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Israel Defense Forces:
What Would You Do as an Israeli Soldier?

by Mitchell Bard, Elie Berman
(Updated December 2013)


IDF: Table of Contents | Wars & Operations | History & Overview


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Can you imagine some of the often split second, life and death decisions that you would have to make, and some of the ethical dilemmas you would face, if you were a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces?

It is not easy to put yourself in the shoes of an Israeli soldier with a dangerous and often unpleasant job. Put aside for a moment the political issues of whether Israeli policy is right or wrong. As a soldier, your orders are independent of the decisions of the government or your own personal beliefs.

After reading through the introductory material to gain background on what Israel is up against, you can then take your place on the front lines and make decisions about what you would do if faced with the type of dilemmas Israeli soldiers face every day. You will quickly learn that there is no definitive answer in any situation and each scenario carries with it inherent risks and consequences.

- Spirit of the IDF
- A Military Solution
- Ethical Dilemmas

- Scenario 1: Ambulance at Checkpoint
- Scenario 2: Blown Raid
- Scenario 3: Attacked from Hospital
- Scenario 4: Arrest Mission
- Scenario 5: Terrorists in Mosque
- Scenario 6: Human Shields
- Scenario 7: To Shoot or Not?
- Scenario 8: International Incident

The Spirit of the IDF

First, and foremost, the job of an Israeli soldier is to defend the citizens of the State of Israel.

How do you accomplish this goal in a way that is consistent with international law, Israeli law and the ethical code of the military?

The IDF has developed a code of conduct - the “Spirit of the IDF” - to help guide you. Every IDF soldier must ,emorize these rules before being permitted to join an active combat unit:

1. Military action can only be taken against military targets.
2. The use of force must be proportional.
3. Soldiers may only use weaponry they were issued by the IDF.
4. Anyone who surrenders cannot be attacked.
5. Only those who are properly trained can interrogate prisoners.
6. Soldiers must accord dignity and respect to the Palestinian population and those arrested.
7. Soldiers must give appropriate medical care, when conditions allow, to oneself and one's enemy.
8. Pillaging is absolutely and totally illegal.
9. Soldiers must show proper respect for religious and cultural sites and artifacts.
10. Soldiers must protect international aid workers, including their property and vehicles.
11. Soldiers must report all violations of this code.

Without a doubt, the "Spirit of the IDF" is a helpful guide - but you are fighting an enemy that does not play by any rules.

Terrorists may hide behind civilians rather than defend them. They may also dress like civilians and not in military uniforms, so it is often impossible to distinguish terrorists from those who are innocent.

As a soldier, you know that many combat situations require split second decisions that may deteremine whether you kill or are killed. You have little time to decide friend from foe – hesitation could be fatal. But you must think before acting.

A mistake can have catastrophic consequences and are also often magnified by press coverage to have political repercussions.

A Military Solution

Some people say that you cannot defeat terrorism militarily. It is not true. It is possible if you are willing to employ extreme measures. In Syria, Islamic fundamentalists threatened the regime of Hafez Assad. His response was to send the army to the town where his opponents were based and destroy the entire city. An estimated 20,000 people were killed in Hama in 1982 and no television cameras recorded the event, no UN condemnations were issued and no Arab spokespeople decried the massacre. The operation did successfully end the threat to Assad’s power. Similarly, King Hussein faced a threat from the PLO, which had established a state within a state in Jordan. When the danger to his throne became acute in 1970, he sent his army to drive Yasser Arafat and his fellow “freedom fighters” out of Jordan in what became known among Palestinians as Black September. More Palestinians were killed in that month of fighting than in all the conflicts with Israel over the last 58 years.

Even the United States has not hesitated to use overwhelming force to destroy its enemies. And it too has occasionally made tragic mistakes, as when faulty intelligence led to an airstrike on an Afghan wedding party rather than the group of terrorists it expected. The Allies fire bombed Dresden and the U.S. used nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II.

If Israel had no moral code, and did not care how many people died, or how many innocents fell along with the terrorists, it could also put an end to the violence. But Israel does have an ethical code that requires every effort to be made to spare the lives of noncombatants.

Ethical Dilemmas

Israel makes a deliberate effort to target only the people who pose a threat. But who do you choose to strike:

A) The person carrying a bomb?
B) The person who drives the bomber to his destination?
C) The engineer who builds the bomb?
D) The person who provides money for the bomber or the explosives?
E) The Muslim cleric who calls on his followers to kill Jews?
F) The person who watches the preacher on TV?

Once the decision is made to strike, the ethical code of the IDF says that you must provide a warning to prevent civilian casualties. So, for example in Lebanon and Gaza, Israel has dropped leaflets from the air warning that it intended to bomb selected areas and cautioning civilians to evacuate. What other army would give away the element of surprise and announce to their enemies - "We’re coming to get you, run away now, or prepare to fight us!"?

