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A Matter of Conscience

Posted by Rick · December 22nd, 2003 · 4 Comments

CBS News reports:

Last week, the army convicted five new recruits on charges that they refused to serve in the military for political reasons. The five, who are to be sentenced Tuesday, could each receive as much as three years in jail.

The story in which this quote appears mentions a growing resistance within the Israeli Army, including among some elite units, to being used in ways that appear to be inhumane. Months ago, as just one example, 27 pilots refused to carry out missions involving “targeted killings.” Members of elite units are refusing to engage in the continued oppression of Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sharon and other hawks need to take a more thoughtful notice of this trend than they have thus far. When large numbers of one’s own military begin to question the humanity of their orders, it should give pause. If it were just a man or two who was refusing to obey, that would be one story. A trend is a different thing. Military men — especially Israeli military — do not take these steps lightly.

Did not our Jewish predecessors — indeed, the entire world — feel a revulsion for the attitude of German soldiers during World War II? At the Nuremburg trials, this attitude was repeatedly expressed in the phrase, “I was only following orders.” How then, can Israel not recognize that their moral compass has ceased functioning when they insist on jailing those growing numbers of soldiers who are refusing to follow orders which can only “lead to desperation and a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza“?

What I am arguing is not that Israel should lie down and accept the oft-stated goals of Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Al Aksa. These groups have repeatedly stated that they will not stop until Israel is destroyed; peaceful co-existence is not on the board. As one Hamas representative stated, “We don’t believe in ’67 or ’48 — it’s all our land.” It is, of course, no more acceptable to argue for the end of Israel than it is to argue for the end of the Palestinian people.

Groups like Hamas and Al Aksa and all who would work as they do toward the destruction of Israel must be dealt with harshly. It is they — and neither Israel nor the Palestinian people — who must be destroyed.

Yet to consider (and act as though) it is not possible to take steps toward the establishment of peace with Palestinians because of the work of groups such as Hamas and Al Aksa is to embrace a false dichotomy. Too often, those asking Israel to make peace have put forth proposals that can only spring from the patently absurd world of “black and white”; Israel’s response must not be of the same sort.

The Palestinian people themselves will no more go away than will we Jews. That is reality. A realistic approach to the situation in the Middle East has to take this into account. It should be possible to engage in a dialogue with the Palestinian leaders of the Palestinian terroritories aimed at establishing a peaceful co-existence. If those leaders will not negotiate, then we have not a game of hide-and-seek with Palestinian members of the Intifada, but the need for an actual defined war. If the United States was justified in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein from power when they could not gain the cooperation of these governments, so, too, should Israel be justified in removing the PLO leaders if negotiations are impossible. A new government could then be set up with which Israel begins to negotiate for substantive rights for the Palestinian people, including statehood — yet not forgetting to provide for stable and humane daily living conditions even before statehood is achieved.

Israel can continue to seek out and destroy leaders of the Intifada movement, but in doing so must continue to work towards the goal of peaceful co-existence with the general Palestinian populace of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These are not necessarily mutually-exclusive goals. The United States daily targets “terrorists” within its borders with an abrogation of its own Constitution and Bill of Rights at a level which is acceptable to the general population; there are no uprisings in the streets and no constant barrages of suicide bombers attacking governmental institutions. Israel can take a leaf from this book in dealing with the Palestinians.

There is no need to insist upon adopting the stance of World War II Germany and insisting that we should ignore the human tragedy being played out daily by “only following orders.”

Special thanks to Bob Marcotte for bringing the CBS News story to my attention.

Categories: General Social Issues


4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 abi // Dec 22, 2003 at 12:26 pm

    I thought you didn’t approve of the US gonvernment’s abrogation of its own Constitution and Bill of Rights? I can’t say I do, or of its wars to remove foreign governments, however intractable. It tends to alienate the populations who get to make up the collateral damage.

    Besides, the experience in Northern Ireland is that the removal (by both assasination and prison, in NI’s case) of extremist leaders doesn’t stop the violence. As long as there is no viable alternative on the table, a new extremist leader will always rise to replace the removed one.

    The trick, and it’s a damned hard one, is to talk to and reward the moderates, even the face of extremist violence. This erodes the extremists’ constituencies. Sadly (and, more to the point, with great political difficulty), this means that violent attacks must go unavenged sometimes. Although this is agonising for everyone affected by the violence, it does reduce the eventual death toll, because the other side doesn’t then avenge and escalate, causing you to avenge and escalate, ad infinitum.

