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Posted by on Feb 7, 2009 in Israel | 11 comments

Israeli Philosopher: “There is no logic to comparing…the number of Israelis killed by Qassam rockets to the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza.”

The philosopher who gave the IDF moral justification in Gaza

By Amos Harel

Source: Haaretz.

When senior Israel Defense Forces officers are asked about the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians during the fighting in the Gaza Strip, they almost all give the same answer: The use of massive force was designed to protect the lives of the soldiers, and when faced with a choice between protecting the lives of Israeli soldiers and those of enemy civilians under whose protection the Hamas terrorists are operating, the soldiers take precedence.

The IDF’s response to criticism does not sound improvised or argumentative. The army entered Gaza with the capacity to gauge with relatively high certainty the impact of fighting against terror in such a densely populated area. And it operated there not only with the backing of the legal opinion of the office of the Military Advocate General, but also on the basis of ethical theory, developed several years ago, that justifes its actions.

Prof. Asa Kasher of Tel Aviv University, an Israel Prize laureate in philosophy, is the philosopher who told the IDF that it was possible. In a recent interview with Haaretz Kasher said the army operated in accordance with a code of conduct developed about five years ago for fighting terrorism.

“The norms followed by the commanders in Gaza were generally appropriate,” Kasher said. In Kasher’s opinion there is no justification for endangering the lives of soldiers to avoid the killing of civilians who live in the vicinity of terrorists. According to Kasher, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi “has been very familiar with our principles from the time the first document was drafted in 2003 to the present.”

Kasher’s argument is that in an area such as the Gaza Strip in which the IDF does not have effective control the overriding principle guiding the commanders is achieving their military objectives. Next in priority is protecting soldiers’ lives, followed by avoiding injury to enemy civilians. In areas where Israel does have effective control, such as East Jerusalem, there is no justification for targeted killings in which civilians are also hit because Israel has the option of using routine policing procedures, such as arrests, that do not endanger innocent people.

Prof. Kasher has strong, long-standing ties with the army. He drafted the IDF ethical code of conduct in the mid-1990’s. In 2003 he and Maj. Gen Amos Yadlin, now the head of Military Intelligence, published an article entitled “The Ethical Fight Against Terror.” It justified the targeted assassination of terrorists, even at the price of hitting nearby Palestinian civilians. Subsequently Kasher, Yadlin, and a team that included IDF legal experts wrote a more comprehensive document on military ethics in fighting terror. Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, who was the IDF Chief of Staff at the time, did not make the document binding but Kasher says the ideas in the document were adopted in principle by Ya’alon and his successors. Kasher has presented them to IDF and Shin Bet security service personnel dozens of times.

“The article was translated into English and published in a military ethics journal and is still being debated around the world,” Kasher said. “The feedback is generally positive, although the message is difficult to digest. In the end, everyone acknowledges that they conduct themselves this way. There is no army in the world that will endanger its soldiers in order to avoid hitting the neighbors of an enemy or terrorist. The media don’t understand the nature of international law. It’s not like tough traffic laws. Much of it is customary law. The decisive question is how enlightened countries conduct themselves. We in Israel are in a key position in the development of law in this field because we are on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. This is gradually being recognized both in the Israeli legal system and abroad. After the debate before the High Court of Justice on the issue of targeted killings there was no need to revise the document that Yadlin and I drafted even by one comma. What we are doing is becoming the law. These are concepts that are not purely legal, but also contain strong ethical elements.

“The Geneva Conventions are based on hundreds of years of tradition of the fair rules of combat. They were appropriate for classic warfare, where one army fought another. But in our time the whole business of rules of fair combat has been pushed aside. There are international efforts underway to revise the rules to accommodate the war against terrorism. According to the new provisions, there is still a distinction between who can and cannot be hit, but not in the blatant approach which existed in the past. The concept of proportionality has also changed. There is no logic in comparing the number of civilians and armed fighters killed on the Palestinian side, or comparing the number of Israelis killed by Qassam rockets to the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza.”

When asked whether the IDF should be guided in its operations in Gaza by the concept that there should be zero tolerance for endangering the lives of soldiers, Kasher responds, “The soldiers’ lives are endangered by virtue of their very presence in Gaza, by virtue of the fact that we send them to an area where there are enemy snipers and explosives set to go off in areas where the IDF is present. Sending a soldier there to fight terrorists is justified, but why should I force him to endanger himself much more than that so that the terrorist’s neighbor isn’t killed? I don’t have an answer for that. From the standpoint of the state of Israel, the neighbor is much less important. I owe the soldier more. If it’s between the soldier and the terrorist’s neighbor, the priority is the soldier. Any country would do the same.”

The decision regarding the magnitude of force used to protect the lives of the soldiers is up to the commander in the field. “The commander must be skilled in gauging the appropriate use of force,” Kasher said.


  1. n an interview, Professor Shalom Rosenberg from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was asked by the interviewer about the proportionality whereby only few Israelis were killed and the hundreds of Gazans that were killed; he replied : Hamas itself set this proportion. If Hamas demands to free 1000 terrorists incarcerated in Israeli jails for one Israeli soldier”Gilad Shalit” then they themselves set the “worth rate” that the life of one Israel equals to one thousand Gazans. If so, this proportionality dictates that in order to defend one Israeli soldier, we ( Israel ) have to attack terrorists despite the risk of killing hundreds of citizens.

  2. Stephen,I find this quite an interesting approach – though I don’t share the opinion that a soldiers life should necessarily count for more than a civilian’s (in most circumstances the reverse is true). On the other hand, if you are leading men in combat, there must come a point at which the ethical dilemma of weighing the lives of your men against the lives of strangers tips your decision towards the lives of your men. In a not atypical scenario, for example, a convoy British soldiers driving through an Afghan town comes under fire. In theory, they should return only aimed shots after having positively identified their targets – but the nature of combat, and urban combat in particular, is confused and confusing. Ethically speaking, how much precaution is it reasonable for a convoy commander to take whilst attempting to extract his men from a dangerous situation?

