“What is the cost of morality?”

| Dit artikel past in een opdracht voor studenten uit het derde jaar met als onderwerp international days.

 “By the time the two soldiers realised what had happened, they were both dead.” As an advisor of the Israeli military Dr. Amos N. Guiora was faced with the direct consequences of armed conflict.

Over the past decades extensive news coverage of the Gaza Strip has brought worldwide attention to the way Israeli soldiers handle Palestinians. As a result, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) put more importance on respecting Palestinians and their religious rights. Despite the efforts of the Israeli military advisors and commanders, distinguishing between innocent civilians and terrorists has proven to be an ongoing struggle.

Professor Amos N. Guiora gave a lecture on the morality in war and conflict and the reporting thereof in the context of the International Days 2019 at Artevelde University College in Ghent. From 1986 to 2004 Guiora served in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) where he held several senior command postings, one of which being Legal Advisor to the Gaza Strip Military Commander. Today Guiora is Professor of Law at College of Law, University of Utah.

Although he does not serve in the Israeli military anymore, Guiora still talks as if he were one of their commanders. The ex-military man speaks frankly about war. Guiora: “We teach soldiers how to kill. But if we do it correctly, we teach them not to be killers. The important element is distinguishing between someone who is a legitimate target and someone who is not. A killer is someone who randomly, arbitrarily opens a gun and boom, boom, boom, kills anybody and everybody.”

“But it gets more complicated than that. In the Middle East, terrorism and counter-terrorism are immediate and everything is really tight, small and compact. What heightens the smallness, frankly, are journalists.”

“For a whole variety of reasons, other than the US, Israel has more foreign reporters directly covering it than any other country in the world. That plays a role in operational counter-terrorism. Because commanders know that whatever they do – the good, the bad, the ugly -, is immediately covered by the media. We also know that the nature of the media has fundamentally changed over the course of, let’s say, the past twenty years.”

“As I understand it today, the impact of television has taken a back seat. That is because of the introduction of social media. People are born with a smartphone, they come out of the womb with a smartphone. And a smartphone from the perspective of the military means that wherever you are, everybody is a journalist. If you think about it from the perspective of decision makers, the immediate impact of the smartphone is a game-changer on a level that is literally unparalleled.”

Advertising dollars

“Let me go back to the time I served in the IDF. If an event happened in the Gaza Strip, good or bad, there used to be a process. When somebody was killed, print reporters would call the IDF’s spokesman’s office for a reaction to a reported story. The IDF’s spokesman’s office would then call different people to get their response to the particular story.”

“As the legal advisor for the Gaza strip I would get a call from the IDF’s spokesman. He would explain the situation and ask for my take on it. I would say: ‘How much time do I have to respond?’ Usually it was about an hour. The IDF spokesman also called other IDF commanders and got their responses. After that, he got the report out to the media. All that took about two to three hours.”

“Today, no journalist will give a commander two to three hours to respond to a story, under no conditions. Because if you’re giving two to three hours, your competitor won’t. It’s all about competition. In the US, and I don’t know about Europe, it’s all about advertising dollars. If you’re slow, you’re out. That’s the way it is.”

“And what complicates it, obviously, is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. I think very poorly of him and find him to be absolutely outrageous. He’s willing to post anything for the sake of another dollar, whether the information is true or not true. But back then, if something happened, we could look into it.”

19-year-old alpha male

“When Palestinians want to go to Israel they have to go through a checkpoint. To do that they have to have relevant documentation, a good reason for doing it, they have to be checked, secured, and sometimes security checked.”

“Because of a whole variety of NGOs, Amnesty International and friends and particularly because of the media, because of the camera, the misconduct of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints became a major story in the West. Every mistake by a corporal (low rank in the military, AM) at a checkpoint made its way to the BBC and the CNN. The consequences were enormous.”

“So we said to ourselves: what do we do? You know there is only so much time that you can keep your head in the sand before you actually start undertaking measures. We made a decision to teach our soldiers, who are mainly 19-year-old alpha males, how to conduct themselves morally and ethically when facing Palestinian innocent civilians.”

“Teaching a 19-year-old alpha male to wait a minute to think again. To wait before opening your rifle. To treat the other side, even though you may not like them, with dignity and respect is strategically essential in the long run.”

Movie snippets

“We decided we could teach soldiers to act ethically. There are two ways to teach 19-year-olds. One is to stand up in front of them and lecture to them about morality in armed conflict. And it takes somewhere between one to five minutes before they fall asleep. I mean it’s boring as hell. I was very fortunate to have a young staff under me and they said: ‘Lectures are boring. Let’s do something totally different.’ Secondly there is teaching by negative example.”

“We took Hollywood movies and found snippets, 30 to 60 seconds long, from each movie that would show a soldier how not to act. We created a code of conduct, with a variety of codes that impose requirements on soldiers how to act. We would show the video and then there would be a discussion. The best discussion was where I would sit and the commander would use the video for discussion.”


“One of the most important things that we taught, for which I was criticized, was imposing on soldiers the absolute requirement to respect the religious artefacts of Palestinians. Because we place great importance on the need to respect their right to prayer and how they pray. And if you minimize that, the consequences from the perspectives of the media are enormous.”

“So there’s a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And a Palestinian came to this checkpoint with his prayer rug furled up. Palestinians, Muslims, pray on prayer rugs. There were two soldiers at this checkpoint. They were two soldiers that I had personally trained. They remembered what I had taught them, which was to respect the religious artefact. By the time they realised what had happened, they were both dead. Because inside the prayer rug was an AK-47. And when they told him to unfurl it, he unfurled it, took out the AK-47 and boom, boom, boom, they were both dead.”

“What’s the cost of teaching morality? And not to point a finger at the media but what’s the cost of being über-sensitive to the power of the media? And is there in a sense an immorality in paying over-attention to morality? If those two soldiers didn’t pay attention, if they didn’t respect his artefact, the first thing they would do is say ‘throw it on the ground’ and if they were suspicious of him, they’d security check him. But the first thing they did, is that they respected the artefact.”

“Am I responsible for their deaths? That’s a complicated question. Because it raises the really grey area of the cost of morality. What’s the cost of being sensitive to, what I said earlier, the strategic corporal? What’s the cost of being sensitive to the camera? What’s the cost of being sensitive to how the death of a Palestinian will play in The New York Times, The Washington Post, on CNN, BBC, …?”

Media and safety

 “Media can be a distraction. If the soldier knows that the camera is there, it can impact his conduct. It also clearly can impact the conduct of the other side. People play to a camera. We’ve seen that time and time again that when the camera comes out the rock throwing and the demonstrations intensify.”

“In Israel we’ve had a variety of counter-terrorism operations, like the famous Entebbe raid (counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on 4 July 1976, AM). It would have been an unmitigated disaster if reporters were present during that operation.”

“I’m a firm believer in the media being present as long as the media are engaged in truth in reporting. But I also think there are counter terrorism operations where the media should not be. If the reporters are there, they could endanger innocent civilians, soldiers and themselves.”

De auteur

Arno Meijnen

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Student journalistiek op Arteveldehogeschool Gent. Geïnteresseerd in politiek, maatschappij, wetenschap en technologie.