Photo Credit: Ayal Margolin/Flash90
Israeli artillery unit stationed near the Israeli border with Lebanon, northern Israel.

In recent weeks, Israel has been defamed, de-legitimized, and demonized in the media, on college campuses, and by the international community for the “crime” of defending herself from those who seek to destroy her. This is not the first time Israel has been accused of war crimes. Following 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead and 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel was accused of crimes against humanity and violations of international law.

But Israel’s army has also been called “the most moral army in the world” by Colonel Richard Kemp, a decorated British officer who served as commander of all British forces in Afghanistan. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 in 2014, Kemp went on to say that “No other army in the world has ever done more than Israel is doing now to save the lives of innocent civilians in a combat zone.”


And a report issued after Protective Edge by high-level military officials, including top generals from the U.S. and Europe, found that “Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza Conflict met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries.” They wrote, “The IDF not only met its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict, but often exceeded these on the battlefield at significant tactical cost, as well as in the humanitarian relief efforts that accompanied its operation.”

Israel carries out strategic air strikes, targeting Hamas’s leadership and military installations. The IDF gives warning through phone calls, text messages, the dropping of leaflets, and “roof knocking,” in order to evacuate areas that are about to be hit. During the current war, Israel urged Gazans to evacuate to the South in order to prevent civilian casualties.

The IDF’s Code of Ethics, Tohar ha-Neshek (lit. Purity of Arms), provides its soldiers with the “rules of engagement.” Among the basic values articulated in its “The Spirit of the IDF” is, “The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position,” and, “The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”

As Jews, we are merciful, the children of the merciful. It would seem against our very nature to be cruel, even to terrorists or combatants. But in war, showing mercy when the times call for a show of force is also wrong: “Rabbi Elazar said, all who show mercy to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the merciful” (Tanhuma, Metzora 1).

In fact, all those who have the ability to save a life, but instead do nothing, are in violation of “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow,” and, “Your eye shall not show pity” (Rambam, Hil. Rotze’ah 1:14-15. Cf. Sanhedrin 73a).

But is there an obligation to minimize casualties according to Jewish law? 

The Torah also prescribes a code of conduct, even in times of war. Devarim 23:10 instructs: “When your camp goes forth against your enemies, keep yourself far from every evil thing.” Ramban (ad loc.) comments: “The Torah is warning of a time when sin is commonplace. The well-known custom of military forces going to war is that they eat all abominable things, rob and plunder, and are not ashamed even of lewdness and all vileness. The most upright of men by nature comes to be possessed of cruelty and fury when the army advances against the enemy. Therefore, the verse warned, ‘When your camp goes forth against your enemies, keep yourself far from every evil thing.’”

In his Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam invokes the verse, “Because the L-rd your G-d walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp shall be holy” (Devarim 23:15), and writes, “…unlike the camps of the gentiles, dedicated to nothing more than corruption and crime, harming others and stealing their property, our objective is to prime people for the worship of G-d and regularize their situation.”

According to the Rambam, we are different. Our camp is “holy.” This informs our very attitude towards war.

The Torah instructs that before Israel wages war, they must first offer peace (Devarim 20:10-12). This applies to both a Milchemet Reshut, literally an “optional war,” i.e. a conquest fought to expand Israel’s borders and a Milchemet Mitzvah, a “mandatory war” fought to preserve Jewish life (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 6:1). Sefer HaChinuch explains, “Among the rationales of the commandment is the fact that the quality of mercy is a positive one and it is appropriate that we, the holy seed, employ it in all of our matters, even with our idolatrous enemies, for our own advantage, not because they deserve mercy or loving kindness…. And there is no advantage in killing them, as they are willing to bear our conquest, so that by doing so there should be no corruption or anything that might show that we are cruel, causing all who hear to curse us” (Mitzvah no. 527).

And when besieging a city, there is an obligation to leave one side un-besieged side to allow for escape (Sifrei, Matot 157; Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 6:7 ). The Ramban explains, “because through this we learn to act mercifully even towards our enemies in a time of war” (Commentary to Sefer HaMitzvot, Forgotten Positive Commands,  no. 5). But according to the Ramban and Sefer HaChinuch, this obligation only applies in a Milchemet Reshut. In a Milchemet Mitzvah there is no obligation to allow the enemy to flee. The Rambam doesn’t seem to distinguish between the type of war, but the Minchat Chinuch suggests that the Rambam rules that even in a Milchemet Mitzvah one side of the city must be left open.

During the First Lebanon War, Rav Shaul Yisraeli ruled that the obligation to leave one of the sides of a city open applies only in a Milchemet Reshut, and not in the case of the war in Southern Lebanon, a Milchemet Mitzvah fought to protect Israel from attacks by the PLO. And while he believed that we should do our best to minimize casualties and adhere to Geneva Conventions, Rav Yisraeli wrote, “We do not find the obligation in war to distinguish between blood and blood. In the course of war, when laying siege to a city and the like, there is no obligation to make such distinctions” (Amud Hayemini, 16. See also Gur Aryeh to Bereishit 34:14 ). For Rav Yisraeli, in a Milchemet Mitzvah there is no obligation to try and reduce casualties, potentially placing Israeli soldiers in harm’s way.

But Rav Shlomo Goren disagreed and argued that the Milchemet Mitzvah which the Ramban and Sefer HaChinuch refer to is one waged against the Seven Caananite Nations or Amalek, where no one is to be left alive. But in a defensive war like the Lebanon War, one side of the city must be left open and casualties should be minimized. He writes, “Despite the explicit Torah commandment regarding battle, we are also commanded to have mercy upon our enemy, to refrain from killing even during times of war unless necessitated for reasons of self-defense in order to achieve the objective of conquest and victory, and not to harm a non-combatant population, and it is especially prohibited to harm women and children who are not taking part in the war” (Meishiv Milchamah, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, p. 14).

It is the opinion of Rav Goren and others which guides the IDF today.

War is ugly. And unfortunately there are always civilian casualties. That is the nature of war. But unlike our enemies, the IDF makes every effort to minimize casualties. Israel’s army is a Kiddush Hashem that other armies can learn from.

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Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as mara d'atra of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef, rosh kollel of the Sinai Kollel and Kollel Boker at Hovevei Zion, and lectures at the OU Center.