Members of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) have an obligation to put their own safety ahead of the safety of Palestinian civilians, says former IDF Brigadier General Shmuel Zakkai. Speaking to Israel Army Radio, he noted, “Anyone who thinks it necessary to give higher priority to the mother of a Palestinian than to the mother of an Israeli soldier has a moral problem.”
Algemeiner reported on the interview, which took place Monday. Zakkai, who served in the IDF for 24 years, was responding to recently released recordings of IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan from ten years ago. Golan, who made headlines recently when he compared modern Israel to 1930s Germany on Holocaust Remembrance Day, was addressing students at a pre-military academy when he was recorded saying, “soldiers must put themselves at risk to prevent injuring innocent civilians.”
Though he never mentioned Golan by name during the interview, Zakkai disagreed. He discussed a hierarchy of values by which IDF soldiers and officers must conduct themselves, one which mirrors the Biblical dictum of not standing idly by while one’s fellow is in danger.
“Theoretically, everybody wants everything – to execute missions with no harm to IDF soldiers or innocent civilians,” he said. “But when you are in a combat situation, you have to choose between values. This choice brings us back to the foundation on which the army is built… the Israel Defense Forces are not the Palestinian Defense Forces. The essence of the IDF is to protect the citizens of the state of Israel. All citizens of the state swear the soldier’s oath to carry out their missions and to protect [Israeli] civilians while risking their own lives. In other words, it is not only permissible to risk their lives to protect their civilians, it is their duty to do so.”
On the second tier, he said, “lies the obligation to perform military tasks with minimum harm to the soldiers themselves. On the third is the moral obligation to perform these tasks, while striving to minimize injury to innocent civilians.”
He added, “This discussion has to take place between commanders and their soldiers. Everything is a question of degree, of balance and of exercising judgement. The IDF is not a gang, and it doesn’t go out with the intention to kill civilians. When civilians get killed, it is because of battlefield situations and sometimes mistakes.”
“A Givati Brigade [infantry] force took position in the home of a Palestinian family for a few days. The soldiers offered the family to share their food and eat with them, but the mother said she wanted to cook for her children. So the commander of the force escorted her down from the second floor so she could cook in her kitchen below. While escorting the woman, the officer was hit in the head by a bullet and killed. While conducting an interrogation of the incident, I told the company commander, ‘You made a professional mistake, but you also made a poor moral choice. You had offered your food, so why did you decide the woman should be taken down to cook?’”
He concluded, “These situations are complex, and when you’re in them there has to be a clear ethical choice, which includes executing tasks whose goal is to protect the soldiers, and only after that not to harm innocent civilians. Whoever says otherwise has a moral problem.”
Today, Zakkai serves as director general for Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport. He was forcibly discharged from the IDF in 2005 by order of then-Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, currently Israel’s defense minister, over accusations he leaked reports to the media that the army wished to end an ongoing military operation against Hamas at the time. Ya’alon reportedly classified Zakkai’s actions as “an abandonment of a division during combat.”
In a related dispute, tensions between Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been running high since the former expressed support for Golan’s controversial comments.