Ethics in the Service of Violence in Israel/Palestine

A guest post from James Eastwood. James is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). This post is partly based on his latest article, ‘”Meaningful Service”: Pedagogy at Israeli Pre-Military Academies and the Ethics of Militarism’, forthcoming in the European Journal of International Relations.

Die you fuck, die you son of a whore, die, die, die you son of 66 whores.

These are the words that Ahmad Salih Manasra, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, heard as he lay bleeding in the street on 12th October 2015. The insults were yelled by an Israeli passer-by, who recorded the child on video as he lay helpless on the ground. Ahmad was taken to hospital in a critical condition. His cousin Hasan Khalid, who was shot at the same time, is dead.

Israeli police later released a video depicting the alleged chain of events leading up to these incidents. It shows two young boys carrying knives attempting to attack a passer-by, followed by an alleged stabbing which takes place off-camera. In the ensuing pursuit, the elder of the two boys – Hasan – appears to run at the police with a knife. They shoot him dead, without attempting to immobilise him. According to Israeli media, Ahmad was hit by a car as he ran away. But the video circulated on social media shows him lying some distance from the road on a tramline. Palestinian news sources, which had originally claimed that Ahmad was shot dead, now suggest that he was run down by an Israeli patrol car and then beaten.

The graphic video of Ahmad Manasra is only the most shocking to emerge from a series of shootings of Palestinians by Israeli police and soldiers as they scramble to respond to a spate of un-coordinated knife-attacks. 50 Palestinians have been shot dead since the beginning of October, with hundreds more injured. Meanwhile, 9 Israelis have been killed in stabbing and traffic ramming incidents, with dozens more wounded. Last Tuesday witnessed the most serious escalation of the attacks, with separate incidents occurring almost simultaneously across Israel and the occupied territories. Protests have erupted in the West Bank and Gaza, while Israeli authorities have ramped up police and military presences and have introduced checkpoints and barriers around Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

The wave of public panic over the stabbings has re-ignited a longrunning controversy in Israel over the rules of engagement for police officers and soldiers dealing with suspects, wanted assailants, and protestors.

There have been calls from Israeli public officials and protestors to introduce a more relaxed “shoot to kill” policy in response to the attacks. Human rights observers have long raised concerns about Israel’s use of live fire when policing protests and making arrests. As a series of recent incidents show, there is strong evidence that rules of engagement have indeed been relaxed, resulting in the bloody consequences we have witnessed. Shooting to kill has on many occasions amounted to summary execution.

Palestinian Man Hectors Israeli Soldiers 2015

And yet, at the same time, a powerful myth still persists in the Israeli popular mind-set that the military remains “the most moral army in the world”. Indeed, in the media war following the widespread circulation of the video of Ahmad Manasra on social media, the Israeli government released a short clip of him being treated and fed by a nurse in an Israeli hospital. Ahmad appears to speak to the camera, but the video is muted. The video was partially intended to contradict the claims of Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, who had made a television statement in which he showed pictures of the wounded boy and claimed he had been shot dead. But the video also clearly serves another purpose, which is to suggest that Israel treats its enemies – even those that try to stab civilians – in a moral, compassionate, and merciful way.

Reflecting on events such as those of recent days, many observers find such claims absurd, even perverse, and emphasise instead the growing violence and racism of Israeli society. Critics are right to be suspicious of the moral army mantra, which (taking last summer’s attack on Gaza as an example) is indeed pretty hard to sustain in the face of the evidence. Yet the puzzle still remains to explain how the myth and the reality are able to co-exist. How is it that, despite the enormous violence wielded by the Israeli military, its soldiers continue to believe in the moral righteousness of the wars in which they fight? How can a soldier believe he is a moral individual, even as he shoots an unarmed 65-year-old man who is shouting at soldiers for their violent treatment of nearby protestors?

In my recent research, I try to offer an answer to such questions. I analyse the ways in which ethics has been inserted into the everyday practices of Israeli militarism. Based on my findings, I argue that military service in Israel is increasingly presented and pursued as a means of self-improvement, as a way of enhancing and demonstrating one’s ethical character. However, when I use the term “ethics” in this context I am trying to move away from its common equation with the content of moral codes, or even with the extent to which actual behaviour conforms to such codes. The precise wording of rules of engagement, or the question of whether these rules are actually observed, is less my concern here – mostly for the reason that the actual rules of engagement, in theory and in practice, are so blatantly inadequate. Instead, I draw on the thinking of Michel Foucault and more recent anthropologists of ethics such as James Faubion, James Laidlaw, Saba Mahmood, and Charles Hirschkind, in emphasising that ethics is above all a practice of subject formation, something which (as well as regulating behaviour) produces modes of thinking and identities in individuals by encouraging them to work upon themselves. From this point of view, it becomes easier to see how the everyday practices of Israeli militarism produce and reproduce Israeli soldiers’ sense of themselves as ethical subjects.

