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Balancing IDF Checkpoints and International Law:
Teaching the IDF Code of Conduct

by Lt. Col. Amos Guiora Commander, IDF School of Military Law

  • The IDF has decided to teach commanders about international law in order to enable them to more effectively carry out their missions.

  • The IDF has developed a code of conduct that is a combination of international law, Israeli law, and the IDF's own traditional ethical code - ruach tzahal, "the spirit of the IDF."

  • The IDF has developed simulated educational computer programming. In one scenario, a 19-year-old soldier has been given intelligence information on a terrorist bomber traveling in an ambulance. An ambulance arrives at his checkpoint with a seemingly pregnant woman. If he lets in the terrorist, innocent civilians will be hurt. But if he delays the wrong ambulance, he endangers the woman and her child.

  • The IDF is teaching very complicated issues and presenting complex dilemmas in a user-friendly fashion to help its soldiers better understand the issues they must deal with on a daily basis.

The IDF School of Military Law

The IDF School of Military Law was established seven years ago by then-Chief of Staff Ehud Barak and the former judge advocate-generals. It was based on the American model of the U.S. Army School of Military Law located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Over the past year and a half, the school has changed its emphasis in order to teach commanders about military law, criminal law, and international law, using innovative computer software to teach thousands of IDF commanders and soldiers out in the field. The school is also responsible for teaching IDF attorneys and judge-advocates. From my perspective and from the perspective of the IDF judge advocate-general (JAG), Brigadier General Menahem Finkelstein, it serves as a link between the legal corps, the JAG, and the commanders.

According to the Geneva Convention, the IDF must teach international law. But in addition, the IDF has decided to teach commanders about international law in order to enable them to more effectively carry out their missions. The purpose is not to prepare them for a Ph.D. in international law, but there are basic things that he or she must understand. The initiative to do so came from commanders who believe that hearing the legal perspective in a user-friendly fashion is something that helps their soldiers and junior commanders.

The IDF Code of Conduct

The IDF has developed a code of conduct that is a combination of international law, Israeli law, and the IDF's own traditional ethical code - ruach tzahal, "the spirit of the IDF." Reserve units and regular units alike are taught the following eleven rules of conduct:

  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.

Picture a 19-year-old soldier commanding a checkpoint. He has two or three other soldiers with him and there is a long line of cars waiting to get through. According to intelligence information he has been given, an ambulance is expected to arrive with a wanted terrorist in it carrying an explosive belt for a suicide attack against innocent Israeli civilians. Suddenly an ambulance arrives, and inside is a woman who is seemingly pregnant. It has happened at checkpoints that not everybody who appears to be pregnant is truly pregnant. The woman appears to be in pain and her husband is also highly anxious. But the soldier has been warned of an ambulance bearing a pregnant woman who is not really pregnant and that underneath the stretcher in the ambulance is a terrorist. It is a hot day and there is a long line of cars. His commanders are yelling at him on the two-way radio, "Do not let ambulances go through because there is a terrorist in an ambulance!" To complicate the picture, a news video crew is present.

The soldier has to make an incredible number of decisions in a very short time. First of all, he's 19, he's not a physician, and he is probably not even a medic. He knows that if he lets the ambulance go through and it contains a terrorist, then innocent people will die and he will have failed in his mission. On the other hand, if there is not a terrorist in this particular ambulance but rather a truly pregnant woman and she is delayed, the fetus may die. This has also happened.

Educational Computer Software Simulations

The software we have developed is oriented toward the junior commanders and line soldiers who have to make these decisions in real life. Practically every soldier can be reached through this software as more and more units have their own laptop computers, enabling each junior commander to view the six simulations. The dilemmas presented are all based on real life events, such as the ambulance.

The software program begins with the 11 rules of conduct. Each rule is matched with a relevant Hollywood movie clip, followed by an animation. Then come the six simulations, followed by a series of questions to be answered in a way that reflects the 11 rules of conduct. It takes an hour and a half for a soldier to make his way through the entire program. Some 95-97 percent of those who have used the software asked for additional information and read it.

From an educational-instructional perspective, the response is tremendous right from the beginning, with the audience hooked on the opening 2-3 minute movie clip from the Hollywood movie Platoon. The point of the movie is obviously what not to do and the need to treat the Palestinian civilian population in a humane and dignified fashion. We stress that if you don't treat the Palestinian civilian population according to these rules of conduct, they will go from being innocent civilians to terrorists.

Another film clip shows Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously, which takes place in Indonesia in 1965. Gibson, portraying a reporter, gets hit over the head by Indonesian forces. We are showing in this movie how not to behave toward the media. We teach that the media has a job to do and we cannot interfere in their work.

There is a clip from The English Patient showing a makeshift field hospital which was bombed, a violation of international law. Soldiers are instructed to respect and protect all persons and property bearing the emblems of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, UN, and all other symbols of international relief organizations.

In the ambulance scenario, once the roadblock commander decides that this ambulance is not the relevant ambulance, and that the woman is truly pregnant and about to give birth, he lets the ambulance through and we wish her well. If, on the other hand, there is a suicide bomber with a belt in the ambulance, the commander is going to have to very gingerly take the would-be suicide bomber off the ambulance and somehow disengage him from his belt, without causing harm to his soldiers. I cannot think of a more complicated and complex military operation which is not only military in nature. It is a combination of military and civilian, with international legal overtones.

Another simulation has a sniper inside a hospital shooting at an IDF unit. This happens all the time. Is the commander allowed to go into the hospital to get the sniper? There are sick, there are wounded, there are people being operated on in the hospital while the sniper is shooting. The answer is yes, he can go into the hospital, but he must give advance warning.

The software was developed in close cooperation with IDF commanders in the field to insure the development of a tool that will help the commanders. As a result, the IDF is able to teach very complicated issues and present complex dilemmas in a user-friendly fashion, to help its soldiers better understand the issues they must deal with on a daily basis.

Sources: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on the author's presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on October 23, 2003.