Purity of arms

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The code of purity of arms (Hebrew: טוהר הנשק‎, Tohar HaNeshek) is one of the values stated in the Israel Defense Forces' official doctrine of ethics, The Spirit of the IDF.

According to Norman Solomon, the concepts of Havlaga and purity of arms arise out of the ethical and moral values stemming from the tradition of Israel, extrapolation from the Jewish Halakha, and the desire for moral approval and hence political support from the world community.[1] Despite doubts when confronted by indiscriminate terrorism[dubious ], purity of arms remains the guiding rule for the Israeli forces.[1] These foundations have elicited a fair degree of consensus among Jews, both religious and secular.[1]

Others have challenged this image,[2][3] notably in the light of certain harsh actions and massacres which have marked the army’s history. According to Gideon Levy, the "majority of the Israelis is still deeply convinced that their army, the IDF, is the most moral army of the world, and nothing else".[4]

Text of "Purity of Arms"[edit]

Jewish and Universal Moral Sources of the Doctrine[edit]

The IDF Doctrine Statement is not a religious document, but the underlying religious basis was articulated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917–1994), who had served in the IDF as both paratrooper and chief chaplain.[1]

The "Spirit of the IDF," a text within the IDF's main doctrine, requires "honoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish...state," while two of its four sources are "the tradition of the Jewish People throughout their history" and "universal moral values based on the value and dignity of human life." [5] It can be understood from this that Jewish religious law does not determine IDF policy per se.

Tactical and ethical dilemmas[edit]

In combat and other confrontation situations several of the values within the Spirit of the IDF code are concomitantly evoked, such as
Human Life 
"The IDF servicemen and women will act in a judicious and safe manner in all they do, out of recognition of the supreme value of human life. During combat they will endanger themselves and their comrades only to the extent required to carry out their mission."[5]
"The IDF servicemen and women will act out of fraternity and devotion to their comrades, and will always go to their assistance when they need their help or depend on them, despite any danger or difficulty, even to the point of risking their lives."[5]

Dealing with such dilemmas requires a coherent response on the part of officer and soldier alike.[citation needed]

Selective targeting (or targeted killing) of terrorist leaders is considered by the IDF as a legitimate mode of operation and part of a state's counterterrorism, anticipatory, self-defense activities that are designed to prevent the continuation of terrorism. Selective targeting of terrorist activists is used as a measure designed to hurt the real enemy while minimizing civilian casualties. The practice was challenged before the Israeli Supreme Court which held that while terrorists were civilians under the law of armed conflict, they were not protected by the prohibition in Article 51(3) of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions which provides that civilians enjoy immunity from deliberate attack "unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities." [6] The Court found that the meaning of both 'for such time' and 'direct part in hostilities' covered those providing services to unlawful combatants in any period before a potential attack; therefore terrorists did not qualify for this immunity, a ruling that has been accepted into international law.[7]

The decision received a mixed reception from the international community, with one scholar expressing concern that it threatened 'to undermine international law's protection of civilians in armed conflict by shifting the balance toward military advantage and increasing the likelihood of collateral damage.'[8]

Rabbinic opinion[edit]

Some rabbis oppose the stipulation of avoiding harm to non-combatants, arguing that Jewish law specifically rejects this requirement during wartime. Some instances:

  • Rabbis associated with the Israeli settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza demanded in 2004 that terrorism must be fought without regard for the safety of the enemy civilian population.[9]
  • During the 2006 Lebanon War, the main organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States called on the Israeli military to be less concerned with avoiding civilian casualties on the opposing side.[10] They argue that Hezbollah hides among the civilian population, and therefore it would be immoral not to attack Hezbollah—as Hezbollah poses an extreme threat to the Israeli civilian population.


Others challenge the idea that the IDF is either particularly moral or follows the concept of "Purity of Arms".[2][3] Criticism of the concept has centered on its consistency with international law, and the tendency for civilians to be killed in the process.[11] Certain actions which have marked the army’s history are at the origins of the criticism. Among these are massacres that took place during the 1948 War,[12] at Qibya,[13] at Kafr Qasim,[14] against prisoners of war,[15][16] at Sabra and Shatila,[17] or at Qana.[18] To these may be added controversial operations such as the Battle of Jenin,[19] Operation Cast Lead,[4] and the Gaza Flotilla Raid.[20] A number of these events led to rifts in Israeli society.[21] The massacre of Sabra and Shatila in particular occasioned demonstrations that assumed an historic dimension within Israel.

According to Avi Shlaim, "purity of arms" is one of the key features of 'the conventional Zionist account or old history' whose 'popular-heroic-moralistic version of the 1948 war' is 'taught in Israeli schools and used extensively in the quest for legitimacy abroad'.[22] Benny Morris adds that '[t]he Israelis' collective memory of fighters characterized by "purity of arms" is also undermined by the evidence of [the dozen case] of rapes committed in conquered towns and villages.' According to him, 'after the war, the Israelis tended to hail the "purity of arms" of its militiamen and soldiers to contrast this with Arab barbarism, which on occasion expressed itself in the mutilation of captured Jewish corpses. (...) This reinforced the Israelis' positive self-image and helped them "sell" the new state abroad and (...) demonized the enemy'.[23]

Following Qibya massacre, Yeshayahu Leibowitz questionned the morality character of operations of the Israeli army.[24] He points out that at the contrary of the time of diaspora, Jews established in Israel have the possibility to resort to force and that if in 1948 they had no choice, at Qibya the Israeli nation showed his moral limits.[25]