In 2002, Israel learned that the head of the military arm of Hamas was going to be in his apartment and the decision was made to drop a two ton bomb on the building. He was killed, but the intelligence about the surrounding buildings was wrong and many innocent people were also killed, prompting international criticism.

A month later, the entire leadership of Hamas was in one room and the IDF knew it would again need a two ton bomb to destroy the building and eliminate all the terrorists. Because of the earlier experience, however, and fear of harming innocents, the army was forced to use a smaller bomb and it did not destroy the building, and all of the terrorists escaped.

Sometimes Israel actually places its soldiers in greater danger by adopting strategies to save civilians. In one case, for example, before an attack, soldiers were clearing an area in the Gaza Strip of non-combatants. Two soldiers were helping an old Palestinian woman get some water and were shot by a sniper.

In one of the most tragic cases, Israel decided to send troops into the refugee camp of Jenin in 2002 to root out terrorists known to be operating inside. Israel could have simply dropped a bomb on the area and would have eliminated all the terrorists, but many innocent Palestinians would have been killed. Instead, the decision was made to go house to house and engage the terrorists, who had set up booby-traps and ambushes. In the end, the soldiers successfully completed the operation, but 13 soldiers were killed and 75 were wounded.

Scenario 1: Ambulance at Checkpoint

It is a hot summer day. You are at a checkpoint in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem, checking Palestinian vehicles seeking entrance into Israel proper.

On a typical day many Palestinians cross into Israel, mainly for work or medical reasons. They line up at checkpoints like at any international border crossing to be checked for proper permits and to ensure they are not carrying illegal weapons.

According to explicit intelligence information, it is likely that a wanted terrorist carrying an explosive belt for a suicide attack is going to try and pass through a checkpoint.

During the course of your checks an ambulance with its sirens wailing arrives carrying inside is a woman who is seemingly pregnant. You know of the intelligence warning but see that the woman appears to be in significant pain and her husband is highly anxious. The ambulance driver says the woman is about to give birth and without the proper medical attention the newborn may not survive.

To complicate the picture, an international news video crew is at the scene by coincidence. To further complicate the situation, the pregnant woman is a religious Muslim and it is considered disrespectful for a man to touch a religious woman.

You are not a doctor, but you have to make a decision. If you let the ambulance go through and it contains a terrorist, innocent people will die. However, if this particular ambulance is in fact just carrying a pregnant woman then holding it up may cause the woman's baby to die. The procedures for properly checking an ambulance can take more than thirty minutes.

What do you do?

A. Stop the vehicle and search it thoroughly no matter how much time is needed.
B. Stop the vehicle but only do a quick search. You want to speed up the process to help the pregnant woman.
C. Let the vehicle pass with no inspection. You trust the ambulance driver.
D. Call another ambulance to transport the woman; meanwhile, inspect the first ambulance thoroughly.

Scenario #2: Blown Raid

You are serving within a commando unit in the West Bank, south of Hebron.

Today's mission calls for your unit to infiltrate a small village where a suspected terrorist who is known to have created explosives for suicide bombings lives. The intelligence services have done extensive research on this particular terrorist and have concluded that his arrest is critical for preserving the safety and security of Israeli citizens.

Before sunrise, your unit begins heading by foot to this hilltop village. On your trek up to the top of the hill, you notice a shepherd from the village grazing in the field with his flock of sheep. You notify your commander that the shephard has seen you approaching the village and may alert the residents.

If the shephard does indeed warned the village, your mission is compromised and continuing would likely lead you into an ambush. On the other hand, capturing this terrorist is of vital importance and if he does know that the army has found him he will likely flee to a different place.

What do you do?

A. Capture and arrest the shepherd. You plan to release him after the mission is completed.
B. Ignore the shepherd. You are convinced that he won’t warn the village and compromise the mission.
C. Capture the shepherd and bring him with you on the mission. You can use him to quickly locate the terrorist.
D. Abort the mission. Just the prospect of walking into a trap and possibly losing soldiers is not worth the risk.

Scenario #3: Attack from Hospital

Your unit is called in response to alerts that a Palestinian sniper is shooting from inside a hospital at the edge of a hostile neighborhood toward a road on which Israelis travel. A number of innocent Israeli civilians have already been wounded from fire.

Hospitals are supposed to be neutral sites in combat zones and you have been briefed in training to never fire on a civilian hospital. However, this is an extreme circusmtance. Bear in mind that destroying a hospital or hurting innocent patients or doctors will likely garner international condemnation, even if the terrorist is killed as well.

What do you do?

A. Radio for air support or artillery fire. Take the risk of wounding civilians to protect your soldiers.
B. Warn the hospital to not provide cover for terrorists and ask them to expel the shooter.
C. Enter the hospital and search for the terrorist, risking your soldiers' lives and possibly inciting the neighborhood.

Scenario #4: Complicated Arrest Mission

You are part of a patrol unit near the Palestinian city of Jenin.

