JERUSALEM - In Haifa earlier this month, an Israeli colonel identified as "Yossi A." said repeatedly that "in a war zone there are no civilians." The colonel, who drafted operating regulations for military bulldozers, was testifying in a civil trial about the death of Rachel Corrie, an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.
On Facebook last month, a former Israeli soldier named Eden Abergil posted photos of herself posing with blindfolded Palestinian detainees and described it as "the best time of my life." Abergil's posts caused furious responses inside and outside Israel, but she told reporters that she didn't "understand what's wrong" with the photos and wrote on her Facebook page: "War has no rules!!"
But wars do involve civilians and they do have rules. These statements by members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) display a troubling disregard for the laws of war and point to a failure of training and enforcement that Israel's military leaders should remedy.
The laws of war oblige armed forces, among other things, to take all feasible precautions to identify and spare civilians and their property, and to protect detainees from "insults and public curiosity" and prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."
Yet "Yossi's" and Abergil's views about what is permissible in war are not unique. Several Israeli soldiers who fought in "Operation Cast Lead," Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza last year, said they were variously permitted or ordered to open fire on anyone in their area of operations because Palestinian civilians had supposedly been warned to leave. Similarly, after an Israeli military spokesman said that Abergil's "repulsive" actions "in no way, shape or form" reflected the military's ethical code, other Israeli soldiers came to her defense, and a 1,000-member Facebook group posted similar photos of Palestinian detainees and slammed the army for criticizing her.
The Israeli army has taken positive steps recently, such as creating interactive training computer software and cooperating with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel on training regarding the treatment of detainees. But such programs, mostly geared to officers, appear not to have reached many of the conscripts. In addition to soldiers posting abusive photos and videos online, for example, Israeli newspapers and human rights groups have reported numerous examples of degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees, including children, by Israeli soldiers, such as threatening sexual assault or forcing them to strip in public.
Advanced militaries enforce the laws of war for many reasons, including recognition that these rules are a valuable tool for creating a disciplined, professional fighting force that follows orders. Inadequate training, and officers who are lax about enforcing the rules, contribute to a lack of discipline that leads to the inhumane treatment of detainees and other abuses. Israel's military, which is often involved in combat operations, can ill-afford undisciplined troops. Several Israeli officers and military trainers told Human Rights Watch that Israel needs to improve its training in the laws of war, including devoting more time to it.
The military brass repeatedly points to the "Spirit of the IDF" as evidence that it provides its soldiers with ethical training. The "Spirit of the IDF" is both an "ethical code to which we all aspire," as an Israeli military spokesman said, and a guide to conduct -- a mixture that may confuse soldiers and commanders alike. After the war in Gaza in 2008-09, Defense Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly asserted that "the IDF is the most moral army in the world." But Israel's army, like any military force, is accountable to universal standards of behavior under the laws of war - not just a set of unenforceable ideals.
Many Israelis take the laws of war seriously; earlier this year, a team of Israeli university students won an international competition on this body of law sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Israeli courts acknowledge and frequently cite the laws of war.
Yet Israel has not incorporated them into domestic legislation; Israeli military law does not specify various war crimes, and efforts to create the equivalent to the US War Crimes Act to prosecute cases in civil courts have been stalled for years. In 2009, after Israel came under intense criticism for alleged laws-of-war violations during the military offensive in Gaza, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, rather than reaffirm Israel's commitment to these laws, ordered the government to consider "a worldwide campaign" to "amend" them, ostensibly "to adapt them to the spread of global terrorism."
When such ambiguity leads to inadequate training and enforcement, it ill-serves Israeli soldiers and Palestinian non-combatants alike. It is essential for the Israeli military to teach its soldiers and commanders to reject behavior that is not just embarrassing to Israel and harmful to civilians, but illegal.
Bill van Esveld is a researcher in the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch.