OPINION: The Johnny Procedure —Uri Avnery
Only one conclusion can be drawn from this: from now on, any Israeli decision to start a war in a built-up area is a war crime, and the soldiers who rise up against this crime should be honoured. May they be blessed
LIKE THE ghost of Hamlet’s father, the evil spirit of the Gaza War refuses to leave us in peace. This week it came back to disturb the tranquility of the chiefs of the state and the army.
“Breaking the Silence”, a group of courageous former combat soldiers, published a report comprising the testimonies of 30 Gaza War fighters. A hard-hitting report about actions that may be considered war crimes.
The generals went automatically into denial mode. Why don’t the soldiers disclose their identity, they asked innocently. Why do they obscure their faces in the video testimonies? Why do they hide their names and units? How can we be sure that they are not actors reading a text prepared for them by the enemies of Israel? How do we know that this organisation is not manipulated by foreigners, who finance their actions? And anyhow, how do we know that they are not lying out of spite?
One can answer with a Hebrew adage: “It has the feel of Truth”. The testimonies about the use of phosphorus, about massive bombardment of buildings, about “the neighbour procedure” (using civilians as human shields), about killing “everything that moves”, about the use of all methods to avoid casualties on our side — all these corroborate earlier testimonies about the Gaza War, there can be no reasonable doubt about their authenticity. I learned from the report that the “neighbour procedure” is now called “Johnny procedure”.
The height of hypocrisy is reached by the generals with their demand that the soldiers come forward and lodge their complaints with their commanders, so that the army can investigate them through the proper channels.
First of all, we have already seen the farce of the army investigating itself.
Second, and this is the main point: only a person intent on becoming a martyr would do so. A solder in a combat unit is a part of a tightly knit group whose highest principle is loyalty to comrades and whose commandment is “Thou shalt not squeal!” If he discloses questionable acts he has witnessed, he will be considered a traitor and ostracised. His life will become hell. He knows that all his superiors, from squad leader right up to division commander, will persecute him.
But before accusing the soldiers who committed the acts described in the testimonies, one has to ask whether the decision to start the war did not itself lead inevitably to the crimes.
Professor Assa Kasher, the father of the army “Code of Ethics” and one of the most ardent supporters of the Gaza War, asserted in an essay on this subject that a state has the right to go to war only in self defence, and only if the war constitutes “a last resort”. “All alternative courses” to attain the rightful aim “must have been exhausted”.
The official cause of the war was the launching from the Gaza Strip of rockets against Southern Israeli towns and villages. It goes without saying that it is the duty of the state to defend its citizens against missiles. But had all the means to achieve this aim without war really been exhausted? Kasher answers with a resounding “yes”. His key argument is that “there is no justification for demanding that Israel negotiate directly with a terrorist organisation that does not recognise it and denies its very right to exist.”
This does not pass the test of logic. The aim of the negotiations was not supposed to be the recognition by Hamas of the State of Israel and its right to exist (who needs this anyway?) but getting them to stop launching missiles at Israeli citizens. In such negotiations, the other side would understandably have demanded the lifting of the blockade against the population of the Gaza Strip and the opening of the supply passages. It is reasonable to assume that it was possible to reach — with Egyptian help — an agreement that would also have included the exchange of prisoners.
Not only was this course not exhausted — it was not even tried. The Israeli government has consistently refused to negotiate with a “terrorist organisation” and even with the Palestinian Unity Government that was in existence for some time and in which Hamas was represented.
Therefore, the decision to start the War on Gaza, with a civilian population of a million and a half, was unjustified even according to the criteria of Kasher himself. “All the alternative courses” had not been exhausted, or even attempted.
Was it at all possible to conduct this war without committing war crimes? When a government decides to hurl its regular armed forces at a guerrilla organisation, which by its very nature fights from within the civilian population, it is perfectly clear that terrible suffering will be caused to that population. The argument that the harm caused to the population, and the killing of over a thousand men, women and children was inevitable should, by itself, have led to the conclusion that the decision to start this was a terrible act right from the beginning.
In a war between a mighty army, equipped with the most sophisticated weaponry in the world, and a guerrilla organisation, some basic ethical questions arise. How should the soldiers behave when faced with a structure in which there are not only enemy fighters, which they are “allowed” to hit, but also unarmed civilians, which they are “forbidden” to hit?
Kasher cites several such situations. For example: a building in which there are both “terrorists” and non-fighters. Should it be hit by aircraft or artillery fire that will kill everybody, or should soldiers be sent in who will risk their lives and kill only the fighters? His answer: there is no justification for the risking of the lives of our soldiers in order to save the lives of enemy civilians. An aerial or artillery attack must be preferred.
That does not answer the question about the use of the air force to destroy hundreds of houses far enough from our soldiers that there was no danger emanating from them, nor about the killing of scores of recruits of the Palestinian civilian police on parade, nor about the killing of UN personnel in food supply convoys. Nor about the illegal use of white phosphorus against civilians, as described in the soldiers’ testimonies gathered by Breaking the Silence, and the use of depleted uranium and other carcinogenic substances.
We shall not evade the hardest moral question of all: is it permissible to risk the lives of our soldiers in order to save the old people, women and children of the “enemy”? The answer of Assa Kasher, the ideologue of the “Most Moral Army in the World”, is unequivocal: it is absolutely forbidden to risk the lives of the soldiers. The most telling sentence in his entire essay is: “Therefore...the state must give preference to the lives of its soldiers above the lives of the (unarmed) neighbours of a terrorist.”
These words should be read twice and three times, in order to grasp their full implications. What is actually being said here is: if necessary to avoid casualties among our soldiers, it is better to kill enemy civilians without any limit.
This is the principle that guided the Israeli army in the Gaza War, and, as far as I know, this is a new doctrine: in order to avoid the loss of one single soldier of ours, it is permissible to kill 10, 100 and even 1000 enemy civilians. War without casualties on our side.
If we strip this doctrine of all ornaments, what remains is a simple principle: the state must protect the lives of its soldiers at any price, without any limit or law. A war of zero casualties. That leads necessarily to a tactic of killing every person and destroying every building that could represent a danger to the soldiers, creating an empty space in front of the advancing troops.
Only one conclusion can be drawn from this: from now on, any Israeli decision to start a war in a built-up area is a war crime, and the soldiers who rise up against this crime should be honoured. May they be blessed.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli peace activist who has advocated the setting up of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He served three terms in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), and is the founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc)