In the most recent round of fighting in the Gaza Strip, some women and children were unfortunately killed in IDF strikes. This led the Secretary-General of the United Nations to criticize Israel, and several Israeli media outlets have also implied that the killings were not legitimate. But those who understand the field of operations in which the IDF is active, as well as international law, know that the IDF strives, and usually succeeds, to be a highly moral army. Its actions are uncompromisingly consistent with international humanitarian law, sometimes to the point of willingness to pay a price in achieving military objectives.
A surreal spectacle awaits those who enter the combat center of the Southern Command while fighting is going on in Gaza. Among the brigade and division commanders, the high-ranking intelligence officers and the coordinating officers working to execute strikes sits Captain D., who grew up in a southern city not far from here. Relatively junior but determined, she discusses with the men around her how to strike the target in a way that will be consistent with the laws of war.
The IDF is not only one of the world’s most moral armies, it is also one of the armies that takes the duty to obey international humanitarian law and the laws of war with the utmost seriousness. The restrictions imposed by the laws of war are not trivial. That is why the IDF strives to fulfill its duty to defend Israeli citizens while complying with the laws of war, in accordance with the legal advice provided by the International Law Department in the Military Advocate General (MAG) Corps.
This is a gargantuan operational and legal challenge. In all of the theaters of conflict in which Israel operates today, aerial and ground strikes are carried out within dense civilian populations. That is the case in Lebanon and this is the case in Gaza, the third most densely populated territory in the world. The objective difficulty of using military force in these areas is compounded by the brutality of the enemy. Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad want women and children to die. That is why they cynically use kindergartens and schools, hospitals, mosques, office towers, and private homes as military infrastructure. They clearly understand that even if Israel exercises extreme caution, this will ultimately result in many civilian casualties. For them, pictures of children’s corpses found among the ruins are images of victory in the battle for international legitimacy, and an excellent tool for inflaming the masses in Gaza and elsewhere. At the same time, they continue to indiscriminately launch rockets intended to kill as many civilians as possible on the Israeli home front.
To deal with this challenge, the IDF recruits the best lawyers, both in regular service and in the reserves. Drawing on professional depth and an unwavering commitment to a code of ethics, these lawyers work in regular times and in times of emergency to ensure that the IDF continues to meet international legal standards in the fulfillment of its mission – protecting the State of Israel. This legal work, whose sharpest edge is felt during combat, is also conducted during routine days and training.
Beyond the obligation to act in accordance with the law, this legal oversight has significant value in the battle for the IDF’s operational legitimacy, during and after the fighting. In the face of the almost Pavlovian responses of Israel’s critics and haters with accusations of war-crimes accusations, the IDF stands with clean hands. Thanks to its legal-compliance efforts it can prove that the laws of war were taken into account at every relevant juncture.
Anyone who thinks that the laws of war are meant to completely prevent civilian casualties is mistaken, stupid, or disingenuous. Even in less-complex combat scenarios, “innocent civilians” are harmed. Furthermore, the laws of war do not require the absolute protection of civilians, but rather proportional military action. When fighting an enemy that systematically makes cynical and nefarious use of the laws of war, the number of civilian casualties unfortunately rises. And yet, if you consider the number of IDF strikes required to halt the indiscriminate and criminal attacks on half of Israel, the outcome is proportional and reasonable given the circumstances, and reflects the IDF’s efforts to remain both a victorious and a moral army.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is Vice President of the Jewish People Policy Institute and teaches international law at the Peres Academic Center. He formerly headed the International Law Department in the Prime Minister’s Office.