Civilians First

By Assaf Sagiv

Only in Israel does concern for the safety of soldiers override the state’s obligation to defend its civilians.

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Indeed, the facts speak for themselves: In 1979, Israel released seventy-six terrorists in exchange for Avraham Amram, a soldier taken prisoner by the Ahmed Jibril terrorist organization during the Litani Operation the year before. In 1983, 4,700 prisoners and another sixty-five detainees were exchanged for six Israeli soldiers who had fallen into Fatah’s hands. In 1985, as part of the famous “Jibril deal,” Israel freed 1,150 terrorists in exchange for three soldiers-Nissim Salam, Yosef Grof, and Hezi Shai. And finally, in 2004, Israel freed four hundred Palestinian terrorists and thirty-six detainees of other nationalities in return for the bodies of three IDF soldiers who had been kidnapped and killed four years previously, and one live civilian-the drug dealer Elhanan Tannenbaum.

The heavy price paid by Israel in these exchanges does not end with the release of thousands of terrorists, among them murderers of women, children, and the elderly. It also, and more importantly, includes the victims these terrorists claimed after they were set free. Many of those released in the Jibril deal, for example, played an active role in the first Intifada, which broke out in 1987. “Authoritative estimates have it that within a year of their release, over a third of these freed prisoners had resumed some form of clandestine activity,” wrote Ehud Ya’ari and Ze’ev Schiff in their 1990 book Intifada. “In time Jibril would boast that his deal had planted the seeds of the uprising-and with good reason.” And indeed, these seeds bore particularly poisonous fruit: One of those released in the Jibril deal, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founded Hamas in 1987.

