Promoting Ethics On The Battlefield


Moshe Halbertal, 54, a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a professor at New York University School of Law, was among a group of philosophers, lawyers and generals who in 2000 helped draft Israel’s new code of military ethics. He has studied and taught ethics and political theory and fought in the first Lebanese War in 1982.

He will be participate in a daylong conference Oct. 24 titled, “Ethics and 21st Century Military Conflicts,” at the Roosevelt Hotel here. It is sponsored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, which together created the “Identity and Purpose” program teaching moral values and battlefield ethics to the Israeli military. Among the other panelists will be Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Daniel Kurtzer, former American ambassador to Israel.

Q: What do you hope to come out of this conference?
A: There is continuous work to clarify norms of conduct of armies in the new battlefield in which war is not against a defined and distinguished military organization, but rather is against groups of people who don’t distinguish themselves from the population around them. This raises new questions concerning war and ethical conduct in war.

Is there a difference between a war criminal and what you call a noble soldier?
Those who are intentionally killing innocent civilians are war criminals. When you shoot rockets into cities and you aim at killing innocent people indiscriminately — that makes you a criminal.

Hamas has been firing rockets and missiles into Israeli cities from civilian areas in Gaza in the hope Israel responds in kind.

Yes, it wants Israel to engage in that type of war. But one murder doesn’t justify another murder, and Israel must be very careful not to respond in kind but attempt to target the enemy — those who initiate the violence and not innocent people around them.

When you aim at legitimate targets but know there will be collateral killing of innocent people, it is your responsibility to minimize it. So you have to use the proper ammunition and pick the right time to attack. Sometimes you have to assume some calculated risk for your own soldiers in order to avoid collateral killing of civilians. All of these norms should not limit you or prevent you from defending your civilian population. That is the mission of an army, but you want to do it in a way that the soldiers do the right thing to prevent them from becoming war criminals.

What is the most important part of planning a military mission in a civilian area, keeping in mind the code of ethics?
The most important thing is to internalize it in training, because it is very hard for soldiers under pressure to begin to think through all those things. The only way to confront these issues is training.

Do you approve of targeted killings using drones?
Yes, I favor them but you have to make sure of three things: First, that you have transparent rules of who is a legitimate target. Someone who writes a pro-jihad article on the Internet is not a target. A target is someone who is part of the operational causal chain — he trains people, plans and builds bombs or is going to actually activate the bomb. That differentiates an army from a bunch of murderers.

In an attempt to avoid civilian deaths, Israel has come up with a plan called “roof-knocking” that follows phone calls to civilians and leaflets warning of an impending military strike. What is it?
As a result of these warnings, Hamas has gathered innocents on the roof of the targeted building, knowing we are not going to shoot them. So Israel fires missiles next to them with no explosives to warn them, so that they leave.

Hamas doesn’t play fair and Israel does, but does the world see?
These norms are not for the world. We hope the world will see them because political support is essential, but they are not for the world to like us. They are for the moral wellbeing of our soldiers — for us acting in the way we believe we should act.

This is an edited transcript. For further information about the conference, call (646) 274-9647.