On December 8, 1987, an accident by a Jewish driver in Gaza killed four Palestinians. This seemingly simple event (accidents were not uncommon) was the spark which ignited the first Intifada that rocked Israel for the next five years and nine months. Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets, battling army patrols with stones and Molotov cocktails. The scale and fury of the protests was a manifestation of years of suppressed frustration and anger, and caught everyone by surprise. The resistance leadership led by Yasser Arafat was as unprepared for the uprising as was the Israeli government and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
If this sounds eerily similar to the post-July 2016 situation in Kashmir, it is because there are many parallels. Perhaps for this reason, numerous “expert” commentators evoke the Israeli example when suggesting how to deal with the protests in Kashmir. Without meaning to be uncharitable, I think many of them have not read too much about the Intifada or its deeper impact on the IDF. Let me attempt to put this in perspective.
The IDF is a highly professional force but its strategies were based on the concept of lightning victories employing the full power of its military might. The first response to the protests was confused and somewhat brutal. At the political level, it was decided that the IDF must restore calm quickly, so that subsequent negotiations with the Palestinians are not from a position of weakness. The aggressive approach was exemplified by the Israeli Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, calling for the “breaking of the bones” of protesters. To soften the blow, the intent was to break hands and feet, not hit the head. This method of riot control spread fear among the population, but the effect was only limited and anger soon replaced fear.
Key leaders, including activists, were deported. Curfews, some lasting over one month, were imposed and mass-scale arrests carried out. It is estimated that 18,000 Palestinians were imprisoned in the first year of the Intifada. Schools and universities in the territories, considered breeding grounds for protests, were shut down for months. Houses of suspected instigators and supporters of the Intifada were blown up.
None of these measures had the desired effect of bringing the situation under control. In May 1989, the defence minister stated, “the mission of the IDF in the territories was to lower the level of violence significantly and to allow the normal functioning of the government apparatus. Unfortunately, I am unable to say that this objective has been attained.”
After the initial setbacks, the IDF learned on its feet. It strengthened the intelligence structure, focusing both on human and technical intelligence. A specialised crowd control unit known as Alpha was set up to design non-lethal weaponry like water and gravel dischargers and a new plastic bullet. The IDF also realised the power of the media. Scenes of unarmed youth facing off against soldiers with guns, women weeping at funerals, and the contrast in casualties suffered by the two sides did immense damage to the image of Israel. By the time the second Al-Aqsa Intifada came around in 2000, it did not evoke the same international condemnation. The IDF had learned their lessons and the Palestinians had not, but that is another story.
The Intifada also triggered a debate on the impact of this conflict on the ethics and values of the IDF. Colonel Richard Kemp of the British Army has called the IDF the “most moral army in the world”. The IDF code of ethics, issued to every soldier, stresses values like human dignity, purity of arms and human life. Obviously, these values have come into question during the two Intifadas and the Gaza conflict of 2014.
The IDF has also been caught in a political fight with the “left” accusing it of brutalising the conflict and the “right” castigating it for a failure to curb the insurgency. Since September 2015, a fresh wave of violence has hit Israel, with Palestinian youth attacking civilians and security forces by stabbing them with daily use implements like knives and screwdrivers. Despite these pressures, the military leadership has been honest in speaking out on what it believes is the correct approach. In February 2016, in an interaction with students, the IDF Chief of Staff, General Gadi Eisenkot, stated that the IDF’s rules of engagement do not include soldiers “emptying a full magazine at a girl holding scissors.” He went on to say that “The army cannot speak in slogans such as
‘If a person rises to kill you, kill him first.’” He immediately came under fire from right-wing politicians. The latest incident which has sparked a debate that goes to the heart of IDF ethics concerns Sgt Elor Azaria. In March 2016, a disarmed and wounded terrorist, lying on the ground, was shot in the head by Azaria. The IDF spokesperson stated that the soldier’s actions “contradict the IDF’s ethical code” and he was charged with manslaughter. After the soldier was declared guilty by a military court, there was public outrage with almost 70 per cent of the population supporting the action of Azaria. Politicians jumped into the fray. The leader of the right-wing Home party wrote on Facebook, “Today a soldier who killed a terrorist who deserved to die… was put in handcuffs and convicted like a criminal.” The prime minister joined calls for him to be pardoned. Azaria was given an 18-month sentence. Despite the intense public pressure, IDF prosecutors have now appealed against the excessively lenient sentence.
This short piece on the IDF is a factual telling of events. Readers could draw their own conclusion but two issues stand out. The first is the limits of strong-arm tactics while dealing with internal conflicts. The second issue is of greater importance. Kashmir and its resolution, whatever form it takes, is necessary, but the character of the military is infinitely more crucial to a nation. There will be political influences, it is in the nature of democracies, and pressure from public opinion. But the military ethic must stand on its principles and values. As the environment in Kashmir grows more vicious, this will require all our focus.
In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon expressed the view, “it is the reputation, not the reality of goodness that is desired, for nobody ever does right simply because it is right.” This may be a cynical view but it is realistic. It is squarely on the military leadership to ensure a reputation of ethical behaviour.