The catastrophic effect of these deals surprised no one. The Israeli governments that gave in to the inflated demands of terrorist organizations knew all too well what the consequences of such a display of weakness would be. On this subject, Caspit cites the harsh criticism voiced by Professor Ariel Merari, a leading expert on terrorism at Tel Aviv University: “The moral duty of the government is to ensure that as few civilians as possible are harmed.… If you release five hundred terrorists you knowingly sentence dozens of Israeli citizens to death.” Alas, those who set policy in Jerusalem may be aware of the dire results of their concessions, but appear to believe that there is no other possible course of action. The question that must be asked, then, is: Why?
The Israeli public’s heightened sensitivity to military casualties is not unique; the somber sight of soldiers returning home in coffins is hard for any society that values life to bear. Yet it is arguably only in Israel that concern for the safety of soldiers overrides even the state’s obligation to defend its civilians. “Everywhere else in the world, harming civilians crosses a red line that justifies action, since soldiers exist for the purpose of defense, and are therefore liable to be killed,” remarked Udi Lebel, a lecturer in military psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in an interview given to the Israeli news website Ynet last year. “But for us,” he concluded, “the situation is reversed.”
Upon closer examination, there is nothing mysterious about this anomaly. Clearly, it reflects the unique character of Israeli society and the far-reaching changes it has undergone over the last few decades. In a state born under fire, there has never been the luxury of an absolute distinction between the military and civilian sectors. Thus, although the IDF is officially a “professional” body-or at least aspires to be-it is still seen in the eyes of many as “the people’s army.” Compulsory military service has created a Gordian knot that inexorably links those in uniform with the broader Israeli public: Every soldier is a future civilian, and every civilian-apart, that is, from Israel’s Arab minority and Haredi citizens-a potential soldier.
But Israeli soldiers are not only of the same flesh as the Israeli civilian population. They are, in truth, seen as the very best it has to offer: Young men on the cusp of maturity, “dripping with the dew of Hebrew youth,” in the words of a famous Israeli poem. They are the not-yet-men who give their best years-and sometimes more-to the defense of the homeland. It is not surprising, then, that in Israel’s national discourse-which often depicts the entire nation as one extended family-soldiers are perceived as “our children” or “our sons” who must be treated with the utmost care. Accordingly, the increasing involvement of soldiers’ parents in matters of national security is accepted with sympathy and understanding. In his 2001 book Is Bereavement Dead? journalist Rubik Rosenthal investigates the complex relationship between soldiers’ families and the state. Protests by bereaved parents against the political and military errors that led to the deaths of their loved ones, he explains, “gave legitimacy to soldiers’ parents in general to rise up, and they began to make their voices heard every time soldiers were killed. In a process managed by nobody, and for which there were no rules, parents began to act, in groups or as individuals, in a number of scenarios: Mother against general, parents against military procedures, a father against a national or security convention.” Probably the most prominent example of this phenomenon was the energetic campaign waged during the late 1990s by the Four Mothers movement for a military withdrawal from Lebanon. In 2000, the movement’s high-profile protest achieved its goal, and “our boys” came home-albeit in a hasty and slipshod manner, which only ensured their return to South Lebanon six years later, this time under a shower of anti-tank missiles.
Israel’s profound public concern for the safety of its soldiers is even more pronounced among the country’s political and military leadership. Former IDF officers who go on to hold key positions in the government strongly identify with soldiers and their families. Indeed, some of them likely feel closer to the average soldier than they do to civilians who belong to sectors outside the social mainstream. After all, it is quite natural that a senior minister or chief executive officer with combat experience should feel a profound solidarity with young men who are sent into the thick of battle. On the other hand, it is doubtful that he will be capable of feeling a similar empathy with the daily hardships of, say, the aging and immigrant population of a bombarded development town.
However, the special connection between Israeli decision makers and soldiers is based not merely on a sense of camaraderie between generations of warriors. It also rests on the basic assumption that a kind of “contract” exists between a soldier and the state he has sworn to defend. Asa Kasher, a philosopher of morality at Tel Aviv University, articulates precisely this idea when he justifies the high price Israel has been forced to pay for POWs and MIAs by explaining that “in such situations, the state’s duty towards its soldiers outweighs its duty towards its civilians, for they arrived at where they are while acting in our name.” In other words, the state should give priority to its soldiers, protecting them more than its citizenry. Allegedly, unlike the average citizen, the soldier does the state’s bidding, and it must therefore show greater concern for his safety. “The obligation in respect to every citizen in danger is serious and profound,” says Kasher, but “the obligation in respect to a soldier is even more serious and more profound.”
This is no doubt an appealing argument, and many Israelis adopt its underlying logic. But therein lies the rub: This reasoning, however morally plausible it may feel, nonetheless takes a deeply misguided approach to the duty of a state towards its civilians. Therefore, even at the cost of no small measure of discomfort, we must try to expose its fallacy, and correct it.
Of course, no one would argue that the state bears a special responsibility for the fate of its soldiers, and doubly so in the case of young men and women engaged in compulsory service. And yet, although the state must acknowledge and honor this responsibility, it cannot neglect its more fundamental obligation towards its citizens-an obligation that may be, in fact, the very reason for the existence of the state in the first place. “The office of the sovereign, be it a monarch or an assembly,” wrote the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his classic treatise Leviathan, “consisteth in the end for which he was trusted with the sovereign power, namely the procuration of the safety of the people.” Protecting the lives and property of citizens against both external and internal threats is the primary responsibility of the polity, in any place and at any time. This is the principle that lies at the basis of the unwritten contract between the people and their rulers. Any government that betrays this commitment, intentionally or out of negligence, has thus forfeited its most important duty.
The essential responsibility of the state to protect its citizens justifies the existence of a military force. In a law-abiding country, and especially in a functioning liberal democracy, this force is recruited in the interests of the general public, or at least the overriding majority of citizens. And in order to perform its task successfully, the army must often put its soldiers in harm’s way, and sometimes knowingly send them to their deaths. Therefore, even in the most enlightened of states, the rights of a soldier are of necessity lesser than those of a civilian: Control over his person and his actions is taken from him at the moment of his enlistment and consigned to his commanders. As long as a man wears a uniform, he is not a free subject; he is, rather, a servant, and the civilian community-led by the government-is his master.
A reversal of these roles generally heralds the end of democracy. Fortunately, Israeli society is far from such a menacing state of affairs. It has, however, become inclined to adopt a distorted order of priorities when it comes to weighing soldiers’ welfare against civilians’ security. The sensitivity it reveals with respect to its men in uniform is certainly a praiseworthy trait, but it is also one that frequently leaves the public and its leadership incapable of decisive action at the moment it is most necessary-that is, when inaction means that greater and greater numbers of Israelis are left defenseless in the face of terrorist violence.
A state that behaves in this way does not fulfill the purpose for which it was founded. Furthermore, it indulges in a dangerous strategic shortsightedness. The exorbitant generosity Israel has displayed in its prisoner exchanges has turned the kidnapping of its soldiers into a lucrative terrorist endeavor. Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev, and Ehud Goldwasser, currently held by the lackeys of Iran and Syria, are merely the latest victims of a cycle of violence motivated by this gruesome calculus. Furthermore, Israel’s continued avoidance of direct confrontation with Hezbollah after its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 only guaranteed that the worst would eventually happen. For, as we now know, delaying an inevitable military offensive only leads to more losses of both soldiers and civilians at a later date. Experience teaches us that against an enemy set on war-an enemy that dedicates every day to digging in deeper and arming itself more heavily-one must act quickly and decisively. Even if such action results in heavy losses on both sides, it will probably prevent a far worse catastrophe in the future. We can only hope that Israel’s leaders will come to realize this bitter truth and, difficult and tragic though the price may be, act in accordance with their obligations to the public they have sworn to serve and protect to the best of their abilities.
Assaf Sagiv
November 20, 2007


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