  3. ‘There is no logic in comparing the number of civilians and armed fighters killed on the Palestinian side, or comparing the number of Israelis killed by Qassam rockets to the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza.’By saying ‘there is no logic’ the arguer is effectively saying that Israel is justified in killing as many civilians as they perceive necessary – there is no limit. I find this an abhorrent ethical argument.By killing civilians in large numbers, the only thing that Israel succeeds in doing, is creating ever more enemies. Is that their goal?Regards, Paul.

  4. “By killing civilians in large numbers, the only thing that Israel succeeds in doing, is creating ever more enemies. Is that their goal?”I don’t think they care. They have thoroughly absorbed the ‘ethics’ of the German Nazis whom they so revile and still whine about to curry world sympathy for their atrocious behaviour.Some people – especially ‘academics’ – will produce glib justifications for the utmost depravity, as the Americans do for rendition etc.If this man is a ‘philosopher’, I am a talking banana.

  5. It doesn’t seem like a large leap from the current position to one where they announce that the death of each Israeli soldier will be met with the deaths of 100 Palestinian civilians. And if that doesn’t deter the Palestinians, then perhaps the Israelis might try 1000 civilians in trade. And if that doesn’t do it, well then try a bigger number. Sooner or later they’re bound to hit on the number that does the trick. After all, “there is no logic in comparing … the number of Israelis killed… to the number of Palestinians killed…” The goal is simply to keep Israelis from being killed. All else is secondary. Period. I’m not a philosopher, but it seems that you can use philosophy to justify anything.

  6. I couldn’t tell from your summary if there was anything ever done by any Israeli to advance Zionism that the professor would ever condemn. Since his focus is on terrorism, how about the actions of these Zionist terror groups, Irgun and Lehi?In 1938 Irgun began a policy of planting land mines in Arab markets; one in Haifa killed 70 Arabs, another in Jerusalem killed 10. Under the leadership of Menachem Begin Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 91 people; carried out the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948, killing up to 120 unarmed Arab civilians; and killed a German bomb disposal officer with a letter bomb intended for Konrad Adenauer in 1952. Yitzhak Shamir murdered the United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte in 1948.As we know, Israeli society was so shocked and appalled by these extremists that they made them both Prime Minister. It seems to me very hard for Israel to persuade the Palestinians that terrorism doesn’t work, when they have benefitted so handsomely themselves from terrorist methods themselves, and have bestowed the highest offices of state on such ex-terrorists who have never ever shown any contrition for any of their actions.

  7. Anticant, your vile likening of “they”, whether “they” are the Jews or the Israeli state, to Nazism shows just how far from reason and logic your thinking is. Truth is, whether or not you agree with him, the man is a philosopher, so, by your own admission, that makes you a talking banana. At least there’s something on which we can agree.

  8. sgi – there is nothing “vile” in calling a spade a spade. I was a child in the 1930s and grew up during WW2, so what the Nazis did to the Jews and how the Zionst terrorists behaved in Palestine during the British Mandate, as accurately detailed by georgesdelatour, is etched in my personal memory and life experience. Begin and Shamir were indeed terrorists of the vilest stamp, as was/is Sharon. Israel has gone a step too far with its recent Gaza atrocities, and if it has the unwisdom to carry such policies further it will soon find itself as much of a world pariah as Nazi Germany was, and with good reason.It really is time for the Zionists and their sympathisers to stop playing the Victim card and to see themselves as others see them.As to whether this man is a philosopher, it all depends on how you define philosophy. I would call someone like this who brazenly sets out to justify the indefensible a sophist or casuist: Certainly morally depraved.

  9. I have no problem with you taking sides and being angry with what you see unfolding. I’m simply pointing out that if you think there is any comparison with what occurred during WW2 then your reason has been lost to prejudice.

  10. I checked out this Asa Kasher chap a bit on the internet. He seems a huge fish in Israel. I’d never heard of him, though. The articles on his website aren’t terribly impressive either. He seems primarily to be a linguistics chap, not a philosopher.It would be interesting to see his actual arguments, rather than the second hand reports we get in this article.sgl: Of course there’s no comparison to be made between what happened in Gaza and what happened to European jews under the Nazis. You’re quite right about that.The UK History channel has had a very interesting series on the subject, incidentally. I’ve learned a lot.

  11. I don’t take sides. I think they are all equally ghastly lunatics and wish a plague on all their houses. But I’m not callous enough to wish they would wipe each other out, even if this would render the world a more peaceful place.Nor do I say that what went on in Gaza is equivalent to what went on in Hitler’s Germany. What I do say is that the sort of herrenvolk mentality and rhetoric espoused and cultivated by the right-wing Zionists [and are there any other sort?] bears an increasingly close resemblance to that of the Nazis in the 1920s and ’30s. The utterances of the Israeli spokesmen during the Gaza business sounded just as specious as Goebbels and Ribbentrop when, as pre-war ambassador to Britain, he was busy bamboozling our appeasers that the Nazis were quite decent chaps, really, and wouldn’t willingly hurt a fly if only other people would leave them alone. Call me biased if you like. I am anti-violence, anti-cruelty and anti-hypocrisy from whatever quarter they come. I have seen far too much of them during a long life. I can’t abide bullies posing as victims. As this is a philosophy blog, let’s pursue our political spats elsewhere [Harry’s Place?] and confine our discussion here to just what kind of philosophy and logic this Professor Kasher is peddling. I’d be interested in Stephen’s view on this. [I see he’s just posted it.]

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