A particularly interesting case for analysing these trends is the work of Israeli pre-military academies for high-school graduates. These institutions now take in over 3,000 students every year, with the goal of providing them with a year of additional informal education before they are conscripted into the military – and the number of participants has been growing consistently every year. A disproportionately high number of pre-military academy graduates go on to take up combat and officer roles, and they are making a significant and growing contribution to the work of the IDF. This makes pre-military academies highly relevant and interesting places to observe the means by which soldiers are prepared for service in the military, including the way in which they are encouraged to practice ethics.

Originally, pre-military academies were focussed solely on bringing religious soldiers into the military. Drawing on the thinking of the nationalist Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, they sought to inculcate the idea among religious youths – who traditionally had been averse to military service – that joining the army could be a means of spiritual and religious redemption for the individual concerned. Participation in the military became a duty of “meaningful service”, through which one could assist the Jewish nation in its divine mission to settle the land of Palestine. In this way, personal morality and the ideological mission of military service became effectively inseparable. The study of scripture, religious exercises, and discussions about morality with rabbis and teachers became the means of developing the necessary spiritual fortitude to serve in the military. Discussions of military ethics at religious academies often tend to draw the conflict in strict moralising and religious terms, leading to conclusions such as the following remarks given in a lesson by a Rabbi at one academy:

A soldier kills a terrorist and afterwards feels bad that he killed a person. Is this bad feeling a sign of a gentleness or imperviousness? Certainly it is a sign of imperviousness… Moral people fight to destroy evil… [The soldier] must be very joyful that he kept this religious duty.

Disturbing as these statements are, I also want to broaden our attention from a narrow focus on the more extreme religious elements at pre-military academies. For while these academies began as a religious project, since 1996 they have incorporated a growing number of secular students. In fact, there are now more secular and mixed academies than religious ones. Moreover, the range of social groups represented in each ranges far beyond national-religious soldiers, including secular students, Reform Jews, Ethiopians, Jews of Middle Eastern origin, and even Druze. Rather than focusing on the strains of extreme religious-nationalist Zionism (too often an easy target for liberal Zionist criticism, as Joyce Dalsheim has shown) at these academies, a more holistic approach is needed which appreciates how ethical discourses and practices are bound up with militarism in both religious and secular settings.

Consider the programme of studies at Ein Prat, a mixed religious and secular academy located on a settlement in the occupied West Bank. Here the students study ancient philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Zionist thought, as well as modern existentialists such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre – all as a means of preparing them to serve in the army. As the director of the academy explained,

Students are coming here because they want to understand their identity as human beings, first of all, like every other place on the planet, and as Jews and as Zionists. That’s why we learn Western philosophy, which talks about life, about political philosophy. Judaism is common to all of us – it doesn’t matter if you’re religious or non-religious. The sources are relevant for all of us. And then Zionist thinking or Zionist thought form the basis. And then when you go to the army then you understand better why do I have to go to the army and which kind of a soldier do I have to be… A Jewish soldier. We are teaching how a Jewish soldier has to act.

Underscoring the ethical impetus of this, he told me that the aim was to encourage students to struggle constantly to better themselves: “Our slogan here is that if one does not try all the time to climb up more and more and stays in one place, he falls down. He must all the time try to be better. All the time. This is the way of life here.” From the point of view of ethics as subject formation, we can see very clearly how in this context military service becomes bound up with the work of self-improvement and identity formation. In this way, for secular students just as much as their religious counterparts, military participation comes to take the form of “meaningful service” that assumes a strongly ethical dimension.

But what happens when secular academies move beyond inculcating a general desire for ethical self-betterment to tackle more specific question of military ethics? Certainly there are differences with the way that religious academies approach these matters. However, military ethics at secular academies is just as problematically implicated in the ideological legitimation of violence. Most interestingly of all, this is often achieved through the open acknowledgement of the violence and abuse that take place in the IDF, rather than its concealment. During a visit to one secular academy, I observed students watching the film To See if I’m Smiling, a harrowing account of the violence of second intifada told through the voices of women soldiers. Moreover, nearly all secular academies receive annual visits from Breaking the Silence, an organisation of IDF veterans whose objective is to expose the immorality of the occupation.

Yet how could such exposure help to legitimate the work of the IDF? A teacher at one mixed-academy explained the rationale behind this approach:

…you even take the slight chance that [a student] will say, I don’t want to join the army – it’s too horrible. Because we show them the horrible sides of that. And there are. If you are in Hebron, it’s not nice for you. […] And they see everything. But we believe it will not make them not want to join the army or be part of the Jewish nation but […] will help them choose the more moral way.

