Ethical Dilemmas in Counterterrorism

By Moshe Yaalon

Israel's self-image as a moral nation with a right to survive has been put to a severe test.

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ver the course of the past six decades, the reason for the existential threat to Israel has remained unchanged: The refusal of many, if not most, governments and peoples in the Middle East to accept the existence of the Jewish state. The nature of that threat, however, has undergone a dramatic evolution. In recent years, we have witnessed a shift from conventional warfare—that is, wars between armies and states—to “subconventional” warfare (such as terrorism and crude rockets) and superconventional warfare (such as missiles and weapons of mass destruction). Accompanying this change has been a profound political-ideological shift, from the prominence of nationalist-secular movements to that of religious-jihadist ideologies.

This new type of warfare, and the ideology that fuels it, are defined by the intent to kill civilians. Terrorism, rockets, missiles, and WMDs all avoid engaging the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) directly, aiming instead at the general Israeli population. The groups that exploit these methods of warfare do so partially because they know they cannot emerge victorious from a direct confrontation with the IDF. They do so primarily, however, because of their belief that Israeli society is the weakest link in Israel’s national-security chain. And indeed, attacks on Israeli civilians—and the military retaliation they provoke—are the kind most likely to arouse critical moral dilemmas for both the Israeli military and the democratic society it seeks to protect....
Lieutenant General (res.) Moshe Yaalon served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2002 to 2005. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. His last contribution to Azure was “The IDF and the Israeli Spirit” (Azure 24, Spring 2006).

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