War, Morality, and the Israeli Soldier

Israel, whose military includes significant populations of Druze, Bedouins, and other minority groups, is the only Western nation to draft and assign women to combat roles. Israel's geographic location and perpetual conflict with its neighbors make compulsory military service an official necessity.

“Being a commander in the army is like being a mother,” said Shira Lawrence, a second lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in an interview with this author. “You’re with your soldiers way more than their parents. You’re responsible for making them transition from civilians to soldiers.”

Lawrence is a marksman instructor at the IDF School for Counter-Terrorism that trains IDF Special Forces and elite units.

“It’s understood that women will play the same role as men,” said Lawrence.

Her job is focused on teaching ethical warfare in order to minimize civilian casualties.

“We ask of our soldiers and demand of our soldiers a high standard,” said Lawrence. “They can’t mess up -- we can’t allow for mistakes. It’s part of being a soldier. It’s part of being a part of an army that really values human lives.”

Israeli soldiers are taught ruach tzahal, the spirit of the IDF. Its values stem from a combination of international law, Israel’s law, and the IDF's traditional moral code.

“The IDF has a very clear and strong and solid ethic code,” said Adi Ben-Haim, a training officer in the Nahal Brigade. “We teach our soldiers this code from the moment they’re recruited for the army.”

But Israel is not fighting a regular military. Much of the time, the enemy isn't distinguishable from civilians.

“We’re dealing with armies that work out of their homes, so to speak,” said Lawrence. “They will place all of their ammunition in a mosque. It’s just a really difficult issue.”

During the three-week Gaza War that ended in January 2009, Hamas fighters used children as human shields and set up Kassam launching pads at or near more than 100 mosques and hospitals, according to Malam, an Israeli intelligence think tank. A 500-page Malam report on the Gaza War cited IDF and Shin Bet declassified evidence that included videos and prisoner interrogations. The document was released on the heels of the controversial UN-sanctioned Goldstone Report that blasted Israel’s Gaza offensive. The Malam report illustrates the challenges IDF soldiers face.