know that many civilian casualties will result.
Yadlin represents the high command level of the IDF, which helps to explain his approach. However, Kasher’s role in dispensing a moral and philosophical stamp of approval to such activities is infuriating. In the past few years, Kasher has become a sort of house philosopher of the Israeli army, throwing his support behind its policies.
From an article he recently wrote on the subject of non-compliance with orders, one could understand that for Kasher, in a democratic society morality is now equivalent to upholding the law. This leads the reader to conclude that the action of anyone refusing to uphold that which is stated in the law – or in a military order – is ethically unjustified. This is a problematic statement, of course, because not every law, and certainly not every military order, sits well with the values of democracy, as the court has already determined in the case of the Kafr Qasem massacre.
Unlike this determination, when the subject is targeted assassinations Kasher does not see any “black flag” flying over military orders that lead to killing innocent people.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the IDF has assigned Kasher to write a sequel to its “Ethical Code” he wrote some years ago. The army knows it can trust a man who passionately defends its course of action in the territories, and its chiefs are certainly expecting him to lend expression to this in the new code, which will be titled, “How to Act in a War on Terror.”
It is no less sad that scarcely any other men of letters have taken to the high ground in opposition to the “Israeli army’s house philosopher.” There are none to sound the alarm against the exceedingly serious erosion of our democratic infrastructure.