Israeli Colonel Dov Yirmiah has referred to "the lies about humanitarianism and 'purity of arms'", and refers to purity of arms as a phrase that is "sickening and false."[26] Dov’s book My War Diary: Lebanon June 5 -- July 1, 1982 has been described as having ‘crushed the myth’ of the purity of arms of the IDF.[27]

According to Gideon Levy, the "majority of the Israelis is still deeply convinced that their army, the IDF, is the most morale army of the world, and nothing else".[4]

According to John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt the claim that the IDF is the most moral army in the world is ‘yet another myth’.[28]

A former head of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir stated that the fact that Israel Defense Forces soldiers have shot at unarmed people on the Syrian-Israeli border showed the IDF's "purity of arms" was being eroded.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Judaism and the ethics of war, Norman Solomon. International Review of the Red Cross. Volume 87 Number 858 June 2005
  2. ^ a b Michael Prior, The state of Israel: a moral inquiry, section « Purity of Arms », Routledge, 1999, p.208.
  3. ^ a b Uri Avneri, Guerre du Liban, un Israélien accuse, L'Harmattan, 2007, p.31.
  4. ^ a b c Gideon Levy, Israël, Goldstone et tout le reste... writes "Israel commited war crimes during Opereation Cast Lead at Gaza. (...) The majority of the Israelis is still deeply convinced that their army, the IDF, is the most morale army of the world, and nothing else. Here is the strength of a very efficient brainwashing".
  5. ^ a b c d Official IDF Doctrine
  6. ^ http://www.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_cha_chapter1_rule6
  7. ^ http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/icrc-002-0990.pdf
  8. ^ Kristen Eichenserh 'On Target? The Israeli Supreme Court and the Expansion of Targeted Killings' 116 Yale L.J. 1873 (2006-2007). See also articles in JICJ 5 (2007).
  9. ^ ADL Strongly Condemns Declaration of Rabbis
  10. ^ Rebecca Spence "Rabbis: Israel Too Worried Over Civilian Deaths", in The Jewish Daily Forward, August 25, 2006; http://www.forward.com/articles/1438/
  11. ^ By the end of 2005, almost 300 terrorist organization members and 150 civilian bystanders had been killed in targeted killings, in addition to hundreds of civilians wounded. See HCJ 769/02 Pub. Comm. Against Torture in Isr. v. Gov't of Isr. (PCAT1) [Dec. 11, 2005] slip op. para. 2, available at http://elyon.court.gov.il/FilesENG/o2/69o/oo7/a34/ 0200769o.a34.pdf.
  12. ^ See section "Purity of Arms" in the articles about the Killings and massacres during the 1948 Palestine War.
  13. ^ Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israël and the Palestinians, 1988, pp.383-385.
  14. ^ Tom Segev, Apology in Kafr Qasem, Haaretz, 27 décembre 2007 writes that "[t]he Kafr Qasem massacre shocked the country and gave rise to a public debate on basic questions of morality and democracy."
  15. ^ Michael Prior, Zionism and the state of Israel: a moral inquiry, Routledge, 1999, p.209 reports the controversy published in Maariv in 1995 about the assassinations in 1956 of 140 Egyptian prisonners of war among whoc 49 workers by the fighters of the 890th brigade under the orders of Rafael Eitan.
  16. ^ Frédéric Encel, Géopolitique d'Israël, 2004, p.|403 writes that "[...] the execution of Egyptian prisonners during the Suez campaign (1956) [as well as other events] prove that "Purity of Arms" [...] in Israel as elsewhere is a myth".
  17. ^ Noam Chomsky, Fateful triangle: the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, South End Press, 1999, pp.259-260 doubts of the « morality » of the IDF as well as well as those who defend it in the context of Sabra et Shatila.
  18. ^ Frédéric Encel, Géopolitique d'Israël, 2004, p.403.
  19. ^ Joss Dray et Denis Sieffert (fr), La guerre israélienne de l'information, La Découverte, 2002, pp.103-106.
  20. ^ Bernard-Henri Lévy, L'autisme n'est pas une politique, La Règle du jeu, 31 mai 2010 writes about the Gaza Flotilla Graid that "the IDF (...) that army (...) [that puts forward] Purity of Arms, (...) not only ultramodern but deeply democratic (...) had other means of actions but that bloodbath."
  21. ^ Ze'ev Schiff, Reactions to the Massacre, Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 12, University of California Press, No. 2 (Winter, 1983), pp. 175-179.
  22. ^ Avi Shlaim, The Debate About 1948, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 27:3, 1995, pp. 287–304
  23. ^ Benny Morris, 1948. A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, Yale University Press, 2008, p.404.
  24. ^ Yeshayahu Leibowitz, « After Qibya », BeTerem, 15 décembre 1953.
  25. ^ Benny Morris, The Israeli Press and the Qibya Operation, 1953 (1996), p.52.
  26. ^ quoted in Fateful triangle: the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians Noam Chomsky South End Press
  27. ^ Embracing the Other: Philosophical, Psychological, and Historical By Pearl M. Oliner, Pearl Oliner, M. Zuzanna Smolenska, Samuel P. Oliner, Lawrence Baro
  28. ^ The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy | Penguin UK | 26 Jun 2008 |
  29. ^ http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/idf-s-purity-of-arms-being-eroded-former-mossad-chief-zvi-zamir-warns-1.366856
  • Dan Yahav, Purity of Arms. Ethos Myth and Reality. 1936-1956, Tel-Aviv, Tamuz Publisher, 2002.
  • Michael Prior, Zionism and the State of Israel, Routledge, 1999.

External links[edit]