    It also helped the British cause that the perpetrators of the violence were subject to criminal prosecution, not summary execution. Many of those trials were biased and unfair, and many miscarriages of justice had to be admitted to later, but using the justice system introduced a degree of accountability. Again, the policy won over the moderates and eroded the extremists’ support.

    There will always be nutters who want to destroy “the other side”, whatever that other side is. The goal is to drive them from viable leadership positions with large followings into the lunatic fringe where they belong.

    (Not that the situation in Northern Ireland is ideal. But no one’s bombing the British mainland, the rubbish bins and left luggage offices are back in the train stations, and the Unionists and Republicans are exchanging insults rather than bullets. Why? Because the majority of the people of Northern Ireland won’t stand for a return to wholescale violence.)

    I find it very heartening that the Israeli soldiers and pilots in the front lines are exercising moral judgment and listening to their consciences. It’s one of the brightest rays of hope about the whole dreadful situation, that the violence hasn’t robbed these brave people of their humanity.

  • 2 Bob // Dec 22, 2003 at 1:19 pm

    The absurdity continues …..


    The world has to question if peace will ever come to this region after generations of war. Are people capable of ‘unlearning’ war and trusting each other again?

  • 3 Rick // Dec 22, 2003 at 3:56 pm

    Abi, I don’t approve of U.S. abrogation of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. My argument is that if it’s good for the goose, though, it’s good for the gander.

    When I originally wrote the post, I was more obviously sarcastic in what I said. During editing, I realized that my sarcasm might turn some people off without enabling them to get the point. I therefore watered down the sarcasm, perhaps to the detriment of what I was saying.

    Actually, now that I re-read it, I think two thoughts collided in the process, as well. One point I wanted to make is that things aren’t just black and white. There seems to me to be a promulgation of a false dichotomy which is that either Hamas and al-Aqsa stop killing Jews OR there can be no (efforts at) peace. Falling into the trap of seeing things this way stymies progress.

    The second point (or thought) collided in the editing: It is that people will tolerate a little trouncing of rights so long as they believe they’re ultimately getting what they want. The proof of that horrid pudding is the tolerance U.S. citizens currently exhibit towards Ashcroftian destruction of long-sacred constitutionally-driven beliefs.

    The way may therefore be open to experimentation with something different: Find a way to reward the Palestinian people while not giving ground to Hamas and al-Aqsa. If the current leadership won’t cooperate, find a way to remove them; a REFUSAL to make any good-faith efforts at cooperation puts them in the same category as Hamas and al-Aqsa. The latter two groups are justifiable targets in a clearly-definable war.

  • 4 abi // Dec 23, 2003 at 1:45 am


    I guess I feel that what’s bad for the goose shouldn’t be applied to the gander either. I think we’re all going to pay a price in the future for the compromises to our liberties that we acquiesce to today. I would hate to see other populations go down our road if we’re on the wrong one.

    The thrust of your post seemed to me to be an advocation to remove the leaders of Hamas and Al-Asqua until we find ones that will negotiate. Do you mean that we should also consider removing Sharon and the hawks that egg him on and find someone in the Israeli government who will make efforts at peace in the face of violence?

    I have a deep abhorrrence of the “deus ex machina” approach to foreign relations. Solutions imposed from the outside, leaders deposed or replaced, build resentment of the external force. The backlash can be worse than the original situation. It also fails my “receiving end” test for acceptability (Would it be OK to receive such treatment myself? No? Then I can’t really advocate dealing it out.)

    I think we could well use our financial relationship with Israel to encourage a bit more rationality, rather than use a military solution to force such rationality. Unfortunately, it requires us, the US, to be as firm and committed in the face of intractable violence as the more direct victims. We’re not very good at that, particularly when we identify with the victims so strongly.

    Returning to Northern Ireland, the US had a role both in inflaming and prolonging the conflict (and thank you very much for that, NORAID…) and in resolving it. Not by sending in the troops, but by rewarding reasonableness. We do a good Santa act when we try, giving presents to the nice and lumps of coal to the naughty.

    As in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we were perceived as biased in favor of one of the two parties (the Catholics, in this case), so we could only really be effective in half the equation. But a little conniving with reasonable patrons of the other side (Britian) bore great fruit.

    Whether we can do the same in the current situation, particularly considering the perception of American anti-Muslim bias, is another matter…


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