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. It states that:

Jewish and universal moral sources of the code[edit]

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", referring to both "the tradition of the Jewish People throughout their history" and "universal moral values based on the value and dignity of human life".[1] Jewish religious law does not directly determine IDF policy, and the IDF Doctrine Statement is not a religious document, but its underlying religious basis was articulated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917–1994), who had served in the IDF as both paratrooper and chief chaplain.[2]

According to Rabbi 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.[2] Despite doubts when confronted by indiscriminate terrorism, purity of arms remains the guiding rule for the Israeli forces.[2] These foundations have elicited a fair degree of consensus among Jews, both religious and secular.[2]

A notable proponent of this image is Colonel Richard Kemp, a retired British army officer, who called the IDF the most moral army in the world on Israel's Channel 2 News.[3] In a 2015 document regarding Operation Protective Edge, published by Friends of Israel Initiative, the High Level Military Group, composed of military experts from Australia, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Spain, acknowledged that Israel made "unprecedented efforts" to avoid civilian casualties exceeding international standards.[4]

In contrast, the 2015 report of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Operation Protective Edge, chaired by Mary McGowan Davis (a former New York state judge), voiced concerns that "the fact that the political and military leadership did not change its course of action, despite considerable information regarding the massive degree of death and destruction in Gaza, raises questions about potential violations of international humanitarian law."[5]

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."[1]
  • Comradeship: "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."[1] 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]


Some challenge the idea that the IDF is either particularly moral or follows the concept of "Purity of Arms",[9][10] but 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".[11] [9][10] Criticism of the concept has centered on its consistency with international law, and the tendency for civilians to be killed in the process.[12] Certain actions that have marked the army's history are at the origins of the criticism. Among these are massacres that took place during the 1948 War,[13] at Qibya,[14] at Kafr Qasim,[15] against prisoners of war,[16][17] at Sabra and Shatila,[18] or at Qana.[17] To these may be added controversial operations such as the Battle of Jenin,[19] Operation Cast Lead,[11] 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, "[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 the Qibya massacre, Yeshayahu Leibowitz questioned the moral character of operations of the Israeli army.[24] He pointed out that contrary to the time of diaspora, Jews established in Israel have the possibility to resort to force and that while in 1948 they may have had no choice, at Qibya the Israeli nation showed its 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 John Mearsheimer and Stephen 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]

