When everything is permissible

Editorial

Haaretz

Iyar 28, 5765

It is impossible to ignore the article published in Maariv over the weekend, which stated that on the night between February 19 and 20, 2002, Israel Defense Forces soldiers, acting under explicit orders, carried out untargeted killings in which 15 Palestinian policemen were shot to death at three checkpoints.

In the article, by Chen Cottes-Bar and Omri Asenheim, soldiers related that the nighttime operation was hastily planned in response to the killing of six soldiers earlier that evening at the Ein Ariq checkpoint. Soldiers from the combat engineering and paratrooper corps were gathered together at 11 P.M. and given a short briefing by their commanders. The targets were marked in black ink on pieces of cardboard, and the soldiers were told to go out that very night to checkpoints manned by Palestinian Authority policemen, to lie in ambush for the policemen and kill any who came by.

This is an order that seems, prima facie, to be illegal, and according to members of the Breaking the Silence group, it was not the only one of its kind. And it was issued not in a state of war between two countries, each with an army, but in a complex situation of belligerent occupation.

The event described in the article is particularly grave because it did not involve a violation of orders, but rather the execution of explicit orders. It did not arise from the confusion of battle, or from any fighting at all; rather, it was a liquidation operation weighed and approved at every command level. The lesson that IDF soldiers could derive from it is that the rules of engagement they were taught were meant solely for the drawer.

To discover the truth of this assessment, it is necessary to investigate the facts. But that is a difficult task, because the chief of staff at that time was Shaul Mofaz, who is now defense minister. It is not reasonable to expect the defense minister to order an investigation into something for which he himself was responsible, and may even have initiated or approved. For this, we need an inquiry committee headed by a judge.

The IDF Spokesman's laconic response, which confirmed the facts of the article, creates the impression that orders of this type could be given today as well, and certainly if the current calm does not last. Granted, the IDF did not define the operation as vengeance, but rather as "a policy [of acting] against PA [security] services involved in terror." But the circumstances, as described by the soldiers, recall the reprisal operations that were the glory of the elite Unit 101, which previously seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.

In 1991, Colonel Yehuda Meir was convicted of sending a group of soldiers to break the arms and legs of Palestinians who had been rounded up in the villages of Hawara and Beita. Even though these Palestinians were selected from lists drawn up by the Shin Bet security service, rather than randomly, as they were in the present case, the court ruled that the order to abuse people who did not constitute any threat was blatantly illegal.

During the second intifada, the army has put very few soldiers and officers on trial, and it seems as if all restraints have been removed. Moshe Ya'alon's decision of half a year ago, to set up a task force to investigate the IDF's norms of combat, still exists solely on paper. The regrettable and frightening conclusion that IDF soldiers are liable to draw from this is that everything is permissible.