Over the past few weeks a thorough investigation has found that a terrorist aide is living in a small house on the outskirts of Jenin. He is known to have assisted a number of suicide bombers in making and preparing their bomb belts. Your mission is to go to his house, arrest him and search his home for additional weapons and bomb-making materials.

Your unit quickly approaches and surrounds his house and, due to the suprise, are able to arrest the man without any gunfire or major confrontation. You order his family to leave the premises as your unit has to search the house. The man's wife and children reluctantly agree and slowly exit their home. The oldest son, not even a teenager, breaks down crying and requests repeatedly to see his father, who is handcuffed in your vehicle, and say goodbye.

It seems only natural to allow a man's children to say goodbye, however you know this man keeps explosives in his house and it is likely that his children, even so young, may try to smuggle him a bomb.

What do you do?

A. Let the son say goodbye to his father. You feel bad separating a father from his son.
B. Put the suspect directly into the truck. You do not allow the son to approach his father to say goodbye.
C. Take the child with you.
D. Allow the son to say goodbye from a distance but do not allow them to touch or get close.

Scenario #5: Terrorists in a Mosque

Your patrol unit is engaged in a chase after a number of Palestinian terrorists who shot an Israeli car and are fleeing the scene. Before you are able to apprehend the suspects, you see them heading toward a mosque where a prayer service is being held.

The basic norms of combat do not allow you to follow the suspects into a place of worship, however you cannot let them get away because attacks like these are becoming more frequent. Arrests must be made.

What do you do?

A. Retreat and allow the suspects to escape.
B. Follow them into the mosque and engage them in a gunfight if they resist arrest.
C. Surround the mosque and request everyone come out with their hands up.
D. Shoot at the suspects from a distance to stop them before they reach the mosque.

Scenario #6: Human Shield

While on a jeep patrol in the West Bank you see a large pile of rocks strewn across the road. There are a number of Palestinians in the fields next to the road.

While not as prevalent as in Iraq or Afghanistan, Palestinian terrorists have been known to us improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against Israeli soldiers or civilians. Often these devices are hidden under rocks or behind bushes to ensure that they will not be detected. IED's can be detonated remotely but require a line-of-sight by the terrorist to ensure they are detonating on a "proper" target.

You are not a bomb sapper unit and do not have much experience in disarming or even properly identifying booby-traps and explosives. However, this is a major thoroughfare in the West Bank and shutting it down to wait for sappers can take hours and could leave travelers stranded and in even more danger.

What do you do?

A. Approach the pile of rocks to check for explosives before calling sappers.
B. Call bomb sappers and take the risk of closing the road for multiple hours.
C. Order the Palestinians in the surrounding fields to remove the pile of rocks from the road.
D. Assume this is just a pile of rocks and continue on your patrol.

Scenario #7: To Shoot or Not?

You are part of an infantry force operating in the major Palestinian city of Shechem and currently with orders to close down the streets surrounding one specific building. Within that building a known terrorist is hiding and an elite commando unit will be raiding the building to arrest him.

Ensuring that the area surrounding the building is secure is one of the most important parts of the operation. If a riot were to ensue because of the presence of soldiers, the commando unit must know that the arrest will not be compromised. You and four other soldiers hunker down on a street with orders to not let anyone or any vehicle pass you.

Suddenly, a very old man begins walking down the street toward your position. You flash lights at him and yell in Hebrew and Arabic for him to turn around the leave the area. He continues to approach and is now within the distance that a bomb could easily kill or wound you and the other soldiers.

What do you do?

A. Continue yelling and flashing lights. He is an old man, however, so you do not stop him with force.
B. Shoot his legs to incapacitate him and approach him carefully in case he is carrying explosives.
C. Shoot to kill. You cannot take the risk of him exploding a bomb.
D. Radio your commanders about a dangerous situation. Abort the mission and pull out of the city.

Scenario#8: International Incident

You are stationed along the Israeli-Lebanese border, at a military outpost tasked with monitoring movements in southern Lebanon to ensure Hezbollah is not building up forces or trying to launch a terrorist attack. Hezbollah attacks in the past have killed and captured Israeli soldiers and have led to full out war between the countries.

While on a patrol along the border-fence road, shots fired from inside Lebanon hit the armored jeep ahead of you. You notice that approximately 100 to 200 meters inside Lebanon is the assailant who is dressed in Lebanese Army fatigues and is quickly running away from the scene of the crime. On the radio your comrades alert you that a soldier in the targeted jeep is wounded and needs immediate medical evacuation. You do not want the terrorist in Lebanon to escape, but shooting at him could further spark an international incident and could even lead to war.

What do you do?

A. Target the assailant inside Lebanon and shoot him. Deal with the political repercussions later.
B. Immediately alert higher command about the incident but do not target the assailant.


Sources: Teaching Morality in Armed Conflict: The Israel Defense Forces Model; Balancing IDF Checkpoints and International Law: Teaching the IDF Code of Conduct; Ethical Dilemmas in Fighting Terrorism; Standwithus

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