Indeed, as I encountered time and again, the principle way in which students were taught military ethics was to emphasise that, despite the violence of occupation, it was possible for them to join the army and make a difference. One instructor I observed, after the students were shown a video of violence at a checkpoint during a visit from Breaking the Silence, even encouraged his students to volunteer for assignments at the worst checkpoints precisely in order to make things better there. This is despite the fact that, as Erella Grassiani has shown, this violence is an inevitable, structural and indeed constitutive part of occupation.

It is this use of military ethics as a kind of “cruel optimism” which represents its most subtle and effective contribution to the ideological legitimation of militarism. By framing military violence in this way, military ethics allows soldiers to have hopeful and rewarding moral experiences even against a backdrop of occupation and brutality. One example of this comes from my interview with another instructor in military ethics, who explained to me how he teaches the IDF value of “purity of arms” to students. This value is supposed to instruct soldiers to use violence only in pursuit of their mission, but the story he uses from his own experience to discuss this question is quite unexpected:

We were guarding the […] Green Line, where a lot of, you know, illegal workers pass every day […] we were there for like a week or a week and a half and it was quite hard. We were living in tents and we were eating the combat food, which is basically the worst food in the army, and we found… we stopped some people on their way back from illegal work and after, like, sort of checking them and writing their things down and letting them go, one of them forgot a watermelon behind. And then someone from the platoon took the watermelon back to the tent and then we had a huge discussion if we should eat this watermelon for dessert or not. And, so that’s a personal example I give the kids to deal with. I, myself, think there’s no reason to eat the watermelon. And I say that to the kids in the end but many of them disagree. They think eating the watermelon is fine. Soldiers are working hard and it’s been forgotten anyway, it’s going to just sit there and rot and whatever.

I probed further, asking what this story had to do with protecting civilian bystanders, which is what “purity of arms” is usually taken to mean. He explained:

…the message behind the value of purity of arms is make sure you don’t turn your authority and your power in being armed into anything extra at all than the security of Israel. The minute there’s anything extra, that is not necessary, that’s you crossing the line and doing something that I think is immoral.

This example shows very effectively what the pursuit of “purity” actually means in the context of Israeli military ethics. As Helen Kinsella has argued, the “innocence” protected by the laws of war has often been more about the moral innocence of the perpetrators of violence than the bodies of the targeted or bystanders. Likewise, in this example the main beneficiary of military ethical pedagogy remains the Israeli soldier, whose “purity” is preserved despite his complicity in dispossession. For the Palestinian who lost his food, it is immaterial whether his watermelon is eaten by Israeli soldiers without his knowledge after it is taken from him. What actually caused him to lose it was the regime of confinement obstructing his journey to work. Yet this is not where the instructor’s ethical intervention is focussed. Instead, following the trends I have outlined above, the ethical regime turns attention towards the decisions and character of the individual soldier and away from the structural conditions producing violence – in this case the growing tendency towards apartheid manifested by Israel’s separation wall.

What I think this last example helps to highlight, and what my research tries to articulate, is that military ethics in Israel rarely encompasses the political aspects of violence – namely the fundamental realities of occupation, colonialism, and racism. Instead, ethical pedagogy at Israeli pre-military academies attempts to crowd out such political considerations and criticisms by accentuating the individual moral stakes for soldiers, reducing ethics to a militarist technology of the self. This is precisely the mechanism which allows Israel to claim for itself the mantle of “the most moral army in the world” while overseeing the accumulating violence of its settler colonial project. In Israel/Palestine, it is this mutual implication of ethics and militarism which has proven, and daily continues to prove, so deadly.

5 thoughts on “Ethics in the Service of Violence in Israel/Palestine

  1. Reblogged this on Deterritorial Investigations Unit and commented:
    the author seem caught up in the same sort of unfortunate splitting of ethics/politics (another example that we are not yet post-structuralism)that the military trainers are but always good to find out more of the actual doings of the people and materials (what else is there really?) that often get lost in the abstractions/generalizations of theorizing.


  2. In looking through this post rather quickly, I was struck by this remark:

    the ethical regime turns attention towards the decisions and character of the individual soldier and away from the structural conditions producing violence – in this case the growing tendency towards apartheid manifested by Israel’s separation wall.

    Is it reasonable to think or suppose that instruction at academies designed to prepare people to enter the IDF would question the basic premises of Israeli govt policy or focus on the “structural conditions producing violence”? That seems unlikely (to say the least).

    Also, the author of the post cites Kinsella for the point that the laws of war are often more concerned with the “moral innocence” of the perpetrators than with the “bodies of the targeted.” Not every single civilian death in war necessarily violates the traditional law of armed conflict: it depends on the circumstances and whether the “perpetrators” have followed the rules of discrimination, proportionality, etc. I suppose one could say that this means that the laws of war are more concerned w/ the “moral innocence” of the combatants than anything else, but it seems a rather unilluminating formulation. It does not encourage me to read Kinsella’s book, which has been languishing somewhere on a notional “I really should get around to reading this” list.


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