After more than four years of the Palestinian intifada, a debate is raging in Israel over whether the rigors of combat against terrorists who exploit and hide among the Palestinian civilian population is eroding the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) moral standards.
The debate follows publication of a number of incidents in which Israeli soldiers are suspected of violating moral norms. But after years in which Israelis lauded their army as the most moral fighting force possible in such difficult conditions, the reports raise a key issue: Are the suspected violations aberrations or do they reflect widespread brutality?
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the IDF remains the most moral army he knows, but critics suggest that the relentless terrorist war has brutalized young soldiers who frequently vent their frustrations on Palestinian civilians.
While insisting that the incidents are aberrations, the IDF is taking the criticism very seriously, and has launched a campaign to root out such conduct.
Four cases have been highlighted over the past few weeks: the deliberate killing of a 13-year-old schoolgirl near an Israeli strongpoint in Gaza, a Palestinian man filmed playing his violin at a checkpoint near Nablus, photographs of Orthodox soldiers posing next to body parts of a Palestinian suicide bomber and naval commandos shooting dead a wounded Islamic Jihad operative.
The girl, Iman al-Hamas, was shot by Israeli soldiers as she strayed from her regular route to school. The commander of the outpost then approached her and fired several rounds into her body at close range to make sure she was dead.
Soldiers said they thought the girl might be a decoy for a terrorist attack or wearing an explosive belt. The commanding officer, an Israeli Druse, is now standing trial.
The Palestinian violinist, Wissam Tayim, says he was ordered to play a "sad tune" at the checkpoint. The incident conjured up images here of Jewish violinists being forced to play for the Nazis.
The soldiers, however, deny that they forced Tayim to play. They say they merely ordered him to open his violin case for inspection -- Palestinians previously have transported bombs in music cases -- and that he started playing of his own accord and was quickly told to stop.
There is a lack of clarity over the body parts incident, too. An army probe suggests that the religious soldiers did not touch the parts, and that photographs showing them doing so had been doctored. The parts had been touched by police carrying out normal identification procedures.
The fourth incident involves a elite naval commando unit known as 13. Palestinians say the commandos shot dead Mahmoud Qamail, an Islamic Jihad leader, after he had been wounded, and after Palestinian neighbors had dragged him closer to the Israeli force and handed over his gun and cellphone.
The soldiers say Qamail ran out of a house they had surrounded wearing a heavy coat. Though he had been shot and wounded, they had no way of knowing whether he was wearing an explosive belt or concealing another weapon. The unit already had lost six men in close encounters over the past year, including two in incidents where consideration shown to suspects proved fatal.
Sharon rejects any notion of moral decline in the army.
"We should not forget who our soldiers are fighting against -- the most depraved killers, who are trying to hit at us without respite," he told journalists in the Knesset last week. On Sunday he raised the issue in the weekly Cabinet meeting, accusing the media of a "sick drive to publish things even if they aren't true."
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, both pointed out to the Cabinet that army orders at all levels are transparent, and that every complaint is thoroughly investigated.
However, in an earlier interview with Ze'ev Schiff, military analyst for Ha'aretz newspaper, Ya'alon was less complacent. He questioned his own position, asked whether top officials were sending mixed messages to soldiers in the field, and spoke of the "scars of war" -- of how seeing dead and wounded, manning roadblocks or breaking into homes of terrorist suspects inevitably hardens young hearts.
But, Ya'alon said, the army should not allow that to undermine its moral basis. If there is an erosion of values it is the army's job to stop it by clearly defining what is and is not permissible, he said.
Opposition legislators expressed concern. Commenting on the naval commando incident, Labor's Ofir Pines-Paz declared that "this is another shocking case in a string of similar cases, which show that the chief of staff has lost control of the brakes on the army. We are talking about total loss of control in the IDF." Demobilized soldiers also suggest that the humiliation of Palestinian civilians is far more prevalent than the army admits. A group calling itself "'Soldiers Breaking Silence" has been holding an exhibition in Tel Aviv showing photographic and other evidence of soldiers harassing Palestinian civilians.
On the whole though, it seems that the extent and nature of the Israeli aberrations pale beside those of other armies in similar situations. There have been no massacres or torture on the scale of the U.S. military in Iraq and Vietnam or the French in Algeria -- and many commentators believe that long after the headlines of problematic incidents subside, military strategists around the world will emulate the IDF's tactics in urban combat and against terrorist organizations.
According to the IDF, since the beginning of 2004, 29 Palestinian civilians were killed in crossfire or accidents. Of the 267 Palestinians killed this year, 119 were terrorists and 119 were civilians involved in attacks on soldiers.
Nevertheless, the IDF is doing all it can to make sure the message now is clear. Mofaz says he has issued orders to senior officers to severely punish any soldier who violates the norms, and Ya'alon is going from unit to unit to clarify the IDF's rules of engagement and its moral code.
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