Dissenting 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.[30]
  • 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.[31] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Doctrine". Israel Defense Forces. 2006. Archived from the original on April 30, 2006.
  2. ^ a b c d Norman Solomon (June 2005). "Judaism and the ethics of war" (PDF). International Review of the Red Cross. 87 (858). Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 13, 2016. Retrieved 2015-05-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on October 11, 2016. Retrieved 2015-05-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Human Rights Council (June 23, 2015). Report of the detailed findings of the independent commission of inquiry established pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-21/1 (Report). United Nations. A/HRC/29/CRP.4. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  6. ^ "Rule 6. Civilians' Loss of Protection from Attack". ICRC. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  7. ^ Nils Melzer. "Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law" (PDF). Retrieved March 5, 2015.[page needed]
  8. ^ Kristen Eichensehr (June 2007). "On Target? The Israeli Supreme Court and the Expansion of Targeted Killings". Yale Law Journal. 116 (8): 1881. doi:10.2307/20455778. JSTOR 20455778. Retrieved March 5, 2015. See also articles in Journal of International Criminal Justice 5 (2007).
  9. ^ a b Michael Prior (1999). "Purity of Arms". The state of Israel: A Moral Inquiry. Taylor & Francis. p. 208. ISBN 9780203980217. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  10. ^ a b Uri Avneri (2007). Guerre du Liban, un Israélien accuse. Roland Massuard and Sylviane de Wangen, translators; Sylviane de Wangen, contributor. L'Harmattan. p. 31. ISBN 9782296023413.
  11. ^ a b Gideon Levy, Israël, Goldstone et tout le reste... Archived June 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine writes "Israel committed 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."
  12. ^ 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) [December 11, 2005] slip op. para. 2, available at http://elyon.court.gov.il/FilesENG/o2/69o/oo7/a34/ 0200769o.a34.pdf[dead link].
  13. ^ See section "Purity of Arms" in the articles about the Killings and massacres during the 1948 Palestine War.
  14. ^ Noam Chomsky (1989). The Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (2nd New ed.). Pluto Press. pp. 383–85. ISBN 978-0745315355.
  15. ^ Tom Segev (December 26, 2007). "Apology in Kafr Qasem". Haaretz. Retrieved March 5, 2015. The Kafr Qasem massacre shocked the country and gave rise to a public debate on basic questions of morality and democracy.
  16. ^ Michael Prior (1999). "Purity of Arms". The state of Israel: A Moral Inquiry. Taylor & Francis. p. 209. ISBN 9780203980217. Retrieved March 5, 2015. reports the controversy published in Maariv in 1995 about the assassinations in 1956 of 140 Egyptian prisoners of war including 49 workers by the fighters of the 890th brigade under the orders of Rafael Eitan.
  17. ^ a b Frédéric Encel; François Thual (2004). Géopolitique d'Israël (in French). p. 403. ISBN 978-2020638203. Retrieved March 5, 2015. [...] the execution of Egyptian prisoners during the Suez campaign (1956) [as well as other events] prove that 'Purity of Arms' [...] in Israel as elsewhere is a myth.
  18. ^ Noam Chomsky (1989). The Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (2nd New ed.). Pluto Press. pp. 259–60. ISBN 978-0745315355. doubts of the "morality" of the IDF as well as well as those who defend it in the context of Sabra et Shatila.
  19. ^ Joss Dray; Denis Sieffert (2002). La guerre israélienne de l'information (in French). La Découverte. pp. 103–06. ISBN 9782707138392.
  20. ^ Bernard-Henri Lévy (May 31, 2010). "L'autisme n'est pas une politique" (in French). La Règle du jeu. Retrieved March 5, 2015. ... le Tsahal ... adepte de la pureté des armes, cette armée non seulement ultra-sophistiquée mais profondément démocratique ... avait d’autres moyens d’agir qu’en déclenchant ce bain de sang. [... 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 (Winter 1983). "Reactions to the Massacre". Journal of Palestine Studies. University of California Press. 12 (2): 175–79. doi:10.1525/jps.1983.12.2.00p0441r. JSTOR 2536424.
  22. ^ Avi Shlaim. "The Debate About 1948" (PDF). Making Israel. Retrieved March 5, 2015. Also published in Shlaim, Avi (1995). "The Debate About 1948". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 27 (3): 287–304. doi:10.1017/s0020743800062097.
  23. ^ Benny Morris (2008). 1948. A History of the First Arab–Israeli War. Yale University Press. p. 404. ISBN 978-0300126969.
  24. ^ Yeshayahu Leibowitz (December 15, 1953). "After Qibya". BeTerem: 168–73.
  25. ^ Benny Morris (1996). The Israeli Press and the Qibya Operation, 1953. p. 52.
  26. ^ Noam Chomsky (1989). The Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (2nd New ed.). Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0745315355.[page needed]
  27. ^ Pearl Oliner; Samuel P. Oliner; Lawrence Baron; Lawrence Blum (1995). Embracing the Other: Philosophical, Psychological, and Historical Perspectives on Altruism. NYU Press. ISBN 978-0814761908.
  28. ^ John Mearsheimer; Stephen Walt (2008). The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0374531508.[page needed]
  29. ^ Gili Izikovich (June 10, 2011). "IDF's 'purity of arms' being eroded, former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir warns". Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  30. ^ "ADL Strongly Condemns Declaration of Rabbis" (Press release). Anti-Defamation League. September 9, 2004. Archived from the original on October 2, 2012. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
  31. ^ Rebecca Spence (August 25, 2006). "Rabbis: Israel Too Worried Over Civilian Deaths". The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved March 